The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson (Book Summary)

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When you recall history and our relationship to food, there is never been a quicker and more drastic transition to the way we eat than that of the last few generations. Our grandparents nor our hunter-gatherer ancestors could never have thought that the most luxurious food across the globe could be delivered to you, thanks to a few clicks on our smartphone, this can be done.

It is really incredible on the amount of progress we have achieved during this short while; however, it has raised a few concerns as to how all these transitions have an impact on our health. As a matter of fact, a lot of people than ever before have greater access to food. However, it is also true that the rate of obesity and cases of people with diabetes are increasing at alarming rates.

Author Bee Wilson studies the wide-reaching impacts of modern food production and distribution in order to know the cause of our present dietary problems. Also, she looks to the future and ponders the approaches that are required for us to have a healthier and more responsible relationship with our food.

1 – We live in the era of plentifulness; however not essentially that of balanced diets.

In 2006, Humanity crossed an extraordinary line. For the first time ever in history, the world had more obese or overweight people than the underfed. Therefore, even though more people than ever are having a plenitude of food rather than scarcity of food, their diets are not healthy at all. 

However, what do we recognize as a healthy diet? It’s actually more than just eating an apple daily.

As a matter of fact, in a study that was conducted in 2015 that studied the eating habits of about 88.7% of the world’s adult population; it was revealed that the intake of fruit has been increasing gradually since 1990 by an average of 5.3 grams per day.

However, the study also reveals that more than half of the world’s countries were consuming a lot of unhealthy foods such as sugary drinks, processed meats, and products that contain trans fats. Due to this, we are experiencing high numbers of obesity and diet-related diseases.

We can map the increase of these fatal new foods by going back to four stages of our food history.

Stage one happened during our hunter-gatherer days. During this stage, half of our caloric intake was gotten from eating wild fruit and greens, with the rest of our diet consisting of wild animals.

Stage two started during 20,000 BCE when agriculture started to develop. Due to this, our diets became more homogeneous which was made up of a few staple crops such as rice and wheat. People started settling down and forming communities during this stage. However, this also made us weaker because drought and bad weather could destruct crops and this can result in famine.

Stage three started around the 1800s when agricultural innovations like fertilizer and crop rotation reduced the possibility of famine by increasing our diets to cover a broader variety of foods.

Stage four happened after World War Two and it is known as the stage of plenitude. This was when countries in the West started to rebuild, industrialize and turn agriculture into the heavily subsidized business that it still is today. This led to such a great increase in the production of wheat, corn, and cereals that the worldwide amount of these crops tripled between the years1950 and 1990.

Meanwhile, food production and distribution have been controlled by a few international megacorporations, and they’ve succeeded to increase profits significantly by producing processed foods full of sweeteners, artificial flavorings and strange additives such as  “crispening agents.”

In 2019, companies that sell processed foods make 15.5% of each and every food sale in the United States. This may not seem like a lot until you understand that just 10.5 cents are going to farmers.

2 – Our bodies are not suitable for these extreme transitions in our diets.

In the past years, a lot of families will hold on to recipes that were given to them to the next generations. However, how many of your grandmother’s recipes do you still cook up to now? While it can be essential to still have our food traditions, what actually affects our health is when we make unexpected, extreme transitions to the way we eat.

In order to see how rapid dietary transition can affect a generation of people, let’s examine India in the 1990s.

Back then, India was affected by an epidemic of type 2 diabetes. Strangely, this disease has affected a lot of people in India than in any other country. This may not be surprising due to India’s high population; however, what’s strange is that a lot of these people didn’t look like the normal suspects for diabetes. Instead of the people affected to be old or overweight, they were young and quite thin.

These strange situations were explained in the 1990s by Dr. Chittaranjan Yajnik who carried out a study that compared babies from rural villages of Pune, India, to Caucasian babies from Southampton, England. His study showed that Indian Babies have the tendency to be thinner and weigh less; however, they had more body fat which was mainly stored in their abdomen. In his explanation, Yajnik created the term thin-fat babies.

In order to explain this circumstance, Yajnik claimed that this was as a result of a rural Indian mother who’s grown up in the 1970s. As a result of food scarcity in that area then, their children would’ve been genetically ready to deal with hunger, which would lead to a low body mass and high abdominal fat. However, by the time these mothers got to their twenties, the food scarcity in India has already reduced significantly then which included a rise in foreign aid that supplied plenty of baby food.

Therefore, babies were born with bodies that were not structured for the plenitude of food. Unfortunately, this left them to be more vulnerable to type 2 diabetes.

For more evidence of how our bodies are unprepared for today’s food, consider our beverages intake

As of 2010, Americans got an average of 450 calories per day from beverages, which is more than 200% of what they were getting from beverages in 1965. This significantly means that people are drinking one meal’s worth of calories daily! 

The problem is that the majority of people think of drinks, whether it’s just a glass of orange juice or soda, as a different type of food that doesn’t contribute to weight gain. Although, aside from water, all the drink adds calories to your diet, even though you don’t feel as full as solid food does.

Although we don’t know the actual science to explain why our body responds differently to various calories, studies show that a lot of people don’t compensate by eating less when they drink more. This shows that we’re feeding our bodies with more calories and more sugar.

3 – Processed foods with meats and unhealthy oils are now being substituted with our more wholesome staples.

When we were still kids, we learned how to reject foods we didn’t like by closing our mouths or throwing a tantrum. Now as adults, we are now in charge of what we want to eat, however, what we can’t control is the huge machinery behind the food industry to make sure that we only eat what is beneficial for us.

Rather we have received a huge amount of processed foods. In 2019, 57.9% of American calories were linked to ultra-processed foods. Also, for developing countries that get foreign aid from the US, the huge majority of the billions of dollars being spent is attributed to processed foods.

One of the major reasons why processed foods are unhealthy is the cheap, calorie-rich vegetable oil they are made of.

You might think that the huge rise to our caloric consumption has been from the quantity of sugar in processed foods; however, it is really from refined vegetable oils particularly soy oil which increased its global output 320% between the years 1962 and 2009. Truly, soy oil is severely depended upon on the majority of our most popular processed foods like sugary drinks to instant noodles.

To make situations worse, more processed foods became cheaper and more abundant, fresh vegetables became more expensive. Between the years 1997 to 2009, the price of junk food in the United Kingdom reduced by 15%, while the price of fruit and vegetables increased by 7%.

Another increasing dietary problem is that, as people around the world receive more income, they’re consuming more processed meats.

As a matter of fact, for a lot of families, meat is still seen as an uncommon treat and it’s not entirely unaffordable. However, once a household starts earning more, that cheap processed meat becomes affordable and it becomes a more desirable food choice than the consistent staples food like bread, rice, and potatoes.

As a matter of fact, in the United Kingdom, the consumption of bread between the years 1880 and 1975 dropped by 50% and presently the global supply of chicken doubled.

Unfortunately, the majority of people need to get a particular income bracket in order for them to afford healthy and sustainable choices such as fresh vegetables, vegan yogurt, and mixed seeds. Until this happens, meat, even though it’s greatly processed and full of additives, remains a prize.

4 – People are spending excess time eating alone and they depend on low-cost snacks.

During the 1920s in Westphalia, Germany, women that were working in textile factories worked an average of 54 hours in one week. However, every single day, they would sit together during break and they ate lunch for as long as 90 minutes.

Does this seem like what happens during your lunch break? Possibly not, this is because eating has now become much less social.

This is shameful because sitting together with other people for a meal has been in existence for long as a social activity that supports relationships and it harmonizes a community. Instead, people across the globe are now eating their food on their own, either at their desks or on the go. Also, in a lot of cases, this meal is a faster consumable fast-food mixture.

Ironically, part of these worse eating habits occurs amongst health workers, like a night-shift nurse who has just ten-minute space between patients and finding something to eat in the 24-hour snack vending machine. Due to this, in 2019 the average American nurses had a body mass index of 27.2 and this made them in the category of people that are “overweight”.

For over a long time, Spain was respected for its tradition of the siesta which is a two hours’ time where people can take a curative mid-day break. However, after the financial disaster in 2008, this tradition was reduced to the normal one-hour break.

However, one hour can even be a long time for some people. Also, as meal-times have reduced, a lot of people are now depending on the fast ultra-processed snacks instead of an appropriate meal. In a recent survey that was conducted, according to that survey; snacks accounted for about one-third of an average daily American’s calories.

Therefore, the intake and global industry supporting these snacks are at an all-time high. Between the years 2004 and 2015, China’s snack industry moved up from being nearly non-existent to being worth over $7 billion.

Nevertheless, for a lot of low-income families snacks are an economic need. According to a 2011 study that was conducted in Philadelphia on low-income families, some snacks will make for an affordable meal, while others were cheap however valued rewards for children. Nevertheless, a candy bar is a much more accessible gift than a trip to Disneyland.

But, children are not only receiving snacks as a reward. In 2010, various studies revealed that snack food contributed to 37% percent of the energy consumption in American children. However, these snacks normally give a child about 15-30 percent of the essential micronutrients they require.

What all these concerning data means is that we are doing ourselves a great service by ensuring that nutritious meals are more necessary and affordable

5 – Food trends have worldwide consequences, and producers exploit us through deception.

Do you have the best food trend? It might be that you can’t get enough of avocado toast or kale chips. Although new recipes and foodstuffs can be interesting to explore, you may be shocked to realize that there’s more to these trends than meets the eye. 

Sometimes a food trend can fade immediately as it appeared; however other times, it can also extremely change the demand for an ingredient that the consequences are felt worldwide.

The gluten-free, high-protein grain quinoa was formerly a scarce item for Western eaters. However, over the past few decades, it has become a staple food for the health-conscious.  

As a result of this, between the years 1961-2014 in Peru, quinoa production increased from 22,500 metric tons per year to 114,300. Also, in Bolivia, the price for 100 kilos of quinoa increased rapidly from $28.40 to $204.50! Now, these valuable grains are no longer affordable for local farmers and families, despite it being their food for the past centuries. Instead, Bolivians have to opt for more affordable choices such as the unhealthy instant noodles that got to their markets from overseas.

In other circumstances, a new food trend can lead to skepticism and concern.

Between the years 2004 and 2008, the US market for pomegranate juice experienced a rise. During that time, Americans went from drinking approximately 75 million eight-ounce servings to 450 million servings.

This was another health-oriented trend, with the juice advertised as having special antioxidant elements. However, in 2008, some products were even creating a more questionable claim, as three-quarters of the beverages sold were allegedly 100% pomegranate.

According to a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, Chris Elliott, it would have been impossible for a lot of pure pomegranate juice to land on supermarket shelves so quickly since it takes like eight years for a newly planted pomegranate tree to bear fruit. This means that all the pomegranate trees worldwide couldn’t have provided sufficient juice just to meet the demands in 2008.

Therefore, the producers lied about that by adding maybe apple juice or grape juice, and they hid their tracks by repackaging and reshipping their product from abroad. Truly, this approach worked and they made a lot of profits.

Recently, Professor Elliott has his focus on another food trend which is coconuts.

These days, supermarkets have a lot of products like coconut water and coconut yogurt. However, it takes ten years to produce new coconuts; therefore Elliott is uncertain whether there are abundant plants to meet the increased demand.

6 – Eating out and buying from supermarkets can cause unhealthy food decisions.

One of the concerns of living in a chaotic, fast-paced environment is that you feel like there’s no sufficient time to hold up and cook your own food. Presently, Americans spend almost half of their food budget on dining out. However, a lifestyle of regularly eating out not just make you spend your money, it also costs you essential nutrition.

One of the issues is that when we eat out, we have the tendency of eating with a more lighthearted attitude which means that we eat food with more calories and more sugar content. Obviously, restaurants are very aware that all these ingredients such as sugar and fat are more appealing to our taste buds, therefore; they don’t hesitate to add these ingredients to their meals. Particularly, the food menus at fast-food restaurants contain meals that are high in sugar and fat, hence; they contain just little essential nutrients like fiber and vitamins.

There is a lot of evidence that shows the association between type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and heart disease. According to a study that was conducted in 2010 by Janet Currie an economist at Columbia University, she claimed that the rates of obesity among school children can be estimated to increase by 5.2% if a fast-food restaurant is established within a 0.1-mile radius of their school. 

When we aren’t eating out, we’re even buying more food from the bigger supermarkets with a lot of choices that give us a feeling of choice and freedom. However, this doesn’t regularly provide us with a benefit.

Supermarkets can offer you with a dizzying option of up to 50,000 products. Not like the old neighborhood markets of years before, supermarkets come with a sense of secrecy; you don’t have to bother about your snooping neighbor judging about what you buy.

Nevertheless, if you are scared of getting a judgmental look from your neighbors and the shopkeepers made you not to full your shopping bag with sugary and unhealthy items; perhaps this lack of secrecy wasn’t so bad then.

Although, eating out has its own entertainment significance and supermarkets have a lot of sugary cereals from which you can choose from. Also, there has been a rising number of people who can’t afford either of these. Between the years 2011 and 2013 alone, the number of British people using food banks increased from 70,000 to 347,000. Therefore, remember that even if supermarkets make you think that there is plenty for all, a lot of us still have limited choices. 

7 – In a world of plenty of options, a lot of people are imposing restrictions on themselves.

We can all reach an agreement that having a few options is better than having no option at all, the question of whether a huge amount of choice is better than a few choice isn’t so clear. After all, doesn’t it get difficult when you know you’ve chosen the best decision when there’s apparently an infinite option?

Truly, there is actually a thing as a lot of options and the consequences are more than just making a poor decision. According to Barry Schwartz who is a psychologist, he said there is a phenomenon called the paradox of choice, and this means that we have the tendency of being less happy when we have a lot of choices to choose from.

Indeed when it comes to our food options, we have gotten to a lot of options and it has now become a concern of how to choose from these varieties and find the diet that is good for us. 

One of the best ways to solve this is to set certain restrictions like practicing vegetarianism or veganism. Recently in the United Kingdom, these have now become some of the common diets and the number of people that are vegetarians has now doubled to seven million people between 1994 and 2011. However, in the United Kingdom, the number of vegans increased to about 350% between the years 2006 and 2017 to cover 542,000 people.

Personally, the author doesn’t see herself as a strict vegetarian, however, she believes that reducing the consumption of meat is one of the best approaches to navigate today’s several options. For starters, when vegetables are the main ingredient, you’re basically ensuring that your meals will be full of healthy nutrients. From there, it’s just a matter of selecting the tastiest method of making them.

Other methods are taking a more modern way to healthy food options by experimenting with meal replacements. These regularly come in the form of a powder that you can mix with water and drink. These meal replacements consist of ingredients like pea protein and brown rice. These products also claim to offer all the vitamins, minerals, carbs, proteins, and fats, that you’d get in any healthy meal.

Globally In 2016, approximately one million people were said to have attempted a drinkable meal like the one created by the UK company, Huel. Although a meal shake may be appealing to busy travelers who are keen on have something healthy on their way to work, possibly the most appealing is the fact that they’re way more affordable than your normal nutritious meal.

Whether or not they’re as satisfying as a delicious sandwich, that’s another topic.

8 – A broad variety of home cooks has new but expensive, ways of preparing food.

With a lot of us preferring to eat out, take ready-made meals on the go or opt to snacks during our lunch breaks, it may look like everyone’s pots and pans are just packing dust.

Luckily, various studies show that a lot of people are now using their stove and cooking at home. In history, the kitchen was seen to be the woman’s area, however between 1965 and 2007, this changed and the average amount of time an American woman spent in the kitchen reduced from 112.8 to 65.6 minutes per day. On the other hand, men started spending more time in the kitchen, with their average ranging from 37 to 45 minutes.

In another survey that was conducted in 2017, 45% of Americans said they don’t mind cooking and they actually do cook at home sometimes. In 2002, that percentage was just 35%.

One reason for this good news is the modern trend of exciting new choices for the home cook, like meal-kit delivery services. For those of us who think that there’s no sufficient time during the day to get both our work and shopping done, having fresh ingredients delivered to you can be an actual game-changer. To top it all, meal-kits come with the ingredients for various meals already measured out and ready for you to just cut and cook. With this type of convenience, it’s not a surprise that the meal-kit business swiftly became a $5 billion industry in the US.

Another type of products intended to make things easier for the home cook is multi-function food processors such as the Bimby. The Bimby is an all-in-one device that can weigh, cut and mix ingredients, it can even make your smoothie or a bowl of risotto. It has been proven to be very famous in Italy, with one in 30 people having a Bimby.

With all these new products offering services like that, it can look like people are actually running out of reasons not to cook at home, however, there’s still the big problem of affordability. The Bimby seems like a good tool, however, it comes with a price of $1,000, and meal-kit services cost extremely more than you would buy the ingredients yourself. Therefore, for all of us that still struggle to meet end means, such products remain inaccessible to us for the time being.

9 – With the assistance of both governments and enterprising individuals, we can change into a new era of food.

Previously, we looked back at the four historical stages of food. Also, with some of these new changes, you might be thinking about what stage five will look like.

Stage four has been marked with plenitude and lesser people experiencing starvation, to move to stage five, it is important for us to learn how to sort through the plenitude and make good as well as healthier food options.  In order to do this, we’ll need assistance from governments as well as grassroots initiatives.

A country that’s already set a good example is Chile.

Chileans were taking more sugary drinks per capita than anyone else in the world in the year 2016, and this resulted in approximately 66% of adults being overweight or obese. The Chilean government reacted to this health concern with the brave step of implementing an 18% sales tax on all sodas sweetened with sugar. Also, they prohibited the use of cartoon characters to promote the sales of sugary breakfast cereals to kids and they demanded new packaging labels that plainly warn customers of high sugar content.

All these actions have proven to be beneficial for customers.  About 40% of Chileans said they found the labels useful and it helped them decide on what to buy. Also, it had an effect on the manufacturers with 65% of the sodas being sold by Coca-Cola in Chile now contains less sugar.

Other influential initiatives are coming from concerned citizens.

Anna Taylor created a grassroots campaign called Peas Please in 2016, in an attempt to make Britons eat more vegetables. One of Taylor’s aims is to fix the advertising difference between vegetables and processed foods. In 2015, £12 million were spent on vegetables, which is a comparatively insignificant sum when compared to the £87 million that was spent on just soft drinks. However, all thanks to the crowdfunding hard work of Peas Please, more money will be spent on the advertisement for the delicious benefits of vegetables.

Also, Peas Please has thriven in attaining the attention and cooperation of most supermarkets and food chains, with Greggs which is a low-cost café chain, and it has assured to increase the number of vegetables sold between 2018 and 2020 by 15 million portions.

If more governments and people like Anna Taylor can come up to address the issue we face currently, there is hope that the next stage of our food history will be categorized by healthier foods and more responsible business practices.

The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson Book Review

All through the course of history, we have transitioned in the way we eat as a result of growth in agriculture and civilization. However, a lot of changes have happened recently in such a way that now we eat completely different from how we used to generations ago. Recently, a lot of people are busy with lives surrounded by plenty of food which has led to more snacking as well as dining out with just little sit-down communal meals. 

Also, there are now new types of food such as drinkable meals and new methods of preparing our food; however a lot of these innovations are still impractical and inaccessible to poorer families. With the increase of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, we need governments and private initiates to find solutions and assist us to get a healthier stage in our food evolution.

Reduce your serving sizes by using old plates.

You may not have realized that the size of the modern dinner plates is very bigger than it used to be a few generations ago. In the 1950s, a dinner plate with a diameter of 25-centimeter was seen as big, while the normal dinner plate of today has a diameter of 28 centimeters.

Therefore, if you’re trying to reduce calories, a helpful way can be the use of older plates that are easily found at flea markets and garage sales. You’ll not only be serving healthier portion sizes, but you’ll probably improve your food presentation style because older plates mostly have beautiful patterns and designs!

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