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David Katz, M.D.

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Chewing on the Future of Food

Posted: 10/26/2012 8:00 pm

The second annual Food Day, October 24, is now in the history books. Established by the Center for Science in the Public Interest last year, Food Day is rather analogous to Earth Day; both are intended to focus our collective attention on matters of paramount importance to our well-being, present and future.

Food Day directs our attention in particular to the safety, nutritional quality, affordability and sustainability of our food supply; to eliminating hunger and obesity alike; to safe working conditions for all who help produce our food; and to the production of food by means that respect and preserve the native resources of our planet.

Food Day 2012 was "celebrated" around the country in over 3,000 events, some presided over personally by the likes of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and celebrities of the food and nutrition world.

Personally, I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion on the future of food convened inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and presided over by Michael Jacobson, Food Day's originator. I failed to appreciate it at the time, but according to the Boston Globe, the others and I gathered to share our perspectives and predictions constituted a "gaggle." I hope that's good.

My panel, asked to consider what our diets will be like in 2050, devoted particular attention to issues of culture, cost, convenience, and competing priorities.

I raised the issue of culture, because it is both the cause of our current crises, and the potential cure. Our attitudes about food and exercise are cultural. We are all raised to love food, and to associate with it the special events that punctuate our lives. We are increasingly raised to think of physical activity as a spectator sport, or a punishment.

Our cultural attitudes about the use of our feet and our forks are ill-advised, but not crazy; they always made sense before. For most of human history, calories were relatively scarce and physical activity was unavoidable. Our cultural imperatives and prevailing inclinations are well-suited to that scenario.

They are, alas, ill-suited to the modern scenario: a bountiful glut of tasty but nutritionally suspect calories, and the inexorable displacement of physical exertion of every variety with ever more reliance on technology. Everything about modern living that makes it modern is conducive to the epidemic obesity and rampant chronic disease we are experiencing. To avoid even worse, we have to turn the Titanic around -- the Titanic, in this case, being our culture.

Questions about the future of food are questions about the future of our culture. Can we change before calamity -- related to famine, chronic disease, financial collapse, crop failure, environmental degradation, water shortages, overpopulation, climate change, or any variation on these unpleasant themes -- leaves us with no choice?

I think we can.

Often, colleagues seek inspiration for what the future of food requires of us by invoking the history of tobacco. This is appealing, as tobacco, poor diet, and lack of physical activity -- bad use of feet, forks, and fingers -- have clustered at the top of the list of leading causes of premature death in the United States for decades.

But the cultural roots of food run far deeper than those of tobacco. Tobacco was a fairly recent folly; we have always eaten. Tobacco was always discretionary; food is essential. Tobacco is a yes/no decision; food is about a wide array of choices. Tobacco was not part of the prehistoric environment that shaped our biology and behavior from the genes up; food, of course, was exactly that.

So food is not much like tobacco, really. If we look for challenging aspects of our culture that run as deep and wide as food, three come to my mind. Two are precautionary and might invite some pessimism; the third, however, is redolent with hope.

The two precautionary themes are sexism and racism. Both are bad -- and both are undeniably tenacious. We are 150 years after the Civil War, 50 years after the peak of the civil rights era, and we have an African-American president. Yet racial prejudice is still on prominent display in our culture, to our collective shame.

The origins of this, presumably, have something to do with the native xenophobia of a species long accustomed to small clans or tribes in which everyone was familiar and looked a lot like everyone else. Foreign appearance signaled potential danger. We presumably cultivated that native reticence born on the Stone Age savannah, and turned it into a variety of deplorable modern prejudices.

Similarly, women's rights are not fully secure even today, even in America, even 100 years after the suffragette heyday. Within the past week, we learned that women just out of college earn only 82 cents for every dollar a man earns to do the exact same job.

These are precautionary tales about how hard it can be to change culture. Women's rights are an issue that affects fully half of the entire population intimately, every day -- and we haven't managed to deal effectively with it even so.

Time, then, to look on the bright side -- which happens to be much about money.

One of my fellow panelists, Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart's senior vice-president of sustainability, highlighted the importance of cost, convenience, and competing priorities to people's food choices. I quite agree.

On the issue of competing priorities, we can get ourselves culturally oriented to the notion of paying a bit now, or paying a lot later. Nobody has time to choose food carefully, or prepare it; but everyone has time to ride in an ambulance, recuperate in the CCU, or take their child to the pediatric endocrinologist. Minutes invested weekly now can save literal years. Food, and exercise for that matter, deserve honored stations among our routine priorities.

We can certainly make identifying and choosing nutritious food easy and convenient. I have devoted years of my own effort to just such an enterprise.

But issues of cost are the real game-changers. While it is not true that more nutritious foods consistently cost more, we can do a lot more to make them cost less. One of my predictions for the future is that those now bearing the costs of disease care will chip in a lot more to incentivize healthful choices, such as better foods, because that is far more cost-effective. As companies and insurers spend more to promote good nutrition, they will also exert more influence on the Farm Bill, which will slowly shift to reflect the modern priorities of health and sustainability -- rather than mass production of corn

But the truly great hope for the future of food involves treating health more like wealth.

Paradoxically, we have long thought of food as currency. We are "breadwinners," we "make dough," and we "bring home the bacon." Food was the first currency, and modern currency is spoken of in terms of food. Yet we revere wealth and cultivate it, while routinely renouncing investments in health for want of time or inclination.

Food is a currency, the original one, and we could treat it more like one again. Investing in health and treating it as something of great and universal cultural value -- something we raise our kids to aspire to as they aspire to being "rich" -- is a true, potential game-changer for the future of food, ourselves, and our planet.

In the beginning, food was money, and money was food. They diverged, to a surprising extent. We respect how money will affect the quality of our lives, but overlook it with regard to food. We invest in wealth, but generally, not health. Our time horizon for money is distant; for food, it's only as far away as our next donut. We measure the value of food as calories/dollar, an obsolete metric in an age of epidemic obesity and caloric excess.

None of this is all that hard to fix. Our culture could embrace health as a kind of wealth. A cultural commitment to investing in health could be the normal expectation for any responsible adult. Experts who provide guidance toward better choices -- dietitians, health coaches, and other qualified experts -- could be valued universally as we value financial planners and investment counselors. And financial rewards for choosing better nutrition, courtesy of those with skin in the game, could put a high polish on the already luminous prize.

Food is a product of culture. The inertia of culture makes it tougher to turn than the Titanic. But the looming collisions are cause to get the job done -- and we can.

The best way to predict the future... is to create it. Unlike genes, culture is a medium of our devising. We created it -- and we can update it. And by so doing, we can create the more nourishing future of food we would all like to predict.

-fin

Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com
www.turnthetidefoundation.org

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