I want to start this with stating that I am not getting paid by anyone to express what I have learned. The initial interest came from two different places. First, the Whole Life Challenge, in which I have participated in several times. Second, from CrossFit's founder, Greg Glassman, who speaks very strongly against the consumption of soda and sugar. I know this sounds strange but after reading this hopefully you will understand that so much information we are given is paid for by people/organizations with unique interests. I have been researching into the food industry and how to be healthier with our current culture and food system. After ALOT of watching, listening, and researching I have put together the following to inform you of some of my findings. By no means is this information absolute fact and I do not accept any one of these documentaries as FULL truth. I use them as pieces to the whole picture and make conclusions based off multiple vantage points.
I am going to highlight four documentaries that are all available on Netflix (What's with Wheat, Fed Up, What the Health, and In Defense of Food) as briefly as possible to give you important information about each of them, information that I have either been misguided or misled with at some point in my life. After I talk about each of these films I will conclude with how I have taken action to claim personal responsibility for my health and how each of you can do the same.
First up, the documentary called "What's with Wheat" (and maybe you guessed it) is primarily focused on WHEAT! and everything surrounding the area of gluten in the past 100 years. The first half of this film dives into the history of bread inside human culture and explains some key differences. Originally, bread was only made from few ingredients; wheat, yeast, salt, and water. It was not until humans transitioned into agriculture that we started eating grains, before this we did not have time to cultivate plants for harvest, it was always hunting and gathering. Even when this transition happened, bread was still a small part of our diet, not a staple at every meal. Fast forward hundreds of years to the early 1900s when Dr. Kellog stepped in to call for a mostly plant based diet that was high in fiber and integrating grains as a food that could save the world from starvation. At the time, there was still a shortage of food for the number of people in the world. So with GREAT intentions, Dr. Kellog starting something bigger than he knew. Today wee have enough grains today to feed 11 billion people with a population of 7 billion. In order to get this grain to everyone around the world, the way wheat was harvested and processed had to change so that it didn't rot while being stored. With the help of Norman Borlaug, grains became mechanized and mass produced by removing the bran and germ, two nutrient dense parts of the plant that help us digest it. When these two were removed, the effective shelf life of flour was essentially forever. In addition to changing the harvest, hybridization made the stalks shorter and heads get longer and now that the plants were getting closer to the ground more and more pesticides were being used to keep yield high. The sustainable farming that had been used up to this point (crop rotation, natural fertilizer, no pesticide or herbicide sprays) had been thrown out so PRODUCTION was the sole priority, not the quality or longevity of the systems put in place.
Now that production was so high, we had to do something with all this wheat! Around the same time a scientist named Ansel Keys came out with a study that showed that a high fat diet was correlated with heart disease and a proposed solution would be the high carb diet (i.e. grains). We later came to find out, his study wasn't as accurate as we would have hoped. Boom, here comes the government proposed food pyramid with grains being a staple food for the Western diet (the other films talk about where the influence for the structure for the pyramid come from). I am not sure if they knew the impact they would have when these guidelines first came out. Not only are we eating more of this wheat, because there is SO much, we start to see parts of wheat in all sorts of things, including non food products. Think make ups and food additives.
What I received from this, not mentioned in the film, is that these farmers need to keep selling their wheat to keep an income. In turn, ridiculous amounts of money are spent in all sorts of areas to make sure grains are continuously used and consumed. What the film finishes with is advocating for education. Each of us NEEDS to ask more questions about where our food comes from and why we live the way we do. "Wheat isn't the problem, what we've done to it is."
Next, the film called "Fed Up", is all about SUGAR! and reveals many truths about the substance we so blindly consume (myself included). I'm not going to try to hide it, this one got me really emotional and was the first film I originally watched that sparked my determination to watch more. The reason I got so emotional is because the primary focus is kids, and follows several kids and their stories as the rest of the film unfolds.
Going back 50 years with the study by Dr. Jean Mayer, obesity was seemingly linked to a lack of exercise. This new information, in an attempt to be a healthier nation, launched the fitness revolution. In this revolution exercise went from something that was taboo or possibly even unhealthy for you, to a solid way to keep you alive for longer and prevent chronic illnesses. To everyone's surprise, we were all exercising more but we were also getting fatter and fatter. So this long held notion that the only thing that mattered in health is calories in, calories out isn't as straight forward as it seems. In the most basic sense this is true but is actually quite different when we start talking about foods. The simplest way to describe this is looking at how the body digests 100 calories of almonds vs. 100 calories of coke. Almonds are nutrient dense and carry a lot of fiber so the body can only absorb so much before it is passed. Coke on the other hand has no fiber and is high in sugar which means it's all absorbed immediately in the gut and the liver goes on overdrive to process this sugar so we can store it (glycogen, then fat). Where did this "calories in, calories out" idea come from? Maybe you guessed it, big food companies are responsible for this jargon. They are everywhere and their top priority is to SELL food, not look out for our health and that is abundantly clear in several different areas. They lobbied against the World Health Organization (WHO) when they said sugar was a major cause of obesity and chronic metabolic disease. They are seen in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as those who are tasked with promoting American agriculture and also responsible for giving Americans dietary guidelines (conflict of interest? See McGovern report in 1977) We even see them in our highest form of public appearance and maybe even public policy, the presidency or more accurately the First Lady (previous) Michelle Obama. She took an incredibly bold stand against big food and wanted to make change in the realm of childhood obesity. She spoke very passionately and strongly against big food companies, calling them to change their tactics and offer better foods. Big food companies couldn't have one of the most relevant faces of public interest saying their products were bad so they volunteered to "help" in this call to action. Eventually the topic changed from better food to more exercise as what we should all be aiming for; a huge evasion of bad PR. In the end, big food companies outdo even Michelle Obama and she almost apologizes for "demonizing" them.
The gut wrenching part of this film is the effect these big food companies are having on kids, through schools and marketing. Many big food and fast food companies have exclusive contracts with public schools to sell their food. When called to bring healthier foods into schools they find ways to change policy so they can consider PIZZA a vegetable. (I forget the particulars, but it was during the implementation of a health food in schools program under the Obama administration). Kids at a young age are put to the test with their own personal responsibility, with no intervention. They can choose sugary, junk food that "tastes good" or at the end of the lunch lines, are offered more wholesome options like vegetables and fruits. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has LESS authority to regulate advertisements for kids than they do with adults. Our kids everywhere are told to eat these foods, but also, that it is their fault that they are overweight and have chronic illnesses. On an extreme, yet relevant level, think if a tobacco company advertised the substance as good and good for you, and at the same time they say it's your personal responsibility to deal with the addiction and health issues that follow.
In conclusion, this film had several what if statements that can and will help each of us be more empowered to make healthier choices. The final one? Start locally, start doing some shopping in the farmers market and bringing awareness to your community (friends, family, co-workers). Just think of how many lives you could save.
Another powerful film, "What the Health", primarily focuses on how meat affects our health today. I found some things that were extremely revealing and others that were a little bit disappointing in a documentary type film. One of the first things that they propose is that meat of any kind of just as cancer causing as smoking cigarettes. WOW! At first I was a little skeptical but, as the movie dives deeper they talk about meat today and how it is raised, slaughtered, and processed. In short, the way meat today is grown/farmed (if you can call it that), slaughtered, stored, and served has caused alarming amounts of chemicals and biotoxins to be introduced to our commercial meats. Big meat and dairy companies know this and know the devastating effects if has on our health BUT continue to practice their businesses the same way they have been and even collectively spent BILLIONS of dollars making sure health organizations (AHA, ADA, Susan G Breast Cancer, American College of Cardiology) support them with their studies and recommendations. They also influence governmental dietary recommendations so that they are confusing at best. Clearly there is a huge conflict of interest here. I feel comfortable saying that most meat and the way it is processed today can be detrimental to my health.
On top of talking about plant based diets, there is lots of talk about big pharmacy companies also intervening in diet, health, and food recommendations and to no surprise at all to support the sale of their chemical products. I would love to see some more info on this subject, let me know if you have any interesting information on big pharma.
The film confuses me a little while talking about sugar. They have a couple health professionals that have NO issue with sugar in our diets. A few even go as far to say that our body is way better at digesting sugar and carbs than fatty foods. As we saw in fed up, they way our bodies metabolize sugar, is clearly MORE detrimental than they way we metabolize fats. One specific statement that confused me was that meat causes inflammation but sugar does not. I would like to see some studies that support this.
The final film that I want to discuss is "In Defense of Food". In my opinion, Michael Pollen does a fantastic job of doing an overview of the food industry as a whole (wheat, sugar, and meats). He takes time to talk about the history and culture of the USA and other parts of the world and the recent prevalence of what he calls "editable food like substances" (EFLS), then he presents a likely solution.
In the early 1900's a gradual, but critical transition took place from nutrients to "nutritionism", which is defined as a transition from foods to creating EFLS that contained all the nutrients that we need. It was lead by noble-hearted people who didn't know the impacts their ideas and science would make when the food industry got a hold of their information. Michael Pollan does a great job making relevant connections to the other films that I am talking about. First, bringing up Dr Kellog (from What's with Wheat) and his proposed plant based diet. After the food industry got a hold of this, they used this influential figure to sell their products! (grains, and lots of them). But if you look at the religious group that he was a part of today, the 7th day Adventists, you'll see that his advice sticks mostly true. They live significantly longer than the rest of us on a mostly plant based diet and abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes. Another key figure Ansel Keys (talked about in What the Health) came up with the lipid hypothesis, showed that red meat was correlated with higher risk for coronary heart disease. When the McGovern Report (talked about in all three previous films) originally came out there was an incredible statement, "decrease your consumption of meat..." along with other things about dairy and cheese. Big food spent millions in lobbyists saying that this was too harsh on their products and was demonizing their products. What did the report end up saying? "Choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce your saturated fat intake." They had successfully evaded a radical call to change and actually created a way to introduce new "low-fat" products into the market place IN ADDITION to their current ones. Food companies used the idea of personal responsibility (the idea that people ultimately have the choice) as a major tactic in marketing and advertising, eerily similar to the tobacco industry. . . Foods are now being artificially created to fit our nutritional needs as if any one nutrient is the cause or problem instead of the possibility that it could be the lack of several others. The eventual impact of the McGovern report was that Americans did NOT actually eat less fat, rather we ate MORE carbohydrates (think sugars) and in turn more food all together.
Pollan also looks at several different diets of populations around the world and all seem to correlate with lower heart disease and diabetes. He makes a pretty bold claim (that I love) that we can either keep doing what we're doing and wait for evolution to catch up to us OR we need to move away from our now Westernized diet. He gives a very practical approach that I believe has wholeness and wellness as its primary motivators. He sums it up in 7 powerful words
- Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize
- Don't eat foods that won't rot
- Eat food cooked by humans
- Avoid foods advertised on TV
- Do most of your shopping at a farmers market
- We don't NEED meat to survive
- Rather replace meat with more servings of fruits and vegetables
- Eat your colors
- You are what you eat eats too (what your meat eats matters)
- Eat foods that come from healthy soil (certified organic is a loose rule)
- Plant a garden if you can
Not too much:
- Pay more, eat less
- Avoid any food at a register
- Eat meals, not snacks
- Eat at a table, with people if possible
- Cook if you can, and again, plant a garden if possible
After further discussion of these films I want to make a few pretty bold claims myself. First, most if not ALL big food companies spend millions of dollars making sure their products get sold, even if that means that the truth is withheld or skewed with the intent to confuse of deceive. Whether it be through lobbying for policies, deceptive marketing, or corruption of the health sciences by sponsoring studies, these companies don't want to "lose". Most big food companies are not willing to take massive cuts to their revenue for the betterment of people or the world. There are exceptions to that (CVS, Patagonia, and CrossFit) but that is a story for another time. So if we can not trust food companies (or even the government) to look our for our best interest, then who do we turn to? I believe that is our own PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY to look out for our own best interest. This has been a hard reality to become aware of, mostly because I want to default to trust, trust that those around me and my government wants what is best for me, not what makes them the most money. In my eyes, the first and possibly most crucial component of personal responsibility is seeking out truth. Taking the time and effort to make sure who you want to be and who you are, are actually in line. Seeking truth does not take everything at face value or what other people tell them. Step in that direction, and see how personal responsibility carves a better version of you, a better version of us, and better version of our world. I want you to consider Michael Pollens 7 words the next time you sit down for a meal.
If you thought you were going to read this instead of watching those documentaries, I'll let you reconsider that. It is now your PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY to educate yourself. If you are doing the Whole Life Challenge with me this fall (Sign up here) every two weeks we will have a showing of one of these documentaries followed by an open discussion to help you learn more about what you're eating.
On a side note, one thing that I have been very curious about is going "off the grid" meaning growing my own foods and hunting my own meats as a way to get the most out of my foods. What are your thoughts?
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As always with anything I stand behind, don't forget to get outside and play.