The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change

At present we live in a world of fright, a world of rage, a world of uncertainty, a world of threatening conditions–a world of change. Pandemic, racial injustice, riots in the streets, global climate change are enough to drive all of us to disordered eating. Into this whirlwind comes a book to guide us to a better eating place. Bee Wilson is the author of this informative and challenging book. The Way We Eat Now provides an interesting perspective filled with apparent contradictions. Within its pages are so many good ideas of how we could improve the way we eat in the future paired with such a rigid a stance against processed/packaged foods.

I like many of the ideas she suggests and her openness to exploring new foods, but I get the sense that as I make each food choice, Aunt Bee is looking over my shoulder and constantly telling me that I could be doing better. Although she travels around the world to bring us fresh ideas of what to eat, the message turns out to be narrowly focused on a few foods for dedicated foodies with an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Once again, I respond to what she has to say in her own words in bold:

“All mortals have to die of something and it is progress that, compared to twenty-five years ago so many people are living longer lives and therefore dying from chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer rather than dying in childhood from acute hunger and unsafe drinking water.” (p. 3) Echoing the theme of How Not to Die, Wilson proclaims that these chronic conditions are “caused by a poor diet, which is a preventable cause of human suffering.” Then where will these deaths come from? Old age? Shockingly enough, old age is not one of the top ten causes of death in the United States. Natural causes appear as a cause of death in obituaries but not on death certificates. It is easy to blame the food industry and food marketing for NCDs (noncommunicable diseases). Certainly, poor diets contribute to premature death, but there are many other factors like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, environmental degradation, poverty, stress, etc. that contribute to chronic health conditions.

When we start disrupting the current state of things, it is important that we be aware of unintended consequences. For example, now that technology and its transfer has improved safety of drinking water do we need to phase out further exploration? The author describes a study which finds that the highest quality diets—high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugar are found in many African countries. Unfortunately, these countries also have low life expectancy because their citizens don’t eat enough food. There seems to be a disconnect here as one of the most basic principles of nutrition is that we need energy in the form of calories to thrive.

“To reverse the damage being done by modern diets would require many other things to change about the world of today, from the way we organize agriculture to the way we talk about vegetables. We would need to adjust our criteria of prosperity to make less about money in the bank and more about access to good quality food.” (pages 15-16) This statement appears in the Introduction to the book, which also praises the great advances in lowering hunger around the world. When we re-organize agriculture we must be very careful not to disrupt what has been done to decrease hunger. During planning for reconstruction, we need to tap many minds from across the food spectrum to ensure that we don’t fall into that trap of unintended consequences.

Throughout the book the author mentions “good quality food” which encompasses not only nutrients but also upscale flavor. Not all of us embrace the foodie ideal, however. Many of us occupy our lives with other activities. Do we live to eat, but not too much, or do we eat to live? Isn’t there somewhere between these two extremes where we can enjoy our food, but it doesn’t become our prime reason for living?

“One way to think about human history is a series of diet transitions, with each stage driven by changes in the economy and society, plus shifts in technology, climate and population.” (p. 34) Stage one featured the hunter-gatherers; two, the agricultural age; and three, a receding famine. We find ourselves in stage four, the era of an overabundance of “food [which] is sickening us now, through excess rather than hunger.” The author clearly blames food processors and marketers for our disordered eating. Our current food supply emerged from rapid changes in food production and processing leading to unhealthy diets and a lack of personal exercise. We eat too much and eat too much of the wrong kind of food.

Wilson predicts a much brighter future in stage five eating where we will be more reasonable in what we put into our mouths—more traditional foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. With greater access to healthier foods and the disappearance of many degenerative diseases, she envisions a world with little or no hunger. With greater life spans and continued population growth, it is not clear how we will feed the additional mouths, particularly as we face the threat of global warming on crop production. In her vision there is no room for advances in food technology. She points to South Korea as one nation that seems to be the closest to achieving stage five, but it isn’t quite good enough yet.

can of petite diced tomatoes
Should clients be grateful for a free can of tomatoes?

“Given the level of need, I am glad that food banks exist, but I can’t help feeling that we may look back on this phase of our food history with horror. How can a single city contain people so affluent they can have food from any cuisine biked around on a whim and others so poor they are supposed to be grateful for a free can of tomatoes?” (pp. 237-238) Wealth inequality is something that many of us are concerned about, particularly those of us who work at food pantries. Poverty has been around for a long time, and the situation seems to be getting worse not better in wealthier nations. I hope that the pandemic will flatten the wealth curve, but I remain skeptical. My personal experience at the food pantry has been that many clients are truly thankful, those with special wants and needs will take what they can get, while others are picky and dissatisfied.

Once again Aunt Bee shows up, this time in the food pantry, telling us what is of sufficient “quality” to take home and what should be left on the shelves. What is a family to do when they can’t come back to the  pantry for two weeks or even a month? BTW, the weakest link in a food pantry is the age of the volunteers—mostly over 70. As much as I ache to assist in helping meet the increased demand at my local food bank, I have opted to stay away to protect my health. Maybe that is an elitist response on my part. Are canned tomatoes beneath our dignity to eat or as an ingredient in a pasta sauce so a hungry family can be fed? Her quote sounds out of touch to me. BTW, the can our clients carry home with them is only part of the $150 or so of food they select from the choices they are given.

packages of frozen chicken tortilla soup, organic harvest risotto bowls and organic mashed sweet potatoes
Are these packaged foods acceptable to give away at a food pantry?

“It was Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition in Brazil, who suggested that it now makes sense to talk of food as to belonging to one of four distinct groups depending on the degree to which it has been processed.” (p. 108). Dr. Monteiro appears to be more of an expert in public health than in nutrition. A quibble, perhaps, but an important distinction. His numerous research articles relate ultra-processed foods to specific health outcomes from an epidemiologic perspective. He is able to show strong and positive correlations between consumption of ultra-processed foods and numerous chronic diseases, disorders, and conditions. Scientists are careful not to declare that correlation equals causation, but Monteiro’s articles show some very convincing correlations. The next step is to develop and test a mechanism (how those suspect foods or ingredients induce specific forms of damage to our bodies) to explain the correlations and establish causation. Mechanisms are glaringly absent in these studies.

The fallacy in Monteiro’s research is in its terminology. Separating out the four distinct groups is NOT about processing at all. It is about ingredients. What could be more ultra-processed than white, crystalline sugar? Yet it qualifies as a culinary ingredient. What could be more innocent than a loaf of whole-grain bread? Yet if it has a dough conditioner or mold inhibitor added so it doesn’t go stale or turn green in a few days, it is considered ultra-processed. In a thought experiment, I baked two almost identical imaginary loaves of homemade bread from approved culinary ingredients. The one exception is that I added a mold inhibitor to Loaf A but not to Loaf B. Then I mixed, kneaded, proofed, waited for each to rise, baked, cooled and bagged each identically in my mind. Loaf A would be ultra-processed and Loaf B would not. The processes would be the same. The only difference would be the addition of a mold inhibitor to keep Loaf A from turning green if I didn’t eat it up right away.

The same goes for any food manufactured in a processing plant. If it essentially has five or less ingredients it becomes processed (one of the “four distinct groups”). If it exceeds those five ingredients it becomes ultra-processed. Same process, just a different set of ingredients. There are roughly four distinct groups of ultra-processed foods: junk foods, convenience foods, functional foods and distilled spirits. To provide more insight into the problem Monteiro and co-authors could study the relationships with each of these four groups and a specific disease such as heart disease. They could further sub-divide a suspect sub-category into fewer and fewer products to establish the roles of suspect foods or ingredients. This data should be readily available in the datasets they are using, but it is more laborious to tease out such data. From there, research groups could develop and test potential mechanisms. It is apparently much easier to condemn up to 60% of the US food supply without sufficiently definitive data. 

Beyond meat too
Are plant-based meats good for the environment, unhealthy because they are ultra-processed, or both?

 “If we never give food the time that it is due, we are effectively saying that it doesn’t matter. I once met a woman who said that she was often asked how she had time to cook. ‘How do you have time to watch television?’ she would reply.” Here is the coup de grace. Home cooking should be the top priority of every homemaker, no matter how many mouths they need to feed, how many jobs they need to hold down, how much money is available, or whether they are disabled. Life is a set of priorities—who is the author to question ours? As I think of all of the priorities that I must balance—family responsibilities including finances and meal preparation, service to others, blogging, exercising, spiritual growth, and reading while limiting my television viewing—what does it mean to give any one of them its due? Providing us with options and alternatives is a good thing. Telling us what we should or should not do with our lives is too much even for a well meaning aunt or uncle.

Bottom line. Bee Wilson presents a bleak view of food in the world today, particularly in the Western world. We are currently in what she terms stage four of eating transitions affecting mankind, and it definitely is NOT good. She looks forward to stage five, a healthier and more satisfying diet of the future.  There is much to love about this excellent book with some fresh ideas, but does everything need to revolve around home cooking of approved whole foods? I find Wilson to be quite judgmental. There is a great set of suggestions in the Epilogue to pick and choose from that are much less stringent than her attitude throughout the book. Anyone looking to modify their diet might consult the book if only for the final chapter. A question that comes to mind when reading it, however,

Is she providing clarity to the way we should eat or merely contributing to a “diet culture” that has us on a roller coaster ride to lose weight only to see us gain it back or even become heavier than when we started?

At times she offers us dietary clarity. On other occasions she feeds into that unhealthy diet culture that glorifies thinness and shames fatness. What will stage five look like? Will processed food be part of it? Or, will we never get there because we can’t solve the challenges global climate change presents to food production?

Next week: In Praise of Processed Foods—CoVID-19 by Julie Jones

6 thoughts on “The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change

  1. Did I really say “abhorrent?” I do feel strongly about the ultra-processed foods, but you are the first person who has given me pause and helped me see that there might be some merit in NOVA. I look forward to continuing our discussion. I have some strong views, but I am trying to make this site a forum for exchange of views on processed foods, their distribution and related topics. I welcome other views on this topic.
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  2. Bee Wilson is an engaging person. Her eyes light up when she talks about food and she loves to cook which is my passion too. She also likes NOVA. I followed her posts via Twitter prior to the publication of her book and watched some post-publication interviews. But I agree with your observation that Aunt Bee has an agenda.

    Now on to NOVA. My reading suggests NOVA is not anti processed food per se. In my quest to classify ingredients in my own recipes, I have found processed foods in all 4 NOVA groups. Like turning raw foods into minimally processed foods. Or extracting oil from olives. Or making traditional breads and cheeses. Montiero himself states that many industrial processes are necessary or even beneficial for health. The concern is only with food formulations developed over say the last 40 years.

    Not having a solid background in food science has been a detriment to my understanding of NOVA, but I’m learning and have benefited greatly by following this blog. It’s a lot more complex than the simplistic 5 ingredient description adopted by popular culture. If I were a nutrition researcher, here are the question I would investigate. Humans have evolved over the millennium and have proven to be an adaptive species, but maybe the rapid entry of newly formulated components like protein isolates, hydrogenated oils, modified starches, flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives have confused our gut.

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    1. Thank you Lin for your comments and for providing Bee Wilson with a personality. To me she is just an author of a book that I found at once engaging and stifling. There is a moving piece in the book where she writes about her struggles with being overweight as a child and how she overcame them. I had a segment on that passage that ended up on the cutting room floor as there was so much to comment on. I even considered expanding my review to two weeks, but other pressing guest blogs squeezed that session out.

      Most of the formulated components that you speak of have been around much longer than 40 years, and they were condemned by Adelle Davis, Euell Gibbons, James Turner, Ralph Nader, J.I. Rodale, Wendell Berry and so many others whom I read when I was an undergrad in the 60s. The major change in additives in my lifetime has been the addition of artificial sweeteners which have given per-diabetics like me the chance to eat sweets without damaging my body. The other change was the removal of many preservatives , from many foods, particularly bread, allowing it to rot faster. As far as partially hydrogenated oils, I still see stories about them online even though they have not been permitted in any kind of processed or formulated food for almost two years. Hydrogenation was a mistake and one that the FDA has helped correct.

      To condemn all food additives and virtually all formulated foods without careful study to my mind and most food scientists is nothing less than scaremongering. Without such additives we will never be able to prevent the massive food losses we see around the world or decrease food waste. Hopefully next week’s post will provide a different perspective on why food scientists like me, Julian McClements and Alan Kelly have such a viscerally negative reaction to NOVA. I firmly believe that there is a middle ground between a junk-food culture high on sugar and salt and the Michael Pollan/NOVA war on formulated foods.

      Once again, I commend you on your comments and your ability to help me see a different side of these food fights. Disagreement can be the first step to progress.

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