A Big Picture View of the Nutrition World

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I’d love to share a recent interview with you where I talked about the work I do: the current state of affairs in the nutrition world, the role industry plays in our health, the economics of eating healthy, the impact of culture on metabolism, where nutrition innovation actually comes from, and more. Indeed, there’s a fascinating dimension to eating that has remained largely unaddressed.

Currently, if you want to talk about people’s motivations and inner universe around food, the only recognized academic place to do that is in the realm of clinical eating disorders – which make up about 4% of the population. What about the other 96%? What about the rest of us who overeat, binge eat here and there, have some weight we’re trying to lose, or have our challenges around nutrition and health?

Q: You have an unusual approach to food and nutrition. Tell me more about it.

MD: The collective conversation around nutrition tends to focus on rules, standardization and a painstaking analysis of food. It looks like this: The Experts say, “Eat this; don’t eat that. We’re going to dissect the food we’re telling you about and explain everything that’s in it, and what each of those components does in a human body. Then we’ll homogenize all bodies, create one standard, and say ‘Here’s what all human bodies need when it comes to nutrition. Here’s a list of what you should and shouldn’t eat. Here’s what’s good. Here’s what’s bad.’”

At best, that’s only about half the story. The other half of the story is who you are as an eater: what you think, what you feel, what you believe, what you bring to the table.

We all eat, and we all have a relationship with food. That’s what I focus on. Many people know about nutrition, and a lot of us know too much. We’re suffering from what I call a “high fact diet”. A typical bookstore may have a hundred different books written by a hundred different experts – MD’s, PhD’s, dieticians, nutritionists – that all say something different, and each has scientific proof of why their system works.

My approach is different. I focus on the psychology of eating, or what I call:

Dynamic Eating Psychology.

It encompasses our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors toward food. All of these have a very real impact on how food is metabolized in the body.

Q: There is a lot of information out there, from bookstores and Internet sites to government programs geared toward educating people about nutrition. But it seems that, except for among the most educated and wealthy segment of the population, the nutrition of our nation hasn’t improved significantly over my lifetime. In fact, with the current epidemic of obesity, one could argue it has degenerated. Why is that?

MD: The nutrition conversation in the country is driven in large part by corporate economics. Profit is a powerful motivating force in the food production. Manufacture as much as you can, sell it as cheaply as you can – that’s it. Overall, that’s how the food industry operates.

So, it doesn’t matter what’s happening to the earth, or people’s bodies. Industry isn’t interested in health: it’s interested in money. And that philosophy drives scientific nutrition research. Food and nutrition research is mostly for hire these days, and a shocking amount of it is paid for by industry – the sugar industry, the corn syrup industry, big agriculture, pharmaceutical companies, the dairy lobby, and familiar names like Coke and Pepsi.

Then we get into these fascinating conversations about which foods are good or bad for you. Is it better to eat chocolate, or not? Should I eat dairy or be vegan? Yes, this is an intellectual and scientific question. But can’t you feel it in your body? Can you sense it? This is an innate ability that we’ve lost over time. We override body wisdom through advertising, or the huge quantity of food that’s served in restaurants and movie theaters. We focus on big and we focus on fast.

Our nervous system, which is highly articulate, figures out a lot of interesting things about what works for the body and what doesn’t. But it needs time; it takes your body approximately 20 minutes to realize it is full. Biology needs that much time to ask itself, “What did I eat? How did that feel? Did I have enough fat, carbohydrates?”

Eventually your body figures out what’s happening, and will give signals accordingly: “need more food, need less food. Hmmm, need more protein, need something a little sweet and tasty.” But our culture asks us to move fast, but when we’re moving fast and eating fast, we don’t notice.

Q: And eating rapidly isn’t good for digestion, either, I understand.

MD: That’s right: besides minimizing the communication between the body, the gut and the brain, rushing also creates stress, which shuts down our digestion – depending on the intensity of the stress response. Over the long term, that kind of chronic, low-grade stress has even greater impacts on metabolism. When you’re creating “stress physiology” among many other things you’re elevating cortisol and insulin. Those two hormones alone, when elevated day in and day out, signal the body to store fat, store weight, and not build muscle – which is the opposite of what most people want.

Q: Please explain cortisol.

MD: It’s a fascinating hormone. Let’s say we’re sitting here, and you’re completely calm and relaxed. Then I take a hypodermic needle filled with cortisol, and inject it in your arm. In a few minutes, you’ll start to get antsy. You’ll look at your watch. You’ll start thinking “I’ve got things to do. There’s stuff happening. There’s so much to get done today!”

Cortisol causes the brain to alter time perception.

It produces a sense of urgency, and it seems to speed up time. This is a physiological response from more primitive times; when a lion is chasing you, you have to make quick decisions based on survival, and time needs to be more compressed because we may not have much of it left.

In our normal waking day, if we’re over-secreting cortisol, it’s signaling the brain to think time is running out and shifting us into survival mode. What do people always complain about? “I don’t have enough time,” – “There’s not enough time to cook nourishing meals”. For sure, so many of us have busy schedules, but many of us feel a time crunch because we are in a state of low-grade stress physiology.

And we keep giving each other those messages through the media. Speed up, move faster, get famous now, be successful already… We do what the media tells us, and we eat what the experts say to eat, but we don’t slow down and reflect, “Is this even working?” Or on a bigger scale, “Does our culture work? Does our way of living work?”

Q: How does the way we nourish ourselves ultimately change? Do the first seeds of ideas come from research and studies from leading universities?

MD: Big innovation in the field of nutrition seldom comes from the hallowed halls of universities; it always comes from the outside. For example: people like Michio Kushi. Walk into any supermarket, and you’ll find tofu or miso. These are both macrobiotic foods that started out as strange, bizarre 1960s nutrition cult experiences. Look at the organic food movement. It really launched in the 1960s with a bunch of hippies, and now every grocery store you go into has a good selection of organic foods. Or supplements: the idea of vitamins and other nutritional supplements didn’t come from researchers at Harvard or Tufts, but from people like Adele Davis and countless unknown or lesser known practitioners, herbalists, traditional healers, and nutritional renegades.

Another example is Dr. Robert Atkins, of the Atkins Diet fame. He was ridiculed, ostracized, looked upon as a blithering medical fool. But he stuck to his guns, and the truth was, he had some powerful insights that were later proved correct. Does it mean his system is right for everybody? No. But he introduced an important concept: if you’re eating way too many carbs (which most Americans were), not enough fat and not enough protein, you may have some health or weight issues. That slowly crept into the mainstream, and now it’s widely accepted.

Q: But you say that what’s causing obesity and ill health in this country is not bad food.

MD: For sure, our diet has been corrupted – it’s causing dis-ease and it’s killing us – but to me, bad food is ultimately a symptom, not the cause. It’s a symptom because someone is creating that harmful food, marketing it, and making us believe in it, but behind all of this is the human psyche, sometimes behaving at its worst. The people driving this industry understand what they’re doing – they’re not dumb. They know they’re selling you a poor quality product, but that’s not interesting to them. What’s interesting to them is profit. So we’re faced with money-driven food production, and a dumbed-down population that’s not taught to embody their own wisdom. The result is we’re easily conditioned to eat junk until it kills us, never seeing any connection between what we eat and its impact on our vitality.

Q: And then we have an economic situation where, if you don’t have enough money, you can’t buy the higher quality foods. You’re buying pasta and processed cheese and muffins. You’re basically living in survival mode.

MD: Agree. We live in a world of nutritional “haves” and “have-nots.” And that gets us back to how we structure politics, how we structure our world. Food is just a reflection of that, of us. It’s a snapshot of our inner world and of how humanity has yet to learn how to truly take care of each other.

Look at any one person in terms of their economic standing, their gender, or their demographic, and then look at their diet and their relationship with food and their body. Most of the time you’ll see that it all makes sense. You can tell some people “Don’t eat at McDonald’s” all day long, and they’re not interested in hearing it because, guess what? You can get a dollar meal! What financially struggling human wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s? A meal for a dollar is mind boggling if you’re only making a few handfuls of dollars a day. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s called survival. But it makes thriving virtually impossible.

Then on the other side of that economic divide, let’s take the typical highly educated, fascinated-with-nutrition, 25-to-50-year-old woman in this country. Her eating and her exercise programs are often driven by poor body image: the viral cultural belief that you have to be skinny and perpetually look like a 17-year-old.

Q: Are you saying that women generally have a different relationship with food than the typical man does?

MD: Yes – many do. That’s because women have a different relationship with the body, because the culture asks something different of them. Our culture is not saying to you, as a man, “We need you to have the perfect body and the perfect weight in order for you to be lovable and get everything you want.” What we tell you, the man is, “Make a whole bunch of money and be powerful, then you can have whatever you want.” Now if you’re handsome, or fit, that helps – but if you’re rich, it doesn’t really matter what you look like; you can get what you want – says the collective message.

For women, the message is:

“Just look a certain way, and then you can get the guy and win all the prizes.”

Many women (and men) have what I call a “false-positive diet” and a “false-positive body.” They’re eating the right foods and doing the right exercises, they have the body they want, and yet internally, they’re miserable.

They’re doing exercises they can’t stand, eating a diet that requires constant pressure and willpower, and ceaselessly bracing against the fear that if they don’t keep doing all this exercise, dieting and denial of pleasure, they’ll gain weight, which means they’re screwed. If internally what’s going on is fear and hating the body, I don’t care how much a person weighs, or how fit they are. It’s all an illusion of the ego.

But there’s good news about all of this: there’s plenty of room for improvement in the food chain, and in the many possible ways our world can be healthier and more humane for all its eaters. So if you care about nourishing yourself, or the world, then the world could certainly use your assistance.

Are you ready to jump in? How do you choose to be part of the circle life and sustenance?

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