(Swans - March 25, 2013) Our most intimate connection to the rest of life on Planet Earth is eating. In recycling through ourselves the cornucopia of life-forms prepared and mixed into the stream of food we consume, we literally absorb the energy and variety of nutrients they had accumulated during their lives, to now power our bodies and influence our myriad internal biochemical processes. To some degree, by eating we mesh our life-cycles with those of many other species.
Our earliest hominid ancestors, who evolved on the savannas of Africa, ate tender green leaves from the abundant supply of spring and summer vegetation, and from these absorbed omega-3 fatty acids, which collect in the membranes of the eyes and brains of animals. Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in the fastest cellular activities of life: photosynthesis in green plants, and vision and brain activity in animal life. (1) Omega-3 fatty acids are essential ingredients in the raising of metabolic rate, and the ready availability of these nutrients to our hominid ancestors during spring and summer was essential to the sharpening of their visual acuity and wits during their rambling forays for vegetable leaves and fruits (including berries, nuts, and peas), and hunts for meat and fish before the rainy season and winter.
During the latter part of the dry season or during the fall, many green leaves and blades of grass brown and wither to straw, and the flowers of spring and the fruits of summer turn into the seeds of autumn. The newborns of the herd animals would now be quite large and fleet, so hunting and trapping would be more difficult, and the herds themselves might have migrated beyond the territories of many hominid bands. Now, seeds would be gathered (acorns, barley, flax, hazelnuts, maize, millet, oats, pine nuts, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, walnuts, wheat), and tubers (cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams) and legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts) dug up, to accumulate a store of food for the rainy season and winter.
Seed-food is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which compete with omega-3 fatty acids for inclusion in those few types of biochemical reactions that can use them in the entire matrix of biochemical reactions that constitutes human metabolism. Omega-6 fatty acids are involved in the lowering of metabolic rate by the storage of energy (food calories converted to body fat) and in promoting inflammation, which is a protective mechanism against agents of infection and poisoning that enter the body, and a mechanism initiating healing after physical injuries such as by cuts, burns, frostbite, and blunt trauma. Omega-3 fatty acids are the nutrients for the quickening for the spring and summer hunts, and omega-6 fatty acids are the nutrients for the laying-in and hibernation during winter.
The people of today's industrialized world are far removed from the intimacy with Nature and its cycles that our hominid ancestors had. Many of us eat highly processed, really artificial foods, primarily made of carbohydrates derived from grains (often corn and soybeans), meat fattened with corn, and food-like substances sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (sugar) or highly salted, or both. Omega-3 fatty acids are absent from such processed "convenience" and "fast" foods because these nutrients spoil quickly, having a shelf life of days instead of a year or more. Omega-3s can only be consumed from fresh leafy green produce, and fresh fish, which accumulate omega-3s because the base of the marine food chain is photosynthesis by algae, an abundant source. (2)
Because our modern or Western diet is designed and promoted to produce maximal profits for an industrialized processed-food industry, rather than maximal health benefits to the population, our food market system is highly skewed as to its geographical service areas. A wide variety of foods -- whole-fresh and processed-packaged -- are made available in affluent districts, while "food deserts" for wholesome food, with only "fast" and "junk" food outlets, are to be found in many poor urban districts. (3)
The economic externality of the largely seed-food-based processed food industry is an epidemic of obesity (4), particularly in the United States and Britain. (5) The underconsumption of omega-3-rich food (fresh leafy vegetables, fish, and fruits), combined with the overconsumption of omega-6-rich food (carbohydrates from flour, fats from hydrogenated seed oils), along with huge doses of salt and sugar (high fructose corn syrup, and sucrose), and personal inattention to diet because of the cares and distractions in many lives, as well as much popular confusion about proper diet (the public mind being addled by advertising), have all led to over 69% of American adults being overweight to some degree, and among these number are the 36% of American adults who are obese (at over 120% of their ideal weight for their height).
Being significantly overweight and especially obese is unhealthy because it can lead to inflammatory disorders like atherosclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, circulatory problems like constriction (hypertension) and thrombosis (blood clot formation inside a blood vessel), and cancer. A high consumption of omega-6 fatty acids is known to amplify all these unhealthy tendencies.
Most of the illnesses suffered by Americans are self-induced by eating (because of ignorance and lack of alternatives, besides willful negligence), or induced by economic externality in the form of chronic exposure to environmental pollutants (chemicals, radiation, noise, and physical hazards). An obvious solution to the "health care crisis" in the United States would be to tax the corporate profits of the processed food industry (and the tobacco industry, whose externalities are cancers and heart disease) sufficiently to fund a universal national health care program (Medicare For All), and to regulate food marketing and distribution so the widest variety of fresh whole foods is routinely available in every district of the nation (accessible from every home by foot or public transit).
An important part of a national reform of the food distribution system would be the elimination of food insecurity, which is due to joblessness (poverty). In 2011, 14.9% of households in the United States (17.9 million households) were food insecure: 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children, a total of 50.1 million Americans had either an insufficiency of food or uncertainties about acquiring it. (6) Ensuring that all people, young and old and regardless of economic class and income, were adequately fed on a routine basis with fresh whole foods would be the single greatest boost for popular health and the reduction of disease this country could effect.
Because your metabolism is too important to allow being exploited by callous commercialism, you may have decided to manage it attentively by judicious dietary choices, and by exercising to maintain a healthy body mass (weight) for your height. (7) A diet based on fresh whole foods (mainly vegetables), combined with exercise to raise metabolic rate, will eliminate excess glucose from the blood (eliminating any tendency toward type 2 diabetes), prevent the buildup of body fat, strengthen the heart (enhancing oxygenation of body and brain), lower blood pressure, and improve your strength and endurance from what would otherwise be the case for your age. This strategy -- of maintaining your vigor for as long as possible instead of laying up cash reserves in anticipation of an expensive, lengthy and painful decrepitude -- may be the least expensive and most effective long-term health insurance policy you could obtain.
Our free market capitalist economic system is nothing more than a sociopathic mental illness, an obsessive-compulsive disorder with a greed complex. Collectively, we acquiesce to gargantuan profits for a processed food industry (and the tobacco industry, and industrial polluters) whose externalized costs are the epidemics of obesity and morbid conditions that plague the population (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, inflammatory disorders, cancers), and which we as a society try to concentrate into ghettos of urban poverty, joblessness, obesity, and malnutrition. These ghettos find corporate food industry interest for exploitation as junk-food-only food deserts, along with strenuous efforts by corporate finance to exclude their denizens from any health system, whether public ("increases my taxes") or private ("decreases my profits").
It is obvious that as a national collective a more healthy balance of our caloric diets would naturally accompany a more just balance of our economic diets. Our Western way of life is a consumption disorder in which economic gluttony is paid for by victimizing poorer populations induced with eating disorder morbidities. Insufficiencies of fresh real whole foods combined with exploitative excesses of malnourishing food-like synthetics lead to unhealthy outcomes as externalized costs dumped onto ill-informed taste-lured consumer-victims.
Choosing to buy or grow and eat fresh real whole foods (produced without chemical pesticides, antibiotic and hormone feed or injections, additives, and preservatives) is both an act of mindful metabolic management, and resistance to economic exploitation by eating disorder. When you awaken to this view, you then seek out producers and markets of real food, which is always "more expensive," and whom you will be glad to support with your patronage. This type of food production and distribution network can be idealized as organic foods sold by small and local producers at farmers' markets. Today, in good (affluent district) supermarkets you can find good approximations of the ideal farmers' market at the produce aisles (some include fruits and vegetables certified as organic), and possibly at the meat and fish counters (if 100% pasture-raised meat, and actually wild-caught fish are available).
Ultimately, mindful eating comes down to deciding what you are willing to swallow: the invigorating though ephemeral freshness of the sun's energy captured in food very patiently grown by attentive people, or the deliriously overwhelming, biochemically-engineered taste sensations that sheath slugs of industrially processed seed-food designed to sink into your metabolism the externalities of corporate profits you will never share.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
1. Susan, Allport, The Queen Of Fats, Why Omega-3s Were Removed From The Western Diet And What We Can Do To Replace Them, University Of California Press, 2006, http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520253803 (back)