In hopes of gleaning some new or otherwise interesting facts about food and nutrition and expand the conversation beyond the Aspen-centric avocado toast and kale salad, I sat in on a session last week titled Food, Elixir of Life at Aspen Ideas: Health.
Dan Glickman, whose many roles include working as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, moderated the discussion between Victoria Maizes, Executive Director of the Andrew Weil Center for integrative medicine at the University of Arizona; Dariush Mozaffarain, a cardiologist and national educator of health professionals; and Isabelle Kamariza, who founded SolidAfrica, a service that provides fresh food to patients in public hospitals in her native Rwanda.
The one unshakable consensus and premise was that unprocessed diets high in fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains are known to form the basis of a diet proven to establish and maintain good health. But then we heard some shocking domestic nutrition statistics.
Ready for these?
In the U.S., the most recently qualified physicians receive a grand total of four hours of nutrition education, even though we know that poor nutrition is the leading cause of poor health and that $1 out of every $5 are spent on health care? If that’s eye-opening, consider that the federal government currently spends approximately $160 billion dollars annually on Type 2 diabetes — a completely preventable diet-related illness.
Isn’t it odd that although food is at the top of the list when intellectuals or politicians discuss global sustainability and agree that food is the No. 1 economic issue on the planet, that the National Institute of Health does not have a Nutrition Institute? How is this possible? Especially considering that for the first time in decades, Americans lead statistically shorter lives. Globally, lifestyles are gravitating towards western diets, pointing to a scary diabetes shift.
Mozaffarain was the first to point out that most nutrition science is new as of the last 20-30 years.
“Some things are crystal clear, such as the most important foods are those that give rise to life and they are plants that live in the harshest conditions. Beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, veggies — everything with thousands of phytochemicals” he said.
From Kamariza, we learned that hospital patients’ diet during their healing period often correlates to the success and speed of their recovery. Her efforts apply to a model for rural Africa where relatives previously were the food-providers to patients, but it’s an overlooked healthcare concept that overlaps here with the emergence of impoverished areas experiencing food deserts.
“The most important change is for integrative health,” said Victoria Maizes. “And a need to individualize recommendations, addressing bloating, skin rash and brain fog for example,” she added.
When I asked Maizes about the host of Netflix documentary doctors — Dr. Greger, Dr. Furhman and Dr. Klapper — who often speak in Aspen (and full disclosure, whom I follow as a 95 percent plant-only devotee), she admitted to fighting with them for being “extreme,” but positively conceded that at least they agree on underlying advice: A whole-foods, plant-based un-processed grounding.
The opened a solutions-based discussion that was creative and positive. “We’ve embraced the ‘food is medicine principle in the house,’” Mozaffarain said. “A nutrition science institute is still needed at the NIH.”
“Millennials are driving the train,” he added, pointing to growth in sales currently happening in young, innovative “healthier” brands like the “Beyond Meat” company currently doing $30 million in sales. “But when McDonalds puts a salad on the menu it doesn’t sell.”
Suggestions to subsidizing fruit and vegetable crops in place of the current unhealthy ones to make them available and extremely affordable for the population at large, gained audience applause, as did the notion of requiring Medicare to pay for fresh food.
All of the panelists agreed that the government should change the medical license requirement so that physicians take more nutrition education and create initiatives for lessening fast food. Make the government part of the solution: Improving school lunches, which are critical to some kids and implementing school breakfast got a mention, as did Farm Bill changes and other policy issues with regard to removing harmful environmental chemicals and pesticides.
At the conclusion, a wonderful piece of news: Research shows globally that populations living near forests and rural areas have better nutrition and better health. I feel grateful and privileged to live adjacent to ours.