Nutrition or sustenance plays a pivotal role in making an individual healthier, wittier and fairer as well. It is, therefore, of much importance to science. Indeed, centuries of scientific researches and studies have been devoted to ensuring that enough food is produced for the growing population. But with obesity and diet related diseases on the rise, and hunger and malnutrition affecting more people than ever before, scientists are now focusing not only on how to feed the planet but on what to feed it.
By and large, we know foods and diets from an evolutionary perspective. Put simply, foods evolve in league with organisms that consume them. Consider the delicious apple. By itself, its fructose isn’t particularly healthy, and when eaten in large quantity, it increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and communicable diseases. But when the fruit’s sugar is digested along with its fibres, absorption of fructose in the body slows, and the fruit is metabolically sound and healthier. Through this mechanism, the apple like most fruits and vegetable becomes a more perfect food.The same logic is applicable to our diets. Throughout history, foodstuffs have been created and altered by combining flavours, colours and nutritional values, while diets have matured differently within the 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 result.
Today, unhealthy 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 microwave made pre-packaged convenience have led to the erosion of regionally specific diets and created a more homogeneous – and unhealthy-globalised menu, one associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension and short longevity. Part of this shift is unavoidable; the way foods are produced, processed and purchased has much to do with how and where we live. In many countries, the combination of larger, denser urban areas and rapidly aging population has forced changes to manufacturing and distribution systems. Regrettably, many of these changes have had an adverse impact on food quality.
Fortunately, global efforts are underway to help human being eat better. The United Nations has declared 2016-2025 the “Decade of Action on Nutrition,” and UN’s Sustainable Development Goals encourage comprehensive strategies for improving health and promoting sustainable agriculture. These international campaigns have emerged amid growing recognition within the private sector that addressing nutritional shortfalls can turn out to be good for business. For example, through local farmers, collective and regional food networks are attempting to resort to variation to how to eat.
But global summits and regional engagements are only a part of the solution. If the world’s dietary habit is to be corrected, at least three additional measured are badly needed. People and policymakers must define what nutrition means. Too often, people tally the study of nutrition with the research on nutrients. And, 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 favour the large-scale production of foodstuffs over those produced locally are, in reality, skewing the research agenda. Restoring independence to nutrition science is critical to helping consumers and policymakers make better choices.
Finally, improving nutrition requires changed behaviours, policies and attitudes toward food. This may sound good but most people tend to forget the inseparable ties between their health and what they eat and what they live on. Modern food security is not a question of producing foodstuff in abundance; the world knows that how to do that. Rather, today’s challenge is to balance what’s healthy with what’s fashionable and affordable. Diets of the future, like consumption in the past, must be realigned with natural sources. That suggests strengthening or even reinventing in the arena of nutrition involving as distribution systems so that producers and suppliers can serve consumers in better and healthier ways.Given this era of industrialised nutrition and automation, people seem to have strayed far from their ancestor’s dinner table. Notwithstanding this fast growing propensity and prevailing culture, our vision for a testier and healthier world means restoring food as social glue; taking time to produce higher quality food items; wisely selecting ingredients for the meals we cook and relish food in the company of others. Most importantly, thinking about food all the time, even when we are not hungry. Dedicating ourselves to better nutrition – and consuming natural and minimally processed foods in larger quantities – is the least that our bodies deserve, failing which we can’t have a nation enriched with sanity, wisdom and higher life expectancy.
The writer is a Retired Deputy General Manager of BSCIC