Modern food. How did we get here?

It’s no secret that our high sugar, high refined carbohydrate and seed oil infused modern food is killing us.  As the Western diet continues it’s deadly march across the globe, is it time to revisit history and consider how we managed to get here?

The nutrition transition

Barry Popkin is a nutrition researcher and in 2006 he published a paper on the global ‘nutrition transition’ which looked at changes in diet and physical activity over human history. According to Popkin, diet and activity and their effects on health can be divided into four separate historical era’s:

  • Pattern 1:  Paleolithic man (the Hunter-Gatherer): The diet of paleo man/woman included wild plants and animals while water was the drink of choice. The labour intensive nature of hunting and gathering resulted in a lean and robust physique however infectious disease rates were evidently high.
  • Pattern 2:  Settlement begins: As humans began to create settlements, grains became the staple food.  Famines emerged as did nutritional deficiencies and their related diseases. Physical stature declined but labour was still physically intensive.
  • Pattern 3:  Industrialisation: The industrial revolution allowed a more secure food supply and famine receded. The food was starchy, low fat and high fibre and did not offer particularly good health. Work was labour intensive.
  • Pattern 4:  Global Epidemic of Non-Communicable Diseases: Increased seed oil, sugary food and drink and nutrient-depleted, refined, processed food consumption become the norm. Technology era promotes a sedentary lifestyle. Obesity and related diseases such as cancers, type 2 diabetes, bone density problems, depression, heart disease explode across the world. Infectious diseases decline. Life expectancy initially increases alongside disability, however, it is now predicted that the current generation will not live as long as their parents due to early onset of these diseases.

A rolling, global disaster

The transition to modern food has turned out to be a disaster for the people of West (fantastic for pharmaceutical company shareholder’s however!). Lessons have not been learned and today the out-of-control freight train of non-communicable disease is ploughing its way through developing or ‘newly westernising’ countries, where citizens can least afford to pick up the pieces.

Is there a solution?

With such an obviously unsustainable situation unfolding, Popkin has developed a proposed solution – a fifth pattern that hinges on behavioural change and a diet of reduced fat, increased fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates and fibre combined with increased activity. This pattern should reduce obesity and improve bone health thereby extending healthy ageing and lower the likelihood of developing a non-communicable disease.

Immediate solutions do exist now

Perhaps what we urgently need is not a ‘pattern’ per se but a solution to our immediate health concerns. For example the low carbohydrate diet today offers a scientifically backed solution to reversible cases of type 2 diabetes. Many people find that fasting, a tradition used by cultures and religions for thousands of years, also offers a solution to insulin resistance.  Many people have finally lost weight and lessened autoimmunity, food allergy and food intolerance symptoms on a modern-day version of the ‘Pattern 1’ paleo style diet. The microbiome is becoming more important as scientists unveil its mysteries and gene testing can also be useful for personalising diet based upon genetic susceptibility to disease.

Can explicit public warnings about the dangers of modern food in addition to personalised nutrition with a view to disease recovery (where possible) help stem the tide of this epidemic of diet related diseases in the near term?