THE BLOG
11/06/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Climate on the Menu

I suspect, and hope, that for readers here my views on nutrition are pretty well known. I contend that we do, indeed, know the basic theme of optimal eating for health -- just as surely as we know that no one variation on that theme can claim the tiara on the basis of data. We are not clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens. America runs on Dunkin' on only its best days, running preferentially on BS most of the time. Our seemingly inexhaustible penchant for silver bullets, scapegoats, and naïve stupidity is far more toxic than either sugar or saturated fat.

We know what to eat; we simply refuse to swallow it.

Whatever the probability, in the near term or long, of overcoming the prevailing penchant for dogmatic religiosity about food, and rallying to the theme of healthful eating -- the stakes are already much bigger than our organ systems. They have evolved to encompass our ecosystems.

Folks, we are eating our planet.

The warning drumbeat percussing this message into the dismissive ether would be all but deafening, if we weren't collectively deaf to it already. The most recent U.N. report on climate change is, in a word, horrifying. Sao Paulo, Brazil -- a city of some 20 million people -- is pretty much out of water. The ramifications of the California drought are common knowledge.

How we eat relates directly to all of this. The clear-cutting of rain forests responsible for the desiccation of Brazil is in turn propagated by the expansion of farm and pasturelands into former wilderness areas. How ironic that it is our eagerness to eat as we wish that is cooking the planetary goose. How ironic that meeting the needs of hunger is propagating insatiable thirst.

Leaving aside the pseudo-debates about the legitimacy of climate change projections and our direct contributions to these trends, there is an association that is not even artificially controversial: producing food uses water. The quantity of water varies with the kind of food.

With every step along the so-called food chain, energy and water are lost. The ultimate source of all food energy, of course, is the sun. Solar energy is incorporated imperfectly into plants, with much of the potential energy unavoidably lost. When animals eat plants, the conversion of potential into actual energy is again far from perfectly efficient, and much is again lost. For this reason, it takes many more acres to produce animal food as plant food calories in matching doses.

In just the same way and for all the same reasons, water is successively consumed with each step "up" the food chain. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, has written extensively on this topic. The New York Times has reported on it. Careers are devoted to it. It's a secret poorly kept from all but the selectively deaf.

But the selectively deaf apparently abound. They are not limited to the overt deniers of science, who nonetheless -- and hypocritically -- share their misguided messages via the technological wherewithal of the very science they deny. They extend to scientists themselves, who manage to hear only their own chorus.

Whatever the legitimacy of arguments that eating more "meat, butter, and cheese" would benefit our health -- and personally, I think there is none -- what about ramifications for the planet? A population of over 7 billion already well into the realm of calamitous drought and climate change would have to renounce this dietary pattern even if it were proven to offer personal health benefits. There will be no healthy organ systems in the absence of healthy ecosystems.

Similarly, arguments for our "native," Paleo diet may have much more intrinsic merit than advocacy of provolone and pastrami. But our Stone Age ancestors were few and scattered, hunting animals that were in turn nourished by vast, wild spaces. Where, exactly, are the 20 million residents of Sao Paulo supposed to direct their arrows and spears -- let alone their ladles?

I am just back from New Zealand, where I was delighted to see that much of the South Island is still gloriously wild. But I couldn't help but observe the expanding incursions of dairy farms into formerly wild areas, apparently to placate a burgeoning Asian market for milk.

The new movie, Interstellar, reportedly has us going out into space looking for a hospitable planet in the aftermath of toasting this one. This is not merely a case of art imitating life but art struggling to keep up with life imitating art imitating life. Our pop culture fascination with morbid, futuristic, science fiction fantasies and post-apocalyptic vistas is a bit like closing our eyes to see what is actually all around us.

What happens when millions of people have no water, even as the oceans encroach on the homes of tens of millions of others? Nothing good. But it makes a helluva movie.

How we eat affects the health of people and planet alike. There are innumerable arguments for wholesome foods in sensible combinations, mostly plants. Among them is this: If more of us eat that way, the chances go up that there will be a glass of water left somewhere to wash it down.

-fin

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP; President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Author, Disease Proof

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