Category Archives: Health

Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang

Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
30 April 2018

Last year public health nutritionist Dr Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, published their book Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System with Routledge.

After reviewing the book for Peace News, Ian Sinclair asked the two researchers what they mean by sustainable diets, what role veganism can play, and what concerned people can do to quicken the transformation to a sustainable food system.

Ian Sinclair: What is your definition of a sustainable diet?

Pamela Mason and Tim Lang: A sustainable diet has often focused on a diet that is protective for the planet, particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). Given that food systems account for 25-30% of GHGEs, this is an essential consideration for sustainable diets, but we believe that a sustainable diet should be defined more broadly to include public health, cultural acceptability, accessibility, safe and affordable food, and the health and welfare of all who work in the food system. We are in agreement with the definition of the FAO and Bioversity (2010) which defined sustainable diets more broadly than nutrition + environment (or calories + carbon), as “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”.

IS: You note that standard Western diets are far from sustainable – causing obesity and non-communicable diseases, with the rich world “eating as though there are multiple planets”. How do our diets in the West need to change for them to become sustainable?

PM and TL: The main change required to make Western diets sustainable (and increasingly the diets of well-off people across the world) is to reduce meat intake. Livestock production is responsible for a third of all agriculture’s GHGEs and 70% of agricultural land use globally. Nearly half of global agricultural land is used for livestock feed production. Some 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed. Only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet as meat and other animal products so animals are relatively inefficient in terms of feeding people. In practical terms, a sustainable diet is therefore one based on plant foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, beans and pulses and nuts) with animal foods (meat and dairy), if liked, consumed in small to moderate amounts. Although meat is a source of nutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein) in the human diet, these nutrients, with the possible exception of vitamin B12, can be obtained from plant foods. Meat is therefore not an essential component of the human diet. Fish is more difficult. Several authorities around the world, including the UK, specifically recommend the consumption of oily fish for reduction of cardiovascular risk due to its omega-3 fatty acid content, which is problematic when 80-85% of global fish stocks are fragile. Moreover, fish is an important source of income and indeed of protein in some small communities throughout the world. Of note is that some specific communities such as Seventh Day Adventists and also people who choose to follow a vegan diet and consume no fish enjoy good cardiovascular health.

IS: Many people see a vegan diet as the best diet in terms of climate change, the environment, human health and animal welfare/rights. However, in the book you note a vegan diet may not be sustainable. Why?

PM and TL: Compared with a traditional Western meat containing diet, a vegan diet containing no animal food is associated with reduced GHGEs, reduced land use and reduced water use. However, a vegan diet that simply contains no animal food is not necessarily healthy in that a vegan diet could focus on foods such as white bread, jam and chips.  It is important to distinguish between a healthy vegan diet or a healthy plant-based diet as being one which focuses on whole unprocessed foods, including vegetables, fruit, grains and pulses.

In terms of environmental and socio-economic impact, vegan diets are not necessarily 100% good news. This is a highly complex picture. Processed vegan foods may, for example, contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. It is not clear the extent to which ‘certified’ palm oil reduces deforestation. However, use of olive oil and sunflower oil require much more land to produce than palm oil. Workers producing coconut oil are often paid abysmally. Replacing meat with processed soya foods such as tofu and also Quorn would, with current practices, require large amounts of land to be used overseas. Some plant-based milks like almond milk require large amounts of water in their production and are to some extent nutritionally inferior to dairy milk. A vegan diet could potentially be all fruit, likely containing lots of tropical fruit, some of which again requires a lot of water in its production. People growing avocados in Mexico cannot afford to eat them any more as they are grown on a mass scale for Western consumers, with a similar situation existing for growers of quinoa in Bolivia and Peru.

A healthy sustainable vegan diet will likely depend on increasing the use of British grown field crops, such as root vegetables and brassicas as well as orchard fruits. Some pulses, beans and seeds (quinoa, lentils, peas, fava beans, haricot beans, flax) are increasingly grown in the UK and their use would reduce the use of water in water thirsty regions of the world. Soya beans can be grown in the UK too.

IS: A shift to sustainable diets seems to be a win-win – better for people’s health and for the environment. However, we are still very far from achieving this. Who or what is impeding the move to a sustainable food system?

PM and TL: Policy makers are not significantly engaging with the need for diets to become more sustainable. Partly this is due to a fear of consumers and the mantra of consumer choice. To recommend dietary change is not something that policy makers (with some exceptions) want to do. Consumers are increasingly interested in their diets, often from a health perspective, but also in terms of animal welfare, sustainable fish and to some extent from an environmental perspective. However, dietary advice is often confusing and consumers may not be clear on how they could best be eating for their own health and that of the planet. Marketing of less healthy foods high in fat and sugar and salt at the expense of healthier foods adds to consumer confusion. The food industry may resist change as it may compromise their bottom line, although some companies acknowledge the need for change because of growing consumer interest and concern that unless they make production changes ingredient availability may become fragile due to climate change, lack of water and so on.

What is needed to contribute to dietary change is for every country to develop Sustainable Dietary Guidelines with leadership and commitment from government, usually the Ministry (or Department) of Health. Such guidelines would provide a steer to both consumers and food producers. If consumers began to choose more sustainable diets, this would send a signal to food producers leading to a more sustainable food production. In short, we need sustainable diets from sustainable food systems. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

Some countries, notably Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar and Brazil have produced Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, whilst others such as Australia and the United States have been thwarted in their attempts largely by private sector interests. The UK’s dietary guidance is in the form of the Eatwell Guide, which was revised in 2016 with some mention of sustainability issues such as reducing red meat consumption, but it does not go far enough.

IS: What do you think are the most important actions concerned citizens can take to help quicken the transition to sustainable diets?

PM and TL: Actions that concerned citizens can take include making a dietary shift to a more plant based diet. This can be done gradually by, for example, reducing the amount of meat and increasing vegetables in composite recipes and aiming for one or more meat-free days or meals in the week. The advantages lie in terms of health and the environment and if the food is cooked from scratch in the home meals containing less meat can be cheaper. People need to gain confidence in changing methods of food preparation and food shopping. Our ‘meat and two veg’ meal culture needs to change to a ‘vegetable and grain with meat as a condiment’ approach and this can take time. Most dietitians, for example, acknowledge that dietary change is difficult, but if the whole household can get involved this helps enormously. It is also important to learn more about food, how it can be cooked and combined. Shop in places where there is a high proportion of fresh unprocessed foods and ask food retailers and producers how they produce their food (e.g. animal welfare, use of pesticides and so on). Eating together with family, friends, neighbours and community is also important as this usually contributes to enjoyment of food, learning more about it and sharing of ideas for action. Of note here are the Brazilian Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, which focus on food culture, highlighting where and how to shop for food and so on.

Concerned citizens can also form groups or join groups that are interested in issues related to food and consider lobbying town, city and county councils about issues such as land use, spaces for community vegetable growing projects and so on. Such food activist groups can also draw up strategies to help towns and cities move towards more sustainable diets and help everyone whatever their income to have access to a healthy sustainable diet. Organising food events can also highlight sustainability issues in an area, highlight local supply chains and availability of vegetables and fruits (or lack of them) and can help to develop skills in food knowledge and food preparation.

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Selling anxiety

Selling Anxiety
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
January 2009

Last summer, while sitting in the dark waiting for the new Indiana Jones movie to begin, I was subjected to the new Kellogg’s Special K ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial. Soundtracked by Ken Parker’s sunny sing-a-long ‘I Can’t Hide’, the 25-second advert shows a young woman looking at her holiday snaps. The camera zooms in to the photographs themselves, and we see the woman wearing a red swimsuit. Uncomfortable with her weight she tries to cover herself up by moving behind objects around her, by jumping in the pool etc. It’s all very clever and very closely resembles the video for Fit But You Know It by The Streets.

As I happily guzzled the chocolate milk I had smuggled in to the cinema it suddenly dawned on me the very attractive woman in the advert – 5’10″ American model Juliana Fine I have subsequently found out – wasn’t actually overweight. In fact she had the kind of figure that makes other women green with envy and red-blooded heterosexual men do that unattractive leering face where their tongues loll out of their mouths.   On top of this there seemed to be no difference in Fine’s weight ‘before’ and ‘after’ she had taken the Special K summer challenge – that is two bowls a day for two weeks to see if you can get “slimmer for summer”.

This not only seemed to be a blatant con trick, but by preying on women’s all too often low self-esteem the advert has real social ramifications. For example, a 2004 Bliss magazine survey found the 2,000 teenage girls questioned had a shocking level of dissatisfaction with their own bodies, with 67 percent of respondents thinking they were overweight, while 19 percent of respondents actually were overweight. This disgust with their own bodies is no doubt the main reason two out of three girls under 13 questioned said they had already been on a diet and a quarter of 14-year olds said they had considered plastic surgery. The survey also gave a brief insight in to the relationship older women have with their bodies, with 90 percent of girls answering that their own mother had “an insecure body image”.

So what did Kellogg’s have to say for themselves?

After telling me they employ “a dedicated team of Dieticians and Nutritionists to ensure that all studies, formulations, marketing and advertising” of their products aligns with the “concrete principles” embedded within their corporate nutrition policy, Kellogg’s explained Fine had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 25.1. So yes, with a person labelled ‘overweight’ if they have a BMI of 25 or above, Fine is technically overweight – by 0.1. But before you start chanting “who ate all the pies?” please bear in mind that Brad Pitt is also deemed overweight when measured by his BMI.

Kellogg‘s email waffled on: “Dramatic weight loss within the 2 week challenge period is neither expected nor advocated”. This is why “the model shown in the ‘after’ challenge shot may not appear significantly different.” This seemed a little vague to me, so I asked Kellogg’s to tell me 1) Fine’s BMI in the ‘after’ shots and 2) the dates when the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots were actually filmed.

After nearly two weeks of waiting for a reply, I received a curt email explaining Kellogg’s “are unable to release any information on shooting times or the models BMI alteration in the aftershot”. What exactly are Kellogg’s hiding? Who’s willing to bet me that for reasons of time and money the filming took place at the same time, and therefore unless Fine has the metabolism of a particularly active hummingbird it seems highly unlikely she lost any weight between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots?

Special K’s ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial is a perfect example of a corporation attempting to impose wildly unrealistic standards on women in an attempt to boost profits. If Fine needs to watch her figure, then so does virtually every women in the western world, and hey why don’t you try some Special K with your insecurity, Ms? This faux-fatness seems to be an increasingly common phenomena, much like the portrayal of so-called ‘unattractive’ women on TV – America Ferrera’s Ugly Betty who isn’t ugly at all, Julia Roberts playing the ugly duckling in the 2001 romedy American Sweethearts and ‘ugly’ sister Toni Collette in the Hollywood drama In Her Shoes, who, I for one, find far more attractive than Cameron Diaz.

By filming a professional model using a product she doesn’t actually need, Special K joins a huge beauty-based sub-section of the advertising industry. Think of the Clearasil commercials with the clear-skinned, confident teenagers narcissistically checking themselves out in the mirror, supermodel Claudia Schaffer fronting L’Oreal’s Wrinkle De-Crease advertising campaign and Davina-bloody-McCall talking to her ‘Mum’ on the phone about how great her bloody hair is. Along with Special K, these adverts often use pseudo-scientific jargon and (corporate sponsored?) ‘experts’ to hawk a product whose use leads to results that are either very difficult to quantify or completely non-existent. Does anymore really think Garnier Nutrisse being “enriched with fruit oils” make one bit of sodding difference to McCall’s hair? If so, surely Garnier Nutrisse could clearly explain what it is, without relying on the razzle-dazzle of pseudo-scientific and meaningless language?

In contrast, Dove’s ongoing ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is often held up as a model of socially-conscious, women friendly advertising. According to the Communist…. sorry Dove Campaign Manifesto “real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages” and therefore Dove, a subsidiary of the radical feminists at Unilever, aims to promote “a view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday.” In case you have been on Mars for the last few years, rather than using professional models, Dove’s campaign features ‘real’ women of colour, women over 40 and women of varying weight – all happily frolicking in white bras and underwear, proud of their “real curves”.

So far, so right on. But before you get excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, consider the main product Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is selling: the Dove Firming range. “By combining the products in this range”, the Dove website says, “your skin becomes noticeably firmer while the intensive firming gel-cream is even proven to reduce the appearance of cellulite.” That’s right folks, real women might have curves but flabby, unsightly cellulite – that’s got to go. So while Dove’s campaign has gone some way to broadening the definition of beauty, the basic message remains the same: Beauty is central to a woman’s identity. And more importantly, women are not naturally beautiful, but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products.

Arguably, despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Just think of the popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, Cosmetic Surgery Live and The Swan. Indeed, it is important to remember certain industries have a vested interest in increasing women’s anxiety about their bodies and aggravating their low self-esteem. The list is long – the beauty industry, the diet industry, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, advertising and women’s magazines. This is not some kind of grand conspiracy against women, simply an attempt to maximise profits. In the year of its launch in 2004, the BBC reported the Campaign for Real Beauty ad campaign had boosted Dove’s sales by a whopping 700 per cent.

This pursuit of the bottom dollar produces the tragically bizarre situation of products like Special K, and yes Dove too, being targeted primarily at women, professing to support women, but which are, in actual fact, running advertising campaigns that contribute to a culture that ultimately damages women’s mental and physical health.

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.