Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

February 8, 2011

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.


The ingredients of the Mediterranean diet nutritionists never talk about

October 16, 2009
Is the good lifestyle under threat?

Is the good lifestyle under threat?

In the world of the many diets, the Mediterranean one has a special place. Although, the people of these countries have extensive meals, they never seem to get fat, and that is a great puzzle to the obesity-plagued America.

The specialists will tell you it is the garlic, and the olive oil, and the wine, etc… that all contain substances that help your metabolism and your health. And you know what? It is true. They all have very positive qualities, but there is so much more to explain why Mediterranean people do not get obese.

They have long and extensive but properly sized meals
With a meal that starts with a soup or a salad, you already start to fill your stomach with relatively low calorie food, so there is less room left for the higher calorie food. Our brain has two ways of getting the message that we have eaten enough. The mechanical message is a simple nervous transmission to the brain from the stomach, when this one is extended because of food intake. It is as if the stomach says: “I am full, stop sending food!” The second way is a biochemical one sending a message through blood content and pH that says: “there is enough fuel in the tank, you can stop now!”
The mechanical message is rather instantaneous, while the biochemical one has a lag. This is why the appetizer is so useful. If you start with a dish that is highly concentrated in calories, you will pass the amount of calories that you need before your stomach can say to the brain that it is full, and the excess calories will be stored in fat.
A three-course menu means that the portion of every course is smaller, and that contributes to less calorie intake. Who has a 9-oz (270 g) steak for dinner, except in North America?

When you have big meals, you do not snack
The other advantage of extensive meals is that you have enough calorie intake for another four hours, which in Mediterranean society is the time of the next meal. Therefore, they do not snack between meals. When you graze on snacks all day long, which by the way are all loaded with sugar and/or fat, you end up eating more calories than you would with two large better-balanced structured meals.
Snacking on a bag of chips or salted nuts or scooping from a bucket of ice cream while watching TV is not common in those countries.

They may drink wine, but they do not drink pop
Do not think that Mediterranean people drink wine like it is a medicine, but their consumption of soft drinks is much lower than it is in North America. They also tend to drink more water as part of the meal. This in terms of calories makes a quite a difference, too. My story of the mechanical and biochemical messages applies for this superbly; there is no mechanical message, and by the time the blood tells the brain, the subject will have drunk more than a pint (~ ½ litre) of a drink containing 10% of sugar. That is about three tablespoons of raw sugar. Try to eat that up straight!

The weather is warm and sunny
That is another difference with more northern countries. When the weather is warm, you eat less, because your body needs fewer calories for maintaining its temperature.
Moreover, in nice climates, people tend to drink more water and spend more time walking or riding their bikes, instead of driving around.

They cook their own meals
Another component of many Mediterranean countries is the fact that people tend to like cooking much more, probably because of much more diverse and fragrant possibilities that their cultures have developed. Further, eating in Mediterranean countries is much more a social happening than in Northern countries, and you do not serve guests with a frozen meal!
The advantage of cooking your own meal, next to the fact that it is cheaper, ids that you have the possibility of choosing the ingredients and you can decide yourself of how much you put in the recipe. This way, you can manage much better, the origin, the quality and the quantity of your calories.
When you buy ready meals, very often you do not have as much flexibility. Although the food industry has developed low sodium and low calorie meals, it has been quite good at using relatively high levels of salt, sugar and fat, because they are cheap ingredients.

Is everything fine under the sun, then?
Unfortunately, over the last decade, changes in lifestyle and especially the popularity of fast food with the younger generation is changing the picture somehow. The rate of obesity is increasing there, too. Maybe Mediterranean people will have to rediscover their own diet sometime in the future.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.