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  • Dan Connors

Food Fix- a prescription for our sick food system.

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet-One Bite at a Time

Dr Mark Hyman, 2020

Weight loss tip #6- read books on food and diet to get a new perspective.

Food Fix is a manifesto against America's current food system. Dr. Mark Hyman has written several books on nutrition and a leader in the field of integrative medicine, an up-and-coming field that focuses on the whole patient and their environment.

This book makes some strong claims against our system, backed up by a wealth of footnotes in the back. What is refreshing is that for each problem Dr. Hyman sees in the system, he finds a "food fix" that is already in use somewhere in the world that would make it better. This keeps the book from being a depressing screed on how fat and unhealthy we all are. Instead it is a call to arms.

Among the claims from the book:

  1. $95 Trillion dollars has been wasted from our economy on chronic illnesses over the last 35 years, and 11 million people die yearly from lifestyle diseases, most of which can be traced to bad diets.

  2. Over 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese, with the obese number creeping up.

  3. 40% of all food harvested is wasted and thrown out

  4. 60% of the calories we consume come from processed and not whole foods.

  5. At current usage levels we have maybe 60 years of good crops left before the soils around the world go dead.

  6. Only 2% of America's cropland is used for fruits and vegetables, while 60% goes to commodity crops like wheat, corn and soybeans

The bit about the soils going dead got my attention, but forecasting anything 60 years from now is next to impossible. The author also covers global warming and modern agriculture's huge contributions to climate change and carbon levels. The first chapter, The True Cost of Food, is an eye opener that goes over many of the unintended consequences of our modern agricultural system. This is a long, fact-laden book, but I will try to summarize the main points below.

Dr. Hyman briefly summarizes his own dietary recommendations which line up pretty closely with other books I've read.

  1. Eat whole plants but go easy on fruits

  2. Regeneratively raised animal meat is okay, and low-mercury fish is good

  3. Eat beans, unprocessed whole grains, nuts and seeds, and pasture raised eggs.

  4. Avoid sugar (especially added sugars), pesticides, hormones, GMO's and bad oils like corn, canola, and soybean

The book takes a look at the politics behind the food business and it's predictable and depressing. Ten companies pretty much control the entire food production system. Big food companies use a LOT of money to grease the system with lobbyists and campaign contributions to get politicians on their side. More depressing is the fact that scientists and large universities who perform many of the studies about what's healthy or not are also taking in money from the food industry. Surprise, surprise- those scientists more often than not produce research that says whatever food they're investigating is good for you, or at least not that bad.

With the science suspect, it's hard to know what to eat or drink. The nutrition guidelines are one of the most confusing ones to follow anywhere. Eggs are good, then they're bad, then they're good again, and now you have to know how they're raised.

Luckily, there are some independent studies that are more reliable. The food industry learned a lot from what big tobacco went through with the nicotine studies, and they've figured out how to muddy the waters with confusing data. Did you know that pizza is good for you and considered a vegetable for school cafeterias? With the right data you can claim anything these days.

Big food has its tentacles all over the system that would check its power and statistics. The food and drug administration (FDA) has a revolving door with food industry executives who move back and forth from companies to regulators. Major charities like the NAACP, American Heart Association, Hispanic Federation, and American Academy of Pediatrics accept huge donations from food and beverage companies that keeps them from speaking out more about the diets that are crippling their constituencies. Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, (AND), the organization that dieticians look to for recommendations takes money from Big Food. Conflicts of interests abound when it comes to asking for advice on what's safe to eat these days.

The book takes a hard look at the food stamp program, now called SNAP, how it began, and how food companies have grown to exploit it. An amazing $68 Billion dollars is spent on SNAP by low-income Americans every year. By design this money can only be used for food, and also by design that food can include junk food like soda, cookies, energy drinks, chips and ice cream. These empty calories are made available to SNAP recipients because the food companies lobbied congress to make them available. Junk foods are much more profitable than fresh foods because they use cheaper ingredients and have a longer shelf-life. So the junk food industry has gone after SNAP recipients with advertising based on when their cards are loaded with funds. This has undermined healthy food products and created food deserts in poverty-stricken areas.

The food stamp program is funded every year by the Farm Bill, a huge appropriation bill from congress that flies under the political radar. This bill routinely hands out billion dollar subsidies to big farmers in the form of crop insurance, price guarantees, and outright gifts. Because of this market manipulation, some crops like wheat and corn become much more profitable to grow while others suffer by comparison.

The chapter on foods in school is equally disheartening. Nearly one third of today's youth are overweight or obese, and those who grow up fatter are much more likely to struggle all their lives. Junk foods like sugary cereals and candies are marketed exclusively to children during kid's television and online programming and it works.

Schools are the one place where low-income children can count on a hot meal most days. But cash-strapped schools are sometimes forced to accept junk foods in their cafeterias and vending machines to save money. In Houston, the school district made a deal with Domino's Pizza to sell branded "healthier" pizzas in every school in the district. But in Boston, administrators have made efforts to kick junk foods out of school and the story from the book is encouraging. First Lady Michelle Obama made improving school nutrition one of her main initiatives. (Only to have them reversed once her husband left office.)

One of the biggest villains in this book is Coca Cola and the other soft drink peddlers. They have fought hard against any regulations that might hurt their sales. Many cities and foreign countries have proposed soda taxes to cover the health consequences of the sugar-laden drinks. Soda lobbyists have fought and lobbied against these measures, and often won because of their deep pockets and support in all sorts of areas. They also have blocked bottle bills that encouraged recycling, preferring to let voluntary measures do the trick.

Instead of soda taxes, Coke promises smiling public relations campaigns on the benefits of healthy lifestyles, which include soda drinking. They point the finger conveniently at lack of exercise for the reason for America's obesity epidemic, holding themselves blameless. Dr. Hyman says you can't outrun a bad diet, and everything I've read says that he is right. Exercise is an important aspect of our total health, but diet is a much bigger influence on our weight.

What is it about workers in the food industry that allows consumers to care so little about their health and safety? From farm to table, the people who make our food possible mostly work in hazardous and low-paid jobs with no safety net. Farm workers are often immigrants from other countries who are treated badly and exposed to harsh working conditions and toxic chemicals. Workers in meat processing plants are subject to a different type of dangerous work environment. And even the restaurant and fast-food workers that serve us food are paid at below-minimum wages with no benefits or health insurance. If food was so important, wouldn't those who produce it be treated better?

The last three chapters are a fascinating look at the problems that big agriculture faces in the 21st century. While we produce more food than ever, much of it is wasted or fed to animals to fatten them up. Soils are being drained of life by current practices and Dr. Hyman points to something called regenerative agriculture that would restore barren dirt. 60 years- that's all the time we have left according to this book, and the problems of soil loss, water depletion, and loss of biodiversity are the biggest threats for farming in the future.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, (CAFO's) are singled out as one of the biggest problems with agriculture today. Cows, pigs and chickens are stuck in cages barely large enough to move in, and pumped with antibiotics and fattening foods so they can produce meat the fastest way possible. This produces lower quality, cheaper meats and all sorts of dire pollution consequences. Here again regenerative agriculture is the answer, and the book hesitates to advocate for full-blown vegetarianism.

And then finally there is climate change. Agriculture creates more carbon emissions than all of transportation according to this book. Carbon is released from the soils when it is tilled. Methane comes from cattle and landfills full of food waste. And Nitrogen dioxide comes from fertilizers that are used to boost crops. Getting a handle on global warming will also require dealing with the huge agriculture industry. Handling fossil fuels is just a part of it.

In short, this book has plenty of food for thought. (Pun intended) The author knows his stuff and backs it up with detailed citations. He also gives plenty of suggestions for how to fix things. Mind you, some of these fixes seem impossible given economic and political conditions today, but who knows what the next decades will bring. Just in the past decade we've seen a big change in how people are starting to read labels more carefully and try to eat healthier.

In the US, sales of plant-based foods are up and sales of soda are down. Obesity is still a growing problem, but perhaps books like this one are a sign that things are changing. I would also recommend Feeding You Lies, by Vani Hari, (AKA The Food Babe) for more detail on the coming revolution in food habits. In the meantime, read those labels and don't believe everything you hear about your favorite foods.

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