Diet and Human Ecology
Diet and Human Ecology
The biosphere is a delicate and dynamic system of energy, organic and inorganic matter. When we disrupt any part of it, the results ripple out and have far-reaching effects, often seemingly unrelated to their source. We search in vain to find some alien cause. Our attitudes regarding degenerative disease are a good example. When we focus on specific nutrients in our diet we fail to see the bigger, truer picture. We often fail to see how our food choices are driven by emotional and social influences and not physical need.
In 1943 the famed psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called 'A Theory of Human Motivation'. This groundbreaking work laid the foundations for the next three decades of developmental psychology. Maslow was looking for defining principles of human happiness, for what makes us feel complete. His conclusions were simple yet profound.
In identifying what he called a hierarchy of needs, he established that we must meet our basic physical requirements before addressing other areas of fulfillment and joy. The first level of need includes Air, Food, Water, Shelter, Warmth, Sex and Sleep. When these needs are attained we seek the second level - Safety, Protection from the elements, Security, Order, Stability and Freedom from Fear. Our desires for love, esteem, self-expression, creativity and the realization of our full potential rest on the foundation of these first two levels. If they are not met, we risk living with constant anxiety, stress and ill health. It would be fair to say that those first two levels are all about health. These considerations need a particular attention now more than ever because we are living in an environment of our own creation.
The number of people living in urban areas exceeded 50% of the world’s population for the first time in 2014. It looks like it will be 70% by 2050. The WHO report lists resulting health challenges such as poor water quality, environmental pollutants, violence and injury, increased non-communicable diseases (cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases), unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and increased exposure to disease outbreaks. In an unintended irony one of the few advantages of urban living is listed as access to better health care.
When I started studying food and nutrition, I was intrigued by the connection between what I was eating and the environment. I discovered that many of the foods that had questionable or negative effects on health also had an adverse environmental impact. This should not have surprised me. We do not need new products or even more studies to create a wholesome way of eating. What we need is a new way of looking at the whole issue of food and health. We need a user-friendly, common sense approach to understanding food that is healthy and sustainable for society and the environment. To accomplish this requires us to question everything we have been told about nutrition, and review some very basic questions about the role of food in our life and in our culture.
The word 'health' originates in old English, and means to be complete. Food is certainly an important part of being whole – being connected. To be healthy we need to eat food that allows us to operate at our full potential. That potential includes the sensitivity and capacity to adapt to environmental change. Health enables us to nurture the bond between nature and ourselves. Ecology is a central theme of the ancient systems of understanding food.
Ecology is rarely acknowledged when discussing nutrition, and yet is central to understanding our food choices, and how different foods affect us, both directly and indirectly. Rachel Carson, the American biologist, author of The Silent Spring, and the accepted mother of modern ecology, says:
'If we have been slow to develop the general concepts of ecology and conservation, we have been even more tardy in recognizing the facts of the ecology and conservation of man himself. We may hope that this will be the next major phase in the development of biology. Here and there awareness is growing that man, far from being the overlord of all creation, is himself part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life. Man's future welfare and probably even his survival depend upon his learning to live in harmony, rather than in combat, with these forces.'
This view of our relationship with nature is more crucial now than ever. Carson's vision of an evolution in biological science that unifies human life with the environment has been steadily sidelined. If man is 'a part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life', then natural law exists for us, as well as for every other creature, plant and aspect of the planet. If we do not learn to cooperate with the laws of nature, we will harm ourselves. We don't need a degree in environmental science to understand natural law.
We tend to view the world we live in, and all other life except perhaps domestic animals, as 'other'. But we do not exist outside of the intricate composition of the biosphere. When we examine nutrition as a fundamental aspect of our relationship with the planet we come to a better understanding of the problems surrounding the human diet.
Our belief in human supremacy, often referred to as Anthropocentric thinking, allows us to place ourselves at the center of the universe. We view our uniqueness as a sign of separation from the rest of life that swirls around us and within us. The belief that we are superior to other life forms permits us to use the natural world according to our desires and whims. As we pull away from any physical interaction with nature we fortify those mythologies that lie at the foundation of our most harmful behaviors.
In ecological studies there are several kinds of relationships between an organism and its environment. The first thing we need to know about any new creature we discover is how it procreates and what it eats. These are the driving forces of evolution; they dictate physical form, function and most behavior.
One class of relationship is called 'commensalism', from the Latin 'to eat at the same table'. These are relationships where one organism gains benefits and the other is not affected. Another type of relationship is 'mutualism', where both organisms benefit. In sharp contrast is the 'parasitism' relationship, where one organism benefits while the other is harmed. Creating a commensal relationship with the planet is primary for humanity. Our well-being is inter-dependent with the well-being of the planet. It is also the key to a comprehensive vision of human nutrition.
Planet Earth is host to human life. The natural world makes human life possible. Our current relationship with the planet is almost entirely parasitic. The famous British naturalist, David Attenborough recently referred to humanity as 'a plague on the planet'. The chemist and co-creator of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock, said that humans are “too stupid to prevent climate change”. What does our casual disregard for the environment say about us?
We like to imagine that our relationship with nature is a kind of benign mutualism, one where we take from nature in exchange for nature having the pleasure of our company. The conundrum we face is that our whole economy is based on endless consumption; we are eating up the environment. But as economist E.F Schumacher said “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world in an impossibility”.
Protein provides a good example of a human obsession becoming an environmental problem. Obtaining adequate protein in our diet is easy. A diet with a variety of grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides more than sufficient protein for health and vitality. (You can refer to Section Two for some great, protein-rich recipes.) Asians (who eat less meat than westerners) have produced concentrated, vegan, protein-rich foods for centuries, such as miso, soya sauce, tempeh and tofu.
Increasing numbers of people understand that meat is not a good food choice. Some avoid meat for ethical reasons (abuse and killing of animals), some because of environmental impact, and some due to health concerns. Changing to a macrobiotic vegan diet affects social and personal habits. What if you understand all that but like the taste of meat? What if you like the texture of meat? Don't worry, a solution is at hand. Food science is on the way to your door with fake 'meaty stuff'.
Yes, we can make and sell you soya hot-dogs, lunch meats, imitation steaks and pies and burgers. They can taste like beef, chicken or pork. These products are perhaps culturally fun, but they do not address the issues of good nutrition. Soy is difficult to digest, that is why the people of Asia fermented it. We have to use additives, excessive salt and extensive processing to get the 'meaty' taste that mimics flesh. All because we love to indulge our senses.
Bill Gates has recently backed a company called Beyond Meat. The young entrepreneur who started the company is busy producing all sorts of fake meat in his factory. He outlined his idea in an interview with Business Insider magazine.
"Meat is well understood in terms of its core parts, as well as its architecture. Meat is basically five things: amino acids, lipids, and water, plus some trace minerals and trace carbohydrates. These are all things that are abundant in non-animal sources and in plants."
Here we are again in the 'food as a chemical delivery system' world. Beyond Meat has manufactured artificial chicken (it tastes just like chicken) and beef in its facilities in Southern California. Ethan Brown, the brains behind the company, has attracted investment from other big shareholders. In addition to Gates and the co-founder of Twitter, the ex-CEO of McDonalds is in the game as an advisor.
I will lose many of my vegan friends here who think that fake meat is the best thing since sliced bread (and we know how that worked out). Fake meat is being marketed as a solution to the 'meat problem'. But we don’t have a meat problem. We have a human problem. According to Food Research International, manufactured faux meat uses an equal amount of energy to produce as meat products. Bill Gates is a dangerous guide to environmental concerns, given his enthusiastic support of Monsanto’s GMO’s as the way to feed the world.
Fake meat is highly processed, manufactured food. It includes canola oil (which is always chemically processed), soy protein isolate (a commercial waste product that populates many vegan and vegetarian foods) and several common additives. It is not a solution to creating a healthy diet.
 World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory data
 Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics), original publication 1962
 "Essay on the Biological Sciences" in Good Reading (1958)
 The Guardian, September 10, 2013
 The Guardian, March 29, 2010
 Business Insider, August 15, 2015
 Environmental Impact of four meals with different protein sources, Food Research International, Volume 43, Issue 7, August 2010
The Carnivore Karma
THE CARNIVORE KARMA
Many American and British people are repulsed by the idea that people in China, Korea or other parts of the world eat dogs. The practice is called a barbaric habit and uncivilised. Horse meat is consumed in France, Belgium, Hungary as well as in Mongolia and Japan. The English speaking world is horrified – these are our pets!
In 2013 when horse meat was found in supermarket beef patties there was outrage. In some cases, the meat patties were 100% horse meat. The legal issue was that it illustrated the difficulty involved in tracing the origin of any meat product. There was no health concern, the horse meat would have actually been healthier than beef from a standard nutritional point of view. The public concern was that they were HORSES!
We domesticate cats and dogs to provide amusement and companionship. Foxes, minks, rabbits and chinchilla are raised so that we can skin them and use their fur. We would not eat a fox we would only wear it, we have decided that some animals are off limits for eating and others are OK.
Most people would agree that the killing of wild, rare animals is wrong. It is not wrong to put them in cages with concrete floors, behind bars or in confined spaces. Putting them in a zoo is OK, it’s educational. African elephants in the wild may require up to 2.7 million acres as a ‘home range’, this is a healthy habitat. A captive elephant in a zoo may be given 2 or 3 acres if lucky. This would be like letting you live in your bedroom closet for the rest of your life. So what about the animals we raise in order to eat?
Science has acknowledged that meat and dairy are unnecessary and indeed damaging to good health. Our only rationale for eating these foods is pleasure. Our taste for fat and blood drives our desire. We are killing 56 billion land animals each year (estimated to double by 2050) to feed this craving. The number of aquatic creatures killed defies counting and can only be measured by tonnage, but a conservative estimate is well over 100 billion sea creatures. We might imagine that with increased awareness about both the health and environmental consequences of this slaughter we would stop, but we don’t. We might imagine that we would never kill without a valid reason, and yet we do. What stops us?
I have taught and offered health counselling in over twenty 'developed' countries. When I ask people to describe their diets, they commonly respond "I eat a traditional diet". All their imagined 'traditional' diets include meat and/or dairy foods. They are seen to be an important part of the social fabric. Celebrations and holidays are routinely associated with eating animals.
Americans fire up the grill on the Fourth of July and eat hamburgers, a food that would be very alien to the Founding Fathers. In Ireland, Easter somehow requires a baked ham or lamb. Every year the President of the United States 'pardons' an individual turkey brought to the White House by the National Turkey Foundation. (No one has yet identified the specific crime the turkey is being pardoned for.) The turkey is saved to live another day while its brothers and sisters are in the oven. Forty-six million turkeys are eaten every Thanksgiving in America. Tradition?
As with any habit, tradition should be assessed as either improving or diminishing the quality of individual and social life. Some traditions fill an important need and are worth retaining, others certainly outlive their use, or may simply be based on ignorance. It doesn't make sense to retain a tradition through misplaced nostalgia. We can love our grandparents and still leave many of their prejudices and beliefs in the past.
Karma is subtle. There is perhaps no single act that more clearly illustrates our distance from nature than killing in order to enjoy specific foods. When we do that we put ourselves outside the vibrant community of life that surrounds us. We cannot pretend that our food choices are simply a personal matter any more than it is a personal issue if we dump garbage in the local well.
“Each meal has very real effects on the lives of people around the world, on the environment, biodiversity and the climate that are not taken into account when tucking into a piece of meat”.
When we ignore the laws of nature and moral considerations, the results are disastrous. Some of the results are very direct and concrete and some are more distantly linked, more abstract. I am not talking about angry spirits here, only karma.
When we force chickens, cattle and pigs into cramped and crowded quarters, they breed new strains of viruses that jump species. Viruses do not simply drop from the sky; they require an environment that suits their needs. Bird flu (avian flu) breeds in the unhealthy, overpopulated environment of factory farms. Bird flu is lethal, and easily jumps species. Two of every three people it infects die. These diseases are a direct result of our abuse of animals.
Infectious diseases that start in animals and can be naturally transmitted to humans are called zoonosis. It is estimated that 61% of all known pathogens that infect humans are zoonosis’, including many serious diseases such as Ebola virus disease, Salmonellosis and influenza. We know factory farming presents both direct and indirect health challenges to us all. Even if we were only focused on the direct effect on human health we should be worried. These diseases are a direct result of the sicknesses we impose on the animals that live in captivity. Millions of pigs, chickens, cows and increasingly farmed fish not only suffer but live in an environment that makes them ill and diseased. Eating diseased animals is not an idea we care to entertain.
Some imagine dairy cows contently grazing in green fields. It is an image that often features in television advertisements. These ads are designed to make us feel that the cows are happy to share their milk with us. The cheese, milk and ice cream are a cheerful gift willingly given. I remember a company that advertised their milk as coming from ‘contented cows”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Dairy cows are artificially inseminated, made pregnant, give birth and are milked for up to 10 months, including during their next enforced pregnancy. After being raped and confined their children are then taken away so that their milk is not wasted on the animal it is intended for. Anyone who has lived near a dairy farm knows the sound of a mother cow howling with anguish when her calf is taken away so that we can use her milk as a product, rather than let it serve its natural purpose. Female calves are kept for future use and males are most likely sent to veal processing or left to die.
One outcome of this unnatural condition of constant milking is mastitis, which is responsible for one in six cow deaths on American dairy farms. The disease is reflected in the quality of the milk through an increase in somatic cells. Somatic cell counts in milk are referred to as abnormal. When a cow has mastitis, up to 90% of the somatic cells in the milk may be neutrophils, the inflammatory cells that form pus. We don’t want to consider this when we order our cappuccino or spread butter on our toast. And whether the cow was pasture-grazed, lived in a private shed with a heater and listened to classical music, or was the product of a cattle factory. She is still abused and she is still slaughtered when her usefulness is done.
Since the animals are kept in confined and cramped conditions viral infection is constant. In the USA, roughly 29 million pounds of antibiotics -about 80 percent of the country’s total antibiotics used - are added to animal feed yearly. This contributes to the rise of resistant bacteria, making it harder to treat both animal and human illnesses., Karma!
The conditions in factory farms and feedlots around the world are horror shows of inhumanity. The animals are tortured. They feel the fear, and they feel the pain. We try to persuade ourselves that they are unfeeling, but we know that isn't true. Our 'man the hunter' mythology, speciesism and desire for a tasty treat distorts our finer human qualities.
The issues around meat-eating not only span the health and environmental impacts of the food we eat but permeate our collective psyche. Historically, the ethics of eating animals was usually addressed as part of a philosophical or spiritual inquiry but we seem to place secular morality off to the side. Increasingly we are faced with moral decisions that are not defined in ancient texts or fear of punishment of angry gods. These decisions are driven by a desire to evolve the finer attributes of human potential and all of them lead to the world that balances the needs of humankind with the environment that we have grown out of. The quest to live in balance with the laws of nature is fundamental, regardless of how we imagine those laws to have been created.
 Findsus beef lasagne contains up to 100% horsemeat, BBC News. 7 February 2013.
 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "Meat and Meat Products," Food Outlook, June 2008
 The MEAT, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany, and Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, Belgium
 J. Otte, D. Roland-Holst et al: Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risk, FAO Report, John Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health
 The Monster At Our Door, The Global Threat Of Avian Flu, Mike Davis, Holt Paperbacks
 Taylor LH, Latham SM, Woolhouse ME (2001). "Risk factors for human disease emergence". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
 National Mastitis Council, “Guidelines on Normal and Abnormal Raw Milk Based on Somatic Cell Counts and Signs of Clinical Mastitis,” 2001.
 Natural Resources Defense Council – Facts About Pollution from Livestock Farms
 National Mastitis Council
Conventional medicine has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with nutrition. Growing evidence on connections between diet and disease means doctors are asked questions they have evaded for decades. Many of my clients experiencing the benefits of a healthy plant-based diet ask “Why didn’t my doctor know about this?”
I fully respect the good work that most doctors do. Modern medicine can do many wonderful things. But the profession is rarely criticised or assessed rigorously from the outside. We seem much more interested in who pays the bill rather than the quality of the service. There are mythologies surrounding medicine that are deeply embedded in our culture, and that profoundly affect our attitudes to health.
Since the 1950’s medical shows on television have been a standard entertainment; at last count there have been 93 successful shows (32 in the UK) with a medical format. From 'Dr Kildare' and 'Ben Casey' in the 60’s to 'ER' and 'House' in the 21st century, television doctors have portrayed the power of medicine over suffering and death. But it is a mistake to believe that this power indicates that doctors understand health. They are sickness experts - not health experts.
An analogy of the comparison is this: imagine a highway with hundreds of cars speeding along. Suddenly a bridge collapses. Standing by the road, you see cars hurtling off it, into the canyon below. What do you do? Do you go down into the canyon and help those injured? Or do you stop the traffic?
Medicine has chosen to go into the canyon and help the injured. And maybe they put up ambiguous warning signs such as 'Speed Kills', 'Watch Out!' or 'Use Caution'.
Someone has to stop the traffic. The medical establishment has not taken on that role in the past, and there is no sign that they will in the future, although a few brave souls venture out to stem the traffic flow.
It’s hard to get out of that canyon once you are down there. Things are not going so well at the crash site. As the traffic increases the services and personnel become more overworked, and resources are constantly under stress. There is an endless demand for more money and new technologies - but extra resources don’t seem to help.
In America just under 18% of the GNP is spent on health care; in the UK the figure is 9.6%. Yet in an exhaustive survey done by the United Nations, published in 2000, America only ranked 37th out of 190 countries and the UK ranked 18th. Something is seriously wrong and money isn't fixing it. One problem is that the growing demands and increased complexity of treatment creates an environment where mistakes are unavoidable. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine reported that there are 440,00 preventable deaths from medical errors annually in America. That makes medical error the third leading cause of death following heart disease and cancer.
The focus at the crash site is the prescription of pills. We live in a culture where every complaint, real or imagined, requires medication. Driven by the pharmaceutical mentality, the abuse of prescriptive drugs grows yearly. An estimated 48 million Americans have abused prescription drugs - nearly 20% of the U.S. population. Deaths by prescription drugs are more common than deaths by car accidents in America, and far outstrip deaths by illegal drugs. Disturbingly, the non-medical use of prescription drugs has been rising steadily for adolescents, particularly prescription pain relievers, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants and steroids.
What about antibiotics? Sometimes a doctor prescribes antibiotics under pressure from a misguided patient who demands medication. Common colds, flu (influenza), bronchitis, most cough’s, most sore throats, some ear infections, many sinus infections and stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis) do not respond to antibiotics. Yet antibiotics are regularly prescribed for these cases. Doctors may even write the prescription before receiving test results that identify the infection.
The long-term and combined effects of our romance with drugs is making us sicker. Antibiotics are specifically designed to kill microorganisms - but it is almost impossible to target a single species. Antibiotics are literally 'anti-life'. In using them, we may kill the bacteria we want to kill. We also kill or damage our beneficial bacteria, and mutate harmful ones.
As antibiotic use increases, bacteria adapt to them and become resistant. A 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that at least 2 million people annually "acquire serious infections with bacteria that are resistant to one or more of the antibiotics designed to treat those infections."  At least 23,000 people die annually in America from antibiotic-resistant infections.
The human body is home to billions of microbes. They inhabit every part of the body from the eyelash to the gut. They perform essential tasks in protecting us from potential pathogens. Microorganisms are crucial to our digestive system. The colonies of microbes that form the microbiome in our gut are the key to good digestion - and more. When we eat, it is these tiny creatures that increase the efficiency of metabolism, fine-tune immune response and even synthesize some vitamins.
It seems clear that the overuse of antibiotics is having a negative impact on many indigenous organisms in the gut. These microbes have established a commensal (mutually beneficial) relationship with their human hosts. Their disappearance, under the onslaught of antibiotics and the modern diet, seems to promote conditions such as obesity and asthma. The use of antibiotics dramatically alters digestive function. Think of the common side-effects of nausea and diarrhea. This is part of a vicious cycle: our diet makes us more prone to disease, and then we take drugs that hamper digestion and compromise immune function.
A recent study in the British National Health Service found that nine out of ten General Practitioners in the UK feel pressurized by their patients to prescribe antibiotics. Ninety-seven percent of these patients are prescribed antibiotics regardless of their illness. When the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggested that doctors who over-prescribe be censured, doctors were upset.
Antibiotics first arrived on the medical scene in 1932. They were the first medicines labeled 'wonder drugs'. The introduction of the sulfa drugs meant the U.S. mortality rate from pneumonia dropped from 0.2% each year to 0.05% by 1939. This was indeed a wonderful treatment and saved many lives. Penicillin, introduced a few years later, provided a broader spectrum of activity, and had fewer side effects. Streptomycin, discovered in 1942, was the first effective drug against tuberculosis, and came to be the best known of a long series of important antibiotics. The root causes of the diseases treated were lost in the celebrations.
Tuberculosis can be directly traced to individual and social behavior. This was also the case with whooping cough, pneumonia and other diseases of poverty. They originate in crowded and unhygienic environments where malnutrition is common. Now that we were able to cure the illnesses with antibiotics, we stopped focusing on cleaning up the slums and the provision of healthy food.
Taking medication is a huge act of faith. We believe that the healer knows about invisible forces - and knows how to control them. It doesn’t matter if the healer is a shaman on the Mongolian tundra, a Wise-Woman herbalist in the forests of ancient Europe, or a doctor in modern America. The healer's naming of the evil spirit indicates special wisdom. If the name is in a foreign language all the better (Latin is a good start). Doctors unwittingly support and encourage this fantasy. We may mock other cultures for their superstitions, but are our own illusions really that different?
The relationship between the healer/doctor and the patient is based largely on the faith of the patient, rather than knowledge. It is an infantile bond, disempowering to the one seeking help. We are uneducated about health, and the doctor is unlikely to have the time (or perhaps the inclination) to educate us. That is not their job, they just want to treat us. So we continue thinking that we must hand over the care of our health to our doctor - and that they know what they are doing.
Disease is generally described as an enemy. Invisible and mysterious adversaries surround us. We are 'fighting' heart disease; we are 'battling' cancer we will 'conquer' diabetes. Who or what are we fighting? As long as the enemy is concealed behind a cloak of mystery we can leave the battle up to the wizards and hope for the best. In order to discover the culprit all that we need is a mirror. Our major antagonist is hiding in clear sight. We like to think that responsibility for our illnesses lies outside us. If my illness is caused by a virus, bacteria or genetics, then I am blameless. But change my daily habits? Surely not! It can't be that simple, can it?
 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Health Data 2013
 World Health Organization, World Health Report 2000
 As reported in Forbes Magazine, September 23, 2013
 National Council on Alcoholism, and Drug Dependence
 Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance in the United States, 2013, cdc.gov
 Nature Reviews Microbiology 7, 887-894 (December 2009) What are the consequences of the disappearing human microbiota?
 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Report, Aug, 2015