Thursday, September 24, 2009

Food and health

In the United States we enjoy the cheapest food in the world.  Is that good?  Not necessarily.  We also have the highest medical costs in the world.  I agree that part of the reason for those high costs is our broken health care system, but there is another reason for it.  We need medical care more often than we would if we ate better food, in my opinion.  I do not think it is an accident that countries paying more for their food also pay a lot less for their health care.  I dug out statistics and put together a chart.  Write me at for a copy of the whole thing, which includes data for 28 countries.  In the meantime, I will provide three data points:  US 9.3% of income on food, $6,100 per capita health care costs / France 15.34% of income on food, $3,000 per capita for health care / Italy 25.7% for food, $2,400 per capita for health care.  Do you see this trend?  Pay more for your food, pay less for your health care. 

I will argue what comprises a healthy diet in more detail later.  For now, I will state the obvious.  In our desire for cheap food, we have gotten what we asked for - cheap food!  We eat manufactured food in the form of textured vegetable protein (TVP), for instance.  Real food is out there, but we opt for textured vegetable protein!  The next time you are in the store, read the labels on canned tuna.  You will find that soybeans are contained in most brands - not soybean oil, but soybeans!  Yup, there it is again, TVP in your tuna.  Soy beans, which are heavily subsidized by the federal government, are cheaper than fish.  And when you read "heavily subsidized by the federal government," understand that taxes pay for those subsidies.

What's wrong with this picture?

I will tell you what is wrong with it.  Not only is it a fiscal fairy tale, since your taxes paid to subsidize the soybean industry so that your tuna is a few pennies cheaper, but soybeans are not good for us.  Please do not tell me about Asian diets.  Their diets contain a small fraction of the amount of soy we eat - on average a tablespoon or two a day - and it's not genetically modified soy.  Most of the soy in their diets is made the right way, using slow fermentation, resulting in products like soy sauce and natto.  Even the tofu in the US is made using "hurry up" methods, not the slow fermentation that was traditionally used in Asia.  So we are eating unfermented soy, and here is what that means to your health.  Unfermented soy blocks the absorption of many minerals, but in particular calcium for our bones, zinc for our nervous systems and our brain, and iron for our blood.  Think about that the next time you eat that soy burger.  Your brain, your bones and your blood are not thanking you.  If you insist on forgoing meat in your diet, do not replace it with soy! 

Unfortunately, we cannot avoid soy if we do not cook everything from scratch.  Read labels when you shop.  Look for TVP, HVP, natural flavor, vegetable oil, and vegetable broth. Almost without exception these terms mean soy.  Yes, chicken broth has soy in it.  Processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon nearly always have soy in them.  The list goes on.

The best way to lower your medical costs is to improve your health, and the best way to do that is to avoid supermarkets when at all possible.  They are meccas of manufactured food.  Find a farmers market.  Better yet, find a farmer!  Buy in bulk when the harvest is heavy and prices are low.  Then can, freeze or dry your own food.  Buy meat and dairy from grass fed animals.  If you shop the supermarkets, stay in the outside isles, where you will find the fresh vegetables and fruits.  Ask the butcher for grass fed beef.  They never have it in mine, but I persist in asking about once a month.  I figure that one of these days, they will say yes.  In the meantime, I buy beef by the quarter from a nearby farmer who feeds absolutely no grain.

Sometimes we can't get it perfect, but we can usually do a little better this year than we did last year.  We vote with our food dollars, and eventually the market will get it.  If we demand good food, it will come.

Happy eating, and good health to you!

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