A New Paradigm for Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People

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Urban Gardens - Healthy AgricultureModern dietary pressures. For most of my clients, that means opting for a cup of coffee and a to-go muffin at their office desk rather than, say, taking time to enjoy a homemade breakfast at home.

But modern dietary pressures extend well beyond that. I am just back from the Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People conference (sponsored by Stonyfield), held in Olympia, Greece. While we wait for the official concluding statements from the conference organizers, having finally shaken off the jet lag (and the slight depression from leaving behind all that delicious Greek food), here are some of the topics covered on the last day that, in my mind, powerfully frame the question of what can we do about modern dietary pressures?

Key Idea: Radically rethink our food and water use in cities

Example: Urban Gardens

By 2015, the majority of the world will live in cities. The growing middle class of developing countries currently model development on Americas post WWII suburbs. City growth, too, is based on ideas from city planners of the 1800s.  This means we do it by an enormous carbon footprint, says Dr. Vikram Bhatt of Montreal's McGill University, who presented results from his Urban Greening Project.

Dr. Bhatt discussed (and showed beautiful slides illustrating) the ripple effect of health that happens with urban gardens: parents gardening with their children, organic food production, elimination of food deserts, reduced food miles, recycled water and plastic containers, transforming a  neighborhood from abandoned lots into edible landscapes, improving spatial quality by exploiting underutilized urban areas, and more.

"The physical, social, and economic change is remarkable when you come into these communities," he said, "and it's a critical shift in thinking that must happen if we are to counter some of the modern dietary pressures from urban growth."

Urban gardens also help cool hot urban surfaces, and would provide more vital carbon sinks. Similar results have been reported by Taja Sevelle and her amazing work as founder of Urban Farming.

Key Idea: Countries need a health oriented agriculture

Example: Greener Cow Project

"We've changed the way we eat, but we've also radically changed the way our animals feed,"said French agronomist Pierre Weill. "We need agricultural practices that are healthy from the ground (or the animal) up."

As director of Stonyfield's Greener Cow Project,  Weill presented results from a pilot program with organic dairy farmers that reduced methane from cows (a leading source of this potent GHG) by a whopping 11-15%.  How did they do this? By changing what the cows eat. In fact, moving cows to a diet rich in flax not only cut warming gasses, but it doubled the omega-3 fatty acid content and significantly improved the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid dietary ratio. An added bonus? The cows were exceedingly healthier, living longer, and looking better.

Indeed, it is these types of changes in agriculture, if practiced on a larger scale that can have a powerful ripple effect across many of our modern dietary pressures. As dairy fats represent about 1/3 of total ingested fats in most western diets, it is possible through changes in diet,  to improve milk's environmental and nutritional quality on a large scale, Weill noted.

A health-oriented agriculture also means that National Dietary Guidelines of governments must be based on ecological as well as nutritional considerations. (Sweden's National Food Administration was the first, issuing dietary guidelines last summer that consider both nutritional benefit and environmental impact of food choices).

Key Idea: Embrace the low tech, low cost solutions too

Example: Vitamins for prisoners

"Our criminal justice system assumes behavior is entirely a matter of free will, but how can we exercise free will without using our brains? And how is the brain able to function properly without adequate nutrient supply?"

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Dr. Bernard Gesch from the University of Oxford, one of the world's leading researchers on nutritional status and antisocial behaviors.

In his research, Gesch has found that changing nutritional status through diet and snacks produces significant changes in violent and criminal behavior. Many prisoners, if you look at the science, have shockingly low levels of zinc, for instance, he said. In one study he conducted, the total difference in rates of offenses (and discipline action) of prison subjects getting a multivitamin compared to controls was a startling 69%.

"With adequate nutrition, every single study done so far shows that the rates of prison offenders drop by 1/3, regardless of what's going on with placebo," Gesch said.

And what's the cost? Its 0.2% of the cost of sending someone to prison. In light of the global financial crisis squeezing many government budgets, this alone seems a tremendous upside. And nutrients don't discriminate. The mind and body are not separate.

"Potentially we have simple, humane, highly effected method to reduce rates of violence and antisocial behavior," he said.

I couldn't help but think: What's the larger implication for an adequately nourished world?

Perhaps the most eloquent key idea of all was also delivered by Dr. Bernard Gesch:

"If we are what we eat, then changing our diet will change us."

There was universal nodding. And in those words he seemed to sum up perfectly both the intent and the findings of this conference. Though he's a Brit, I think the ancient Greeks would have been proud of him.

To follow the discussion from the conference last week, check out my Facebook posts, the  #greekhealth hashtag on twitter, or comments from @eatsmartbd, @greeneating, @ClimateCounts.

(Disclosure: Kate Geagan is a paid spokesperson for Stonyfield Yogurt.)

First, Do No Harm: Eat Less

I've only been in Greece 4 days, yet already I'm feeling bold enough to take a famous ancient Greek's words ("First, Do No Harm" Hippocrates, ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) and morph them into my own.

"Eating less is the #1 thing Americans can do to improve their health,"

said Dr. Philippe Legrand, Chairman of France's Committee for Fatty Acid Dietary Recommendations, when I asked him to share one key takeaway I could bring back to Americans from the conference.

For a scientist who has dedicated his life to studying fats, I was prepared for him to launch into a nuanced discussion of fat composition in the diet. (Truth be told, I was also hoping he'd give me the green light to slather some butter onto my bread occasionally, which I noticed him doing at breakfast).

Why the recommendation to eat less? Chronic diseases, Legrand said, are strongly correlated with total energy (meaning how many total calories are consumed) and not really with the percent of total fats in the diet. "Only once energy is in balance, and excess is solved, then is fat composition of importance", he said.

I later strolled up to Dr. Ole Faergeman, former Chairman of the Danish Heart Association and a leading cardiologist in Europe. I repeated Legrand's statement and asked

"Is the primary concern if we can propose an 'order of priority' when it comes to America's national health crisis, simply consuming fewer calories?"

"He's absolutely right," Faergeman smiled.

First, eat less.

If you are wondering where to begin when it comes to your own list of diet or lifestyle challenges to tackle, many different lines of science presented at this conference seem to point to this simple but resounding statement: first, eat less.

While you can't control your genes, you can control how powerfully they exert themselves. The problem with excess eating (regardless of whether it's overconsumption of carbohydrates, fat, or protein) is that, aside from obesity, it also plays a role in turning up the volume of gene expression. On the flip-side, when you eat less, you begin to "down-regulate" the expression of certain genes.

Eating less reaps many more benefits that simply whittling your waistline. Dr. Despina Kominou reported that calorie restriction in humans has been shown to improve blood pressure, glucose, reduce inflammatory mediators, reduced oxidative stress, and even resolve metabolic syndrome in people.

"We have obese children who are aging faster because of the metabolic changes taking place", Kominou said.

So start simply, but start powerfully. Eat less. Here are some of my favorite easy tips for eating less naturally and with minimal effort:

  • Serve food on smaller plates (so you naturally reduce portions)
  • Eliminate liquid calories completely – drink water, coffee, or tea instead of soda and juice, and watch any calories you add.
  • Chew sugarless gum while preparing meals so you don't "sample" a few hundred extra calories.
  • Be sure your meals and snacks include some heart healthy fats and some protein to boost satiety and keep you fuller longer.
  • Keep a food journal so you can see EXACTLY what you're eating. (Research suggests that simply keeping a food log results in weight loss).  You can download a FREE food log on my website.

Marion Nestle has written often and powerfully about challenges in the American food system to create policies that truly promote the message of "eat less". The food industry doesn't like it. Lobbyists don't like it. So instead, things get watered down into a much softer encouragements to actually eat more: "Enjoy more fruits and vegetables", "Eat foods that are rich in fiber or calcium", or  "Choose lean cuts of meat" are three such examples. As long as the message is to eat more, everybody wins.  Everybody, that is, except you.

It's day three of the "Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People" conference (sponsored by Stonyfield) here in Greece, and when it comes to sifting through the science, and teasing out the best recommendations, here was perhaps the perfect summary of the day:

"A healthy appropriate (meaning right calorie) traditional Greek Style Diet, stress reduction and regular exercise may prove to be the most effective formula for health and longevity," said Athenian researcher Konstantinos Pavlou.

Sounds like something Hippocrates himself would have said.

For more updates, follow my comments at @greeneating on Twitter or on Facebook.

"Let Food Be Thy Medicine”… and be Sure it Includes Healthy Fat

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Greece - Healthy FatAlthough Hippocrates uttered these famous words a whopping 2,500 years ago, they seem more relevant than ever as we search the past and present for strategies to address our current health crises. As a dietitian and nutrition expert, I am often asked, "What is the SINGLE most important thing I should be eating or avoiding in my diet?" For over a decade, my response has been to include one of the best silver bullets out there: add more fruits and vegetables to your plate.

However, my tip is about to change.

After hearing the sessions at today's Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People conference in Olympia, Greece (sponsored by Stonyfield), here is my new response:

Eat more healthy fat. Increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake, and decrease your omega-6 fatty acid intake as much as you can.

So here's why: Humans evolved eating a diet which had a 1:1 - 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. As our diet moved away from traditional, whole foods, and become flooded with fast food, modern agricultural practices, and highly processed agribusiness products, the type of fat in our diet has dramatically shifted. Today, western diets have a ratio of 10:1-25:1 omega-6 to omega-3, depending on the country. Even the modern Greek diet has lost its health halo, with a ratio of about 10:1 (US is about 17:1).

Research strongly suggests that bringing this ratio back to where it has been historically will have dramatic health implications, including reduction of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, pro-inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis, irritable bowel disease, asthma and lupus), depression, and could even delay cognitive decline. It has been shown to act against factors that cause obesity, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and even belly fat.

In her talk, Dr. Birgitta Strandvik stressed that in addition to BMI (body mass index), the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is an extremely important thing to look at as an indicator for overall health in children. She cited research that found that obese children had significantly lower intake levels of omega-3 fats than healthy weight children, and in healthy 8 year-olds, high intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) were correlated with lower bone mineral density.

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When you look at the long list of ailments above, and consider all of the drugs we currently take to fix them, the question becomes even more powerful-could we let "Food be thy Medicine" as a more cost effective, healthier alternative?

There have been a lot of studies and discussion surrounding the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the diet, but many experts at the conference agreed that for ideal health, humans need to return as close to our original  2:1 ratio as possible, which lowers all biochemical markers for inflammation. What was really news to me was the emphasis on absolutely limiting, as much as possible, your intake of the omega-6 PUFAS (especially one called linoleic acid) as a critical strategy for creating optimal health.

So what's the takeaway message for consumers?

  • Minimize consumption of linoleic omega-6 fats, such as corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, margarines, and other food products that contain these fats as ingredients (check the food label).
  • Consume at least 2 servings of omega-3 rich fish weekly (such as salmon).
  • Walnuts and flaxseed oil can also contribute in a positive way to omega-3 intake.
  • Grass-fed cows or grass-fed bison have been shown to have significantly higher omega-3 content than conventional cows/bison.

Of course, since many other sessions today highlighted vegetables and fruits (Mediterranean, Greek, and Okinawa diets), I think I'm still going to tell people to eat those too.

What single tip do YOU think is most important when it comes to using food as medicine? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

What Would Aristotle Say about Global Warming & Obesity?

Indeed, this is just one of the many questions the world’s leading experts on health, nutrition and sustainability will be discussing during the “Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People” conference (sponsored by Stonyfield) in Olympia, Greece this week. Why Olympia as a conference site? Symposium founder Dr. Artemis P. Simopoulos put it as eloquently as an ancient Greek poet in her opening remarks:

“Because just like the seminal idea of the Olympics, we want these ideas to take hold and spread around the world.”

An added bonus for attendees: it’s easy and thrilling to consider such grand questions while basking in the glories of the first Olympic games, as opposed to, say, a windowless conference center. But that is the point. From the food to the surroundings, this conference is full immersion in the message it promotes.

In addition to looking at the latest science on the relationship between nutrition and fitness to chronic disease, where the conference truly breaks new ground is in also considering the influence of agricultural practices on climate change and overall health of the globe's citizens.

“The first step to change is having a more expansive view of what contributes to good health, and recognizing the importance of our diet, our food system, our agricultural policies and their effect on the environment,” Simopoulos said.

So back to the question at hand-what would Aristotle have thought? I’m always a sucker for succinct nutrition in a tweet, and in tonight’s opening Keynote by Dr. Ole Faergeman I got another gem:

“Eat plants. Plant trees. Leave coal gas and oil in the ground.”

This, he mused, is what Aristotle might of have made of our health and environmental problems of today. Faegerman also left attendees with this fantastic insight:

“The Greek conception of tragedy was not like that a journalist today who uses the word to describe something that’s extremely sad. Rather, the Greeks thought about tragedy as a series of events that are initiated by ourselves, the course of these events determined by universal laws, and it is in our ignoring of laws that leads us to disaster."

In other words, there is a logic to tragedy.

The question is: Are we planning out a tragedy?

I’m excited to delve into the possibilities over these next few days at the conference. You can follow the hash tag #greekhealth and @greeneating on Twitter if you want to see updates from the sessions.