The 5 Traps of contemporary Diet

The human diet is in crisis. We hear that often, and it is true if we stick to some of the meanings associated to the word crisis: time of dilemmas, time of difficult decisions, what is happening cannot continue. But perhaps the definitions fall short because, as has been shown countless times, this time the food crisis is so deep that it threatens the survival of the planet and species, including humans.


The Hedonistic Diet

Nowadays we fall into the trap of eating not only to satisfy hunger but also to satisfy our different emotional expectations; for example, we hope eating will take away sadness, provide us with company in solitude, and even fill us with euphoria. That is why in most households we have “substitutes for happiness” at our fingertips, made and packaged by the food industry; they are cheap, high in sugar, salt, fat, and are addictive. We consume them and integrate them into our lives, especially when we are most stressed, believing that they will help us dealing with the frustrations, fear and anxiety derived from our human condition (1).

This wrong way of relating to food, like almost all modern social problems, affects mainly the poorest people and particularly women (2); the hedonistic diet is linked to the origin of serious mental and physical health problems such as obesity, anxiety, and cancer. That is why we must be careful not to fall prey to these seductive offers from the market, which seek to keep us trapped in food addictions.

The food industry did not create these problems, but has benefited from their existence. The multinational companies that manufacture the most addictive products – such as Corn flakes, soft drinks, tomato sauces, cookies, ice cream, and industrial yogurts – constitute more than 50% of the calories consumed each day by the population (3); to achieve this, they have used multiple strategies: hiding the real contents of their products; obstructing research on the harmful effects on health caused by their consumption; excessive advertising; pressuring governments to exempt them from taxes; influencing researchers, academics, and politicians; and being part of the Health Ministries’ committees in charge of guiding the food policies of the countries. With these strategies, which are difficult to control, they have achieved their goals and enormous profits (4, 5).

Nutrition science responds to these problems by acting on consequences. For example, it is recommended that those who are overweight should restrict their calorie intake by reducing their consumption of foods rich in sugars and fats (6). Achieving this is difficult for those caught up in the hedonistic diet, and makes victims feel guilty for their lack of self-control.

Let’s learn together about the origin of this trap and how it has developed, what it is based on, discover its mechanism, how it works, how it makes us sick, and let’s put together ideas to dismantle it and free ourselves from it.



We Are Eating Nature

We mistakenly believe that Nature is a “thing” which humans can use and control, and that we are outside of it; we consider ourselves different from what we call natural without realizing that we are also Nature and that with our current way of eating we end up harming ourselves. Today we know that it is not possible to continue using, and even less polluting, the immense amounts of water that agriculture and livestock farming demand on an industrial scale; we must not continue deforesting and degrading the soil; we must take measures to avoid the extinction of marine animals and terrestrial species that are part of our diet (7). We must understand that we are an ecosystem, a community of living beings whose vital processes are related to each other.

The food-related environmental problems we face today have their roots in a phenomenon called the “green revolution.” It was introduced in 1930 and funded by the government and biotech companies from the United States; as a result, agriculture across the world was radically transformed. With this revolution we began to use hybrid seeds of cereals such as corn and rice, as well as herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers; all of them initially increased crop yields, but soon led to the displacement of huge numbers of farmers who could not buy such agricultural supplies, giving rise to thousands of poor neighborhoods in many cities around the world (8, 9). Nowadays this model is in crisis even for farmers who initially had resources because the returns on their investment are gradually decreasing (8). The supplies produced by the companies that produce agrochemicals and biotechnology, such as transgenic seeds, are increasingly expensive, making agriculture an unviable business for many, but very profitable for the companies that produce these supplies, such as Monsanto, Basf and Dupont. In addition, the social and environmental costs are increasing: global warming, climate refugees, floods, and contamination of our food, which causes fatal diseases. The trap is that we are not damaging something that is outside of us, that what we call Nature, but we are hurting ourselves.

Jason Moore considers that the current environmental crisis is part of the crisis of the capitalist system. He also thinks this crisis will not be solved in the same way as previous ones because Nature no longer has the capacity to continue offering the five gifts for which we have never paid: water, energy, food, workforce, and raw materials; gifts that allowed the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth century and also helped overcome of all its crises so far (9).

On the other hand, the microbiota, a recent field of study in the basic biological sciences, can help us explain why thinking of Nature as something different to us is a high-cost trap. The microbiota is the set of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our body since the last weeks of gestation and is present in almost all of our organs, although in greater quantities in the large intestine (10, 11). Its functions are multiple, but it stands out for participating in the generation of defense mechanisms, the maintenance of cognitive functions, and the balance of emotions; some authors consider that “the intestine is our second brain.” Studies have also shown that human evolution required the evolution of the microbiota (11), confirming that we are Nature, that we live in ecosystems, and that our body is made up of complex and fragile ecosystems that require internal balance and develop in communication with the environment.


When Money Rules…

The food trade has existed for many centuries and has been practiced in all cultures since the beginning of agriculture and livestock farming. Mechanisms for production, commercialization and supply of food have been sold to us as a formula to solve the problem of global hunger. However, it has turned out to be a big trap.

Between the 70s and 90s of the last century, with the imposition of the neoliberal model, poor countries were forced to open their food markets and buy from developed countries. With the argument of “comparative advantages”, it was proposed to poor countries to focus on producing what made them strong and competitive compared to others in the international market, and in exchange they would buy products from developed countries at low prices (12). After a few years, the supposedly well-intentioned exchange was monopolized by large multinational companies that control storage, transportation, and have great influence on determining the international prices of best-selling products (13); those that are part of our daily diet: wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, beef, chicken, and butter. Among these companies are four large cereal and grain traders called “the ABCDs”: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus (13).

With the argument of “comparative advantages”, it was proposed to poor countries to focus on producing what made them strong and competitive compared to others in the international market, and in exchange they would buy products from developed countries at low prices

Producing food is an activity that has particular risks from variables such as climate, supply and demand. However, the social protection system that covered food production, producer families, and national food security has been dismantled in poor countries since 1970 (14). Since then, one of the trading institutions that accumulates the most power in this era of food globalization is the Chicago Stock Exchange (created in 1851 and whose real name is the Chicago Board of Trade) (15), similar to the Wall Street of food, which defines who eats and who does not (16). Different mechanisms were created at this stock exchange to speculate the prices of the most commercialized agricultural products, increasing their volatility to guarantee the profits of speculative investors around the world (14, 15, 16). The effects of this control system have already been shown in the form of two peaks in food price increases; the first associated with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the second in 2011. These mechanisms have thrown millions of people into hunger, most of them children and women (13, 14).

A careful look at our daily life and its relationship with the economy shows how this global trap controls food in the world. If we pay attention, we will see its components: the way to produce, financial speculation, land grabbing in Southern countries, the volatility of food prices, and the existence of monopolies that control its storage, transportation, and distribution. Knowing this reality invites to unite good intentions, and to build strategies that lead us all to find the solutions.


The Phony Diversity

This trap consists of the deceptive impression of food wealth, the false possibility of choice, as well as the impression of abundance caused by the enormous quantity of products available in supermarkets. In reality, especially in the case of processed foods, they are just the same ingredients in different presentations. The real situation is completely opposed to the appearances: what we have seen in recent decades is a loss of diversity throughout the food system.

“According to FAO estimations (2019), although there are 30,000 species of edible plants, 90% of the world diet is represented by 103 crops; within these, three main crops, wheat, rice, and corn, represent more than 50% of the food of vegetable origin that humans consume. World production of these three cereals has increased steadily over time” (FAO) (Faostat, 2020) (17).

A diet with scarce variety has negative effects on the environment and humans. One of the consequences is the expansion of monocultures, which are large areas of land dedicated to a single product; the most prominent being corn, wheat, soybean and palm trees. This intensive use damages the quality of soil by impoverishing its nutritional content and contaminates it with toxic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and agrochemicals for long periods of time. It also affects variety of pollinators because only those associated to the monoculture survive (18). Lastly, use of monoculture affects human health because we require the most variety of nutrients in our diet (19).

This intensive use damages the quality of soil by impoverishing its nutritional content and contaminates it with toxic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and agrochemicals for long periods of time.

Since a plant is an ecosystem that grows in a larger ecosystem and transmits the conditions in which it was cultivated, many doubts have recently arisen about the real nutritional quality of the natural foods we consume, including fruits, vegetables, and cereals from monocultures. Crop uniformity impoverishes the whole system; on the other hand, the abundance of plant species diversifies the nutrients of the soil and the insects and pollinators in the field (18).


The Atomized Nutrition

Nutrition, as a science, currently has a limiting approach – it places nutrients at the center of food and diet. Although it does not openly express it, nutrition also considers food as a grouping of nutrients packed or enclosed in a shell. It considers that humans do not need food but nutrients, and that eating is a mechanical, sequential process mediated by machines, one after another, that are part of another machine called the digestive system. This epistemological foundation prevents an ecological vision of food, the human body, and diet.

The philosopher Gyorgy Scrinis has called nutritionism to this focus on nutrients when trying to comprehend food and diet. Nowadays this focus has reached different extremes, such as the one called myth of precision (20), offering the idea that science, based on the genetic information of each person, can establish which nutrients, in what quantity, and which foods a person should consume daily to optimize individual health (20). As a byproduct of this type of nutrition that divides processes into smaller and smaller parts, where each one fulfills a specific function (vitamins, minerals, proteins), there is an extended belief that science can make synthetic nutrients known as supplements, created by pharmaceutical companies, to function in the same way as they act when we eat them naturally in food (20).

With the idea that eating is consuming nutrients, the different perspectives of diet as tradition, culture, preparation, a sensorial, individual and collective experience are getting lost. For example, coastal towns are not only consuming animal protein when they eat fish and shellfish, but fishing is a central part of their way of life.

This focus on nutrients comes along with another modern scientific fragmentation: thinking of the human body as a set of isolated systems that are not communicated. Findings like the one about the intestinal microbiota and its different influences on various processes (cognitive, immune, metabolic) (20) should invite us to understand diet, food and the human body as integrated, complex systems that exchange energy and information to achieve a job whose final result is not attributable to each of them separately.

The food technology industry and the pharmaceutical industry promote and profit from this fragmented, atomized vision. These industries took over the funding of research in a good number of universities, and for that reason some people mistrust the veracity of many research results. The pharmaceutical industry is also making a lot of money with the lucrative business that comes from the production of dietary supplements (20).


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