BRASILIA – Human nutrition is of increasing importance to science. Of course, centuries of scientific research have been devoted to ensuring that enough food is produced for growing populations. But with obesity and diet-related diseases on the rise, and hunger and malnutrition affecting more people than ever before, scientists are focusing not only on how to feed the planet, but on what to feed it.
As a biologist, I look at foods and diets from an evolutionary perspective. Put simply, foods evolve in concert with the organisms that consume them. Consider the humble apple. By itself, the fruit’s fructose isn’t particularly healthy, and when eaten in large quantities, it increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases. But when the fruit’s sugars are digested along with its fibers, absorption of fructose in the body slows, and the fruit is metabolically healthier. Through this mechanism, the apple – like most fruits and vegetables – becomes a more perfect food.
The same logic applies to our diets. Throughout history, foods have been created and altered by combining flavors, colors, and nutritional values, while diets have matured differently within families, cultures, and communities. But, for the most part, our ancestors chose foods for their health outcomes. Unhealthy diets were generally short-lived because of the poor results.
Today, however, bad diets seem to have more staying power. Natural and raw foods are being replaced by ready-to-eat meals and processed foods. This trend toward microwaveable pre-packaged convenience has led to the erosion of regionally specific diets and created a more homogeneous – and unhealthy – globalized menu, one associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and shortened lives.
Part of this shift is unavoidable; the way foods are produced, purchased, and consumed has much to do with how and where we live. In many countries, the combination of larger, denser urban areas and rapidly-aging populations has forced changes to food manufacturing and distribution systems. Unfortunately, many of these adjustments have had a negative impact on food quality.
Fortunately, global efforts are underway to help humanity eat better. The United Nations has declared 2016-2025 the “Decade of Action on Nutrition,” and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals encourage comprehensive strategies for improving health, eliminating hunger, and promoting sustainable agriculture. These international campaigns have come amid growing recognition within the private sector that addressing nutritional shortfalls can be good for business. For example, through local farmers’ collectives and regional food networks, smallholder innovators are attempting to restore variation to how we eat.
But global summits and regional commitments are only part of the solution. If the world’s dietary devolution is to be corrected, at least three additional measures are urgently needed.
First, people and policymakers must properly define what “nutrition” means. Too often, people conflate the study of “nutrition” with research on “nutrients.” But that misunderstanding can push consumers toward undesirable food trends, such as diets that replace natural foods with supplements, powders, or other food-like products. Improving nutrition means something else entirely: balancing the intake of quality food with the human body’s needs.
Second, bias in food science research needs to be addressed. Economic interests that favor mass-produced over locally produced food are skewing the research agenda. Restoring independence to nutrition science is critical to helping consumers and policymakers make better food choices.
Finally, improving nutrition requires changing behaviors, policies, and attitudes toward food. This may sound obvious, but people have largely forgotten the connection between their health and what they eat. Modern food security is not a question of producing food in abundance; the world knows how to do that. Rather, today’s challenge is to balance what’s healthy with what’s fashionable. Diets of the future, like consumption in the past, must be realigned with natural sources. That means strengthening, or even reinventing, food distribution systems so that producers and suppliers can serve consumers in healthier ways.
During this era of industrialized nutrition, people have strayed far from their ancestors’ dinner table. My vision for a tastier, healthier world means restoring food as a social glue; taking the time to produce higher-quality foods; wisely selecting ingredients for the meals we cook; and enjoying food in the company of others. Most important, it means thinking about food all the time – even when we aren’t hungry. Dedicating ourselves to better nutrition – and consuming natural and minimally processed foods in larger quantities – is the least that our bodies deserve.
Eduardo Nilson is Vice Coordinator of Food and Nutrition at Brazil’s Ministry of Health.
By Eduardo Nilson