July 26, 2018
Healthy eating is not only good for you, it’s a political act!
We influence the food system with the choices we make, and this is a power we need to use wisely and efficiently.
By Andreia Ferreira De Moura
One of the biggest concerns of people recently diagnosed with diabetes is related to food. More specifically, concerns about what is, or what is not “allowed” to be eaten. Diabetes food and nutrition guidance is often given from all sides: family, acquaintances, media and even health professionals, but in many cases this direct advice is incorrect or misinformed.
It might surprise people to learn that diabetes nutrition is not complicated. The foods recommended for people living with diabetes does not differ remarkably from foods recommended for the general population. A healthy and balanced diet, described in dietary guidelines, is the same that is recommended for diabetes metabolic control.
Nevertheless, there are some challenges. Today’s food systems are failing to facilitate the adoption of healthy eating patterns by most individuals. The increased availability of ultra-processed foods, combined with strong, intensive and alluring marketing strategies to advertise them, represent an enormous barrier to the adoption of healthy eating habits.
For example, many giant food industries have launched aggressive marketing campaigns to penetrate consumer bases in emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico. These campaigns are so successful that the consumption patterns of the population have changed drastically, moving towards an alarmingly increased diet of nutrient-poor processed foods.1
Besides the heavy and sometimes unethical advertisement strategies, the composition of high processed foods is meticulously studied to increase its consumption through addiction. Ultra-processed products are engineered to be “hyper palatable”. Those properties derive from the main ingredients used: salt, sugar, fat, flavour and other additives. According to Michael Moss, in his acclaimed book: “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the food giants hooked us”, the food industry employs brain imaging and other advanced sophisticated neurological assessment tools to study the impact of fat, sugar and salt on the pleasure centre in the brain. Food science research has shown that the combinations of those three ingredients can stimulate neural circuits similar to those that are stimulated in cases of drug addiction.2,3
The increased focus on processed food manufacturing also contributes to displace core foods, and threatens nutritional biodiversity. Industrialised food systems have created monocultures, or very large farms that produce one or a few crops as raw materials for the manufacture of ultra-processed foods such as wheat, maize, sugar, palm oil, and corn, used to produce high fructose corn syrup. The cultivation of a few crops in massive amounts occurs at the expense of decreasing local, traditional, and nutritious crops. For instance, between 1963 and 2003, a decline in production was seen for pulses (beans, peas, and chickpeas), and roots and tubers (including cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, taro and plantain).1
For all these reasons, much food production is now divorced from its primary purpose of providing the nutrients that sustain human life in good health.4 Moreover, it becomes clear that adopting a healthy diet is not merely a matter of personal choice. Tools and strategies in the sectors of agriculture, food, nutrition and education should support people, families, and communities to assist them in adopting eating habits that prevent obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.5
Although recognizing the urgent need for government action to change our actual food system to make healthy eating a feasible practice, there are some practical steps individuals with diabetes who are interested in better nutrition, can take to make healthier choices.
The following are a few nutritional guidelines to achieve a nutritious diet which is supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems. They are based on nutrition guidelines around the world.5,6,7
Valuable tips to put the above into practice:
Healthy eating should be a goal for all, not only for people living with chronic conditions, like diabetes. As such, it should have a priority on the agenda of policy makers.
The journey towards a healthy diet begins in the mind. It starts with a willingness to change the way we relate to food and the impact of choices; for individual health, society and future generations.
Eating is a political tool. What we eat defines our future and influences the livelihoods of all people involved in the food system. We influence the food system with the choices we make, and this is a power we need to use wisely and efficiently. In spite of dysfunctional systems, food should remain a means for great change, self-empowerment, health and identity.