Written by Sebastian Pole
In a world that can feel out of control, the food we eat is one of the things we can, in theory, control. We know that good quality, nutritious food optimises health and prevents disease. We also know the opposite is true, with at least 30% of all cancers being diet related and that 70% of these cancers are connected with typical diets that are high in animal fat, low in fruit, vegetables and fibre (1). Why is our food causing these problems and how can we make the right choices?
Where did the problems start?
Since the 1950s and the explosion of industrial agriculture relying on high-volumes of nitrogen inputs along with over 1000 different pesticides and herbicides. There has been a huge shift; there has been a global reduction in consumption of complex carbohydrates by 38% with an increase of 36% for meat and 46% for vegetable oils. In the same period in the UK there has been a fall in fresh vegetable consumption by 24% and in the EU and US there has been a 35% increase in sugar and refined starch consumption. Our shift in nutritional habits over the last 70 years has evidently had some negative impact on society’s health as the same time period has seen cancer rates double and also sharp increases in heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other chronic degenerative diseases (2, 3, 5). Obesity and Type 2 diabetes have become regional epidemics. Obesity also has clear links with some forms of cancer as well as heart disease, diabetes, infertility and bone disorders (4).
Despite there being a surplus of food quantity, there has been a decline in food quality to the extent that Type-B malnutrition is now prevalent in the industrialised world with up to 60% of hospital admissions displaying nutritional deficiencies (6,7,8). Of course, in a world with an increasing population we have needed to increase volumes but this nutritional decline has largely been driven by intensive agriculture depleting soil-nutrient quality and a surge in consuming ultra-processed foods, now making up 50% of every shopping basket in the UK (9).
What do we do?
Some solutions to these challenges are well known. We need the political and agricultural will to transform our food system from one that rewards quantity over quality to one that replenishes our ecology and nutritional health. We cannot keep subsidising the harmful farming practices that underdelivers on human and ecological health. We need a National Food Strategy that helps growers and eaters make the right choices. Unfortunately there is no plan in the current government farming strategy Environmental Land Management scheme, for an Organic Action Plan like Europe’s goal of 25% farmed land to be organic by 2030. The Soil Association has laid out an agroecological vision that delivers ecologically and nutritionally sustainable food and is the most scientific plan that any health practitioner serious about society’s health should support. We also need a health system with food at its heart where doctors are trained in nutrition just as any health practitioner should be. Most doctors receive less than two hours nutritional training and this tide will surely be turning as transformative medical communities such as Nutritank lead the charge for change so that medical practitioners are trained in nutrition (10). In the meantime, if you want good nutritional advice, see a qualified herbalist or find a nutritionist.
Along with political and agricultural transformation, health-science can also help us make the right choices. The value of the microbiome and its role in our health is a pandora’s box of potential. This research gives us powerful insight for what to include in our diet to optimise our health. Plant-science shows us that certain plant nutrients, known as ‘phytonutrients’, such as lycopene (the red pigment in tomatoes), carotenoids (the orange in carrots), flavonoids (found in onions), sulphorophanes (in broccoli family) have proven to be protective against numerous conditions (11,12,13). Studies have shown that increasing essential nutrients and vegetarian diets can give protection against degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, coronary heart disease, macular degeneration, depression and cancer (14). Many of the most common herbs are concentrated sources of these protective compounds and help to build microbiome integrity; just ¼-1 teaspoon of rosemary, oregano, thyme, turmeric, cumin, nigella or ginger have measurable and physiologically active levels of phytonutrients (15).
Why is organic so good?
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, due to the focus on soil health, organically grown food has been shown to have higher levels of some nutrients and antioxidants than non-organic products. You are also avoiding exposure to excessive levels of immune damaging pesticides, heavy metals and organophosphates. Their negative impact of pesticides on the microbiome is only just being understood but the indicators are not positive (16). From a holistic health perspective that connects the health of the environment with the health of the population, organic methods of farming win.
Studies comparing the nutritional value of organically grown and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains conclude organic crops are more nutrient dense including: 27% more vitamin C, 21.1% more iron, 29.3% more magnesium, and 13.6% more phosphorus, 70% higher omega-3 content and certain vegetables have been shown to have 100% higher levels of cell protective flavonoids (17,18, 19). In addition, organic products have 15% less toxic nitrates than their conventional counterparts. Interestingly, the government recommended five daily servings of vegetables (lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes and cabbage) provided the recommended daily intake of vitamin C for men and women when they are organically grown but their non-organic counterparts did not.
Whilst leaders grapple with delivering clear agricultural and health policies, we have to make our own choices. As long as the negative on cost of unsustainable farming is externalised onto health and environmental costs, ironically making nutritious food more costly, it is left to us individuals and families to cut our cloth as best we can. Here are some ideas for how you can more affordably empower your health conscious daily diet from the Soil Association including using a local box scheme, precision buying staple grains and wholefoods and eating seasonally. And, given the solid science about herbs and spices and what good taste and health values they bring, eat them every day. Every time you eat, ask yourself, “where are the herbs and spices in this meal?”. Move over apples, the herbs will keep the doctor away!
- WHO, World Cancer Report 2003
- Cummings, J & Bingham, S. (1998) Diet and the Prevention of Cancer
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- Clayton, P, Health Defence, Accelerated learning systems, 2004
- Cerhan JR, Torer JC, Lynch CF, et al. Association of smoking, body mass, and physical activity with risk of prostate cancer in the Iowa 65+ Rural Health Study (United States). Cancer Causes and Control 1997; 8(2):229–238.
- Li, H, et al. A prospective study of plasma selenium levels and prostate cancer risk. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 96, May 5, 2004, pp. 696-703
- Bistrian BR, Blackburn GL, Vitale J, Cochran D, Naylor J. .Prevalence of malnutrition in general medical patients. JAMA 1976 Apr 12;235(15):1567-70.
- Naber TH, et al. Prevalence of malnutrition in nonsurgical hospitalized patients and its association with disease complications. Am J Clin Nutr 1997 Nov;66(5):1232-9.
- Gallagher-Allred CR, Voss AC, Finn SC, McCamish MA. Malnutrition and clinical outcomes: the case for medical nutrition therapy. J Am Diet Assoc 1996 Apr;96(4):361-6, 369.
- Soil Association Ultra-Processed Foods Report
- Ganis L, Christides T. Are We Neglecting Nutrition in UK Medical Training? A Quantitative Analysis of Nutrition-Related Education in Postgraduate Medical Training Curriculums. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 16;13(3):957. doi: 10.3390/nu13030957. PMID: 33809505; PMCID: PMC8000414.
- Galeone C, Pelucchi C, Levi F, et al. Onion and garlic use and human cancer. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;84: 1027-32.
- Giovanucci E., et al ‘95. “Intake of carotenoids and retinal in relation to risk of prostate cancer.” Journal of National Cancer Institute; 87:1767–76.
- Taylor, PR, et al. Science peels the onion of selenium effects on prostate carcinogenesis. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 96, May 5, 2004, pp. 645-47 (editorial)
- Lewin M, Bailey N, Bandaletova T, Bowman R, Cross AJ, Pollock J, Shuker D, Margetts, B M et al. (1986) Vegetarian diet in mild hypertension: a randomised controlled trial. BMJ v.293 p.1468-71
- Peterson, C.T., Rodionov, D.A., Iablokov, S.N., Pung, M.A., Chopra, D., Mills, P.J. and Peterson, S.N., 2019. Prebiotic potential of culinary spices used to support digestion and bioabsorption. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2019.
- Zheng T, Zahm SH, Cantor KP, Weisenburger DD, Zhang Y, Blair A. (2001) Agricultural exposure to carbamate pesticides and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. J Occup Environ Med. 43(7):641-9.
- Grinder-Pedersen, Salka E. Rasmussen, Susanne Bügel, Lars V. Jrgensen, Lars O. Dragsted, Vagn Gundersen, and Brittmarie Sandström, Effect of Diets Based on Foods from Conventional versus Organic Production on Intake and Excretion of Flavonoids and Markers of Antioxidative Defense in Humans, J. Agric. Food Chem., 51 (19), 5671 -5676, 2003.
- Heaton , Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health: A review of the evidence, The Soil Association, United Kingdom, 2001.
- Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G.B., Benbrook, C., Biavati, B., Markellou, E., Giotis, C. and Gromadzka-Ostrowska, J., 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), pp.794-811.