The problem with grains, potatoes and other starchy staple foods is that they form the basis of the urban diet that’s high in refined and processed foods, which are high in energy but low in micronutrients. The scales of economy of industrial food processing means these foods are cheap, so we choose them over other healthier whole foods. They are also often tasty and addictive, and have a long shelf life, which is what cities need when our food must travel so far from farm to fork, and then sit on the shelves for a long time. This is part of the very diet that’s making us fat and sick.
Now consider all the hidden costs of this diet – the environmental costs of bulk farming of starch for such foods, and the health costs of a diet that leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and even dementia – and the real costs of this ‘cheap’ and ethically more dubious diet also begins to look unacceptably high and unsustainable.
The industrial food system means we are taking good wholesome calories from the farm – calories that were environmentally costly to produce because of all the natural resources they used – and are putting them through an industrial food processing system that refines them, strips them of their nutrients and leaves us eating large quantities of ‘dead’ calories. This is another wasteful use of the soil, water, atmospheric space and other environmental resources that were needed to grow the food.
Many leading health institutions are calling for a review of the United States dietary guidelines that have informed food policy and nutritional advice for over three decades. The guidelines give us the so-called ‘prudent diet’ food pyramid: lots of grain-based carbohydrates, vegetables, moderate amounts of protein and very limited fat.
Now, the Harvard School of Public Health and many others are redrawing the food pyramid, calling for a significant reduction in the quantity and type of carbohydrates we eat, and a return to fat, including limited amounts of saturated fats.
While the protein portion of the diet should remain the same, increasing fat means a return to plant fats such as those found in nuts, avocado pear and coconut oil. It also puts butter and animal fat back on the table.