AnthroHealth

Something New Under the Sun:
Adapting to Change in the 21st Century

 

AnthroHealth News

August 2004

Volume 3, Issue 8

 

Greetings!!


During August, vast fields of corn can be seen ripening in the hot sun. Diners salivate for corn on the cob at picnics and BBQs. But it turns out that only a tiny portion of the nation's corn crop is actually eaten by humans. Where does all this "food" go? Found out more about the role agriculture plays in society in this month's book review.

News Updates:

Breastfeeding Good for Mom, Too: There are plenty of data to support breast feeding as best for baby. Now, two different research groups have found more reasons that breast feeding is good for mother, too.

The first study was of young women aged 20 -25. The group of 819 women was divided into 5 subgroups: those who gave birth as teens and breastfed; those who were teen moms, but didn't breast feed; those who were at least 20 when they gave birth and who breastfed; those in the 20+ group who didn't breast feed; and a larger group of young women who had not given birth at the time of the study. All the women had their bone mineral density (BMD) measured at five points on the upper femur. The results showed that teen moms who breastfed had greater BMD than teen moms who did not breast feed and that the BMD of those who breastfed was equivalent to that of the women who had not given birth. This is important because there have been concerns that if a teen mom is still growing, lactation could draw down her calcium stores, thereby decreasing her BMD. However, based on this study, the opposite seems to be the case. The conclusion: teen moms should breast feed.

The purpose of the other study was to determine what, if any, affect breastfeeding would have on the risk of developing breast cancer in women who had the BRCA1 mutation that put them at high risk for breast cancer. Researchers again found good news for moms who breast feed. Their risk of developing breast cancer was halved if they breastfed for one year compared to those women with the mutation who did not breast feed. Breast feeding is not a panacea since women with the mutation still have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than is true for women without the mutation even if they nurse for one year. However, any reduction in risk is beneficial, especially if it means a woman may avoid prophylactic surgery.

Caroline J. Chantry; Peggy Auinger; Robert S. Byrd. Lactation Among Adolescent Mothers and Subsequent Bone Mineral Density. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158:650-656. Jernstrom H, Lubinski J, Lynch HT, Ghadirian P, Neuhausen S, Isaacs C, Weber BL, Horsman D, Rosen B, Foulkes WD, Friedman E, Gershoni-Baruch R, Ainsworth P, Daly M, Garber J, Olsson H, Sun P, Narod SA. Breast-feeding and the risk of breast cancer in BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2004 Jul 21;96(14):1094-8.

Young Women and Diet: Researchers have found that two major factors contribute to the health and dietary status of young women: the woman's ethnicity and her socioeconomic status (SES). Those women with inadequate incomes and education are more likely to have poor health behaviors than those who are well off and well educated. Poorer women are more likely to be obese than are well off women. A variety of reasons have been offered for this: different cultural norms; over-eating when food is plentiful due to fears of later food deprivation; buying cheaper, but higher calorie food items.

Ethnicity also interacts with diet. Immigrant women tend to be healthier and less obese than is true of subsequent, more acculturated generations. There are a number of factors involved in this, but an important one is a switch from a low-fat, high fiber diet to the more typical western diet high in fat and low in fiber. Compared to women aged 25 - 44, women aged 18 - 24 and those who have low SES, have the most limited intake of fruits and vegetables, averaging only 16% of the daily recommended total. The author concludes that since knowledge of the power of appropriate diet to improve health appears lacking among young women, particularly those of low SES, that clinicians need to make an effort to educate their patients on diet, taking into account the patient's ethnicity.

Patricia L. B. Lockyear. Nutritional Status of Young Women: Cultural Differences in Health Status.Medscape Ob/Gyn & Women's Health 9(1), 2004.

Comment: Education about nutrition is certainly important. However, education is only minimally useful if the individual has too little money. This reminds me of a talk given by student nurses I attended several years ago. They'd traveled to Nairobi, Kenya as part of a special health mission. While there, they visited a slum area where they gave a talk to the women, complete with colorful posters, about the importance of including fruits and vegetables in their diets. This was an area where the sewers were open streams of filth running down the streets and the people lived in cobbled-together housing. Certainly, appropriate nutrition was a serious problem there, but knowledge that they needed to eat more fruits and vegetables was of little use when the women had no money with which to buy them. In the United States, we would hope that conditions are not so extreme. Still, poverty does make for hard choices. White "bread", mac-n-cheese, and potatoes may provide little nutrition, but they are cheap and filling. Since the dawn of agriculture, that is really all that most governments have cared about: keep the masses fed as cheaply as possible. And if they have poor health and die young, well, there are always more to replace them. Read more below about how agriculture has affected society. Something to think about: what would it require to ensure that everyone was able to eat the AnthroHealth way?

Book Review: Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning is a fascinating and scathing look at the advent of agriculture and what it has wrought during the past 10,000 years. Manning begins by discussing the transition from a foraging, hunter/gatherer lifestyle to reliance on agriculture. Based on archaeological evidence, this transition began the earliest (8,000 BCE) in the eastern Mediterranean Fertile Crescent region of Southwest Asia. Agriculture developed later and independently in several other regions of the world including East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America.

Contrary to the view espoused by most archaeologists who study the development of agriculture, Manning sees its rise as the result of plenty rather than of scarcity. That is, early villagers who were primarily foragers, but who could remain in one location due to the richness of the environment, had the leisure and opportunity to experiment with a variety of seeds, leading eventually to domestication. While there is evidence that grass seeds did occur in the diet of these foragers, they initially played an extremely limited role because gathering them was not cost effective. Moving through a field of grass/grain knocked most seeds to the ground: great for birds and rodents; not so great for humans. The staple of these foraging villagers was tree nuts such as pistachios and acorns. The mortar and pestle used to grind these nuts were later adapted to grinding grain seeds. Heavy reliance on grains did not occur until villagers had no other option.

Around 10,000 years ago, the Ice Age ended and the region of the Fertile Crescent became hotter and drier. The diversity of vegetation in the river bottoms decreased, the forest of nut trees retreated to higher elevations, and grasslands spread. Since the villagers had to remain near their water source, they were forced to rely more on those foods that were in closer proximity to their homes. Eventually, few wild resources remained. At this point, grains became almost the sole, and certainly the most important, source of food to early agriculturalists.

Whether or not Manning's view on the origin of domestication of grains is correct, there is no disagreement on the end result. Unlike foragers who maintained small, stable populations and who had a diverse diet and essentially healthy lifestyle, the agriculturalists saw their population soar and their health plummet. Infectious diseases became common and stature dramatically decreased, as did average lifespan. In addition, social stratification led to increasing inequities.

Any foraging group observing these changes could not have thought they were for the better. History documents, as Manning shows, that foraging groups generally have to be decimated or subjugated before they take up agriculture. Foragers can pick from hundreds of available foodstuffs. They also move throughout their environment. This means that their diet generally provides an adequate supply of nutrients, antioxidants, and trace minerals. The non-elites of an agricultural community have a severely restricted diet.

Manning spends some time discussing the impact of the potato on European diets, particularly that of the Irish. For the poor in Ireland, the potato was practically the only food item eaten. Clearly, such a diet may keep an individual alive, but does little to promote optimal health. When a population is so reliant on a single food, famines can be devastating, but are also likely to be recurring. Famines were common in China, even from the beginnings of agriculture. Manning cites documentation of 1,828 famines between 2019 BC and AD 1911 in China. Based on historical documents, famines were evidently used by the central Chinese government as a brutal form of population control. Limiting parents to only one child seems mild in comparison.

Manning is particularly incensed about the important role that sugar played and continues to play in the agricultural economy. Beginning with the slavery required to produce cheap sugar and rum from sugar cane to the development of high fructose corn syrup by ADM, sugar has become a major part of our diet. Sugary foods were and still are used to cheaply energize the workforce. As Manning notes, "The British custom of taking tea as an afternoon break has more to do with sugar than with tea." (p. 83) Beginning with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, workers were given a sugar-laced cup of tea while at their machines. The sugar jolt enabled them to work for several more hours without stopping. Today's coffee break of a sugary snack serves the same purpose. Sugar is so omnipresent that virtually every packaged food product contains sugar in one form or another. Part of the reason is that it makes these foods more palatable. But it also relates to the commodification of food. Wheat and corn are primarily commodities. Only a small percentage of these crops goes directly to feed humans. The vast majority of the grain goes to feed livestock or, in the case of corn, to be produced into a variety of other commodities, including sugar syrup.

ADM ('supermarket to the world') and other agribusinesses take a major hit from Manning. He goes into great detail, with numerous, riveting case histories, on the destruction to health, environment, and society that have been the costs we have paid as a result of the dominance of agribusiness in agriculture. "I have come to think of agriculture not as farming, but as a dangerous and consuming beast of a social system." (p. 119) Farmers grow food. Agriculture creates commodities that have to be modified into food-like substances and sold to the public with advertising and sugar. Jell-O epitomizes this for Manning: "a tasteless blob of reconstituted cow's hooves artificially colored, sweetened, and flavored, served in its most revered form with lumps of corn syrup called marshmallows." (p. 170) After puzzling over the role of Jell-O in potlucks and other public venues, he discovered that its popularity was due in part to its role as a status symbol when it was first introduced. Only those who owned a refrigerator could make and serve Jell-O. While its original "value" has been lost, the tradition of serving Jell-O at potlucks continues. Also omnipresent is soda: flavored sugar water. Manning notes that, "A thirty-two-ounce soda and a tank of gas is America distilled to its seminal fluids." (p. 182)

In addition to blasting agribusiness, Manning also takes on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA has two purposes:1] to ensure that the populace has a nutritious, wholesome food supply, and 2] to ensure the viability of agriculture even if that means price supports and paying farmers to not grow certain crops. According to Manning, the USDA is unable to effectively serve two masters and so directs most of its efforts to where the lobbying is strongest, which means supporting the objectives of agribusiness. As readers of AnthroHealth News know, fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and fish and shellfish should make up the most significant portion of one's diet. However, these are not products where agribusiness rules. If one thinks of the 4 Squares or the original USDA Pyramid, one realizes that both are dominated by foods where the lobbyists are strongest: grains and dairy products. As Manning notes, when Bob Bergland, the Secretary of Agriculture during the Carter administration, tried to refocus the USDA on nutrition and health, his efforts were spurned. Relying on government to improve the food supply instead of maintaining price supports for commodities is a lost cause for Manning. Instead, he suggests supporting grass root efforts such as organic farmers and farmers' markets. The less processed the food, the closer to the source, the better.

In places, Manning's prose is almost poetic and certainly evocative; and his thesis is provocative. For anyone who cares about what we eat and wonders about what agriculture and agribusiness are doing to our environment, our society, and our waistlines, Against the Grain is a must-read.

 

AnthroHealth Tip of the Month: Think like a forager. For the next month, try to eat only those foods that foragers could have obtained from their environment. Focus on tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, etc,); fruits (berries, citrus, tomatoes, peppers, etc.); dark, leafy greens (spinach, romaine, etc.); eggs; and fish and shellfish. Drink lots of water. Avoid packaged, processed foods. Eat the AnthroHealth way.

 

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Copyright 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.