Food and Health

Food happens in the background and in the forefront. It touches every part of our lives, affects every part of our health, impacts us in local communities and as global citizens. It is a way of being more connected to Nature or more cut off from her. Food is a basic need and is political, often weaponized, and is emotional and confusing for many people. People dying of starvation on a planet where we can provide enough food is food. People losing their health due to disordered eating with food as the vehicle is more common than is discussed. Children being medicated for behavioral issues that are often tied to food is mainstream. We have beliefs and identities, cultural histories, beautiful memories and celebrations, abuses and traumas all tied to food. I intend to explore these connections and bring to greater light the power we all enact with our food choices and the powerful change that is possible by making conscious choices about what we eat. “Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology”. (Pollan, 2008, p. 8)

In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow stated food as a basic physiological need. This was in 1943, just ten years after the end of the great depression and two years before the end of World War 2. This moment in history marked a significant change in how food was produced and the quality of it, that would have immeasurable consequences. After World War 2, the use of agricultural chemicals began to boom. It has increased by the tons every year since. To date, there are over 500 chemicals in active application in agriculture in the U.S. of them at least 85 of these pesticides are banned in other countries such as the China, Brazil & the European Union. More often than not there is more than one chemical on any single sample. Many of these chemicals are cancer causing. In a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2014, there was a proportionally higher cancer risk among farmworkers in California. (Mills & Shah, 2014). This doesn’t account for the health consequences of GMO foods on the workers or the consumers. Today, four chemical firms own 60% of the global seed supply. To date, 39% of crops in the U.S. are subsidized with the majority of these being high chemical crops, wheat, soy, corn and cotton. According to the USDA, agriculture accounted for 80% of the nation’s consumptive water use. Also according to the USDA, food waste is estimated at 30-40 percent of the food supply. This impacts our heath in every way, mental, emotional and physical with trickle out effects on productivity, fertility, cognitive function and health care costs and burden.

“All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy. “ (Pollan, 2008, p. 10)


(Image taken from Phil Howard, Associate Professor, Michigan State University,

To begin to make the connection between food and health, health must first be defined. In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a definition and criteria for health. This was established as the preamble to their constitution. It is long but bears inclusion here.

“The States Parties to this Constitution declare in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, that the following principles are basic to the happiness, harmonious relations and security of all peoples:

  • Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
  • The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.
  • The health of all people’s is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent of the fullest co-operation of individuals and States.
  • The achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is of value to all.
  • Unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of diseases, especially communicable disease, is a common danger.
  • Healthy development of the child is of basic importance; the ability to live harmoniously in a changing total environment is essential to such development.
  • The extension to all peoples of the benefits of medical, psychological and related knowledge is essential to the fullest attainment of health.
  • Informed opinion and active co-operation on the part of the public are of the utmost importance in the improvement of the health of the people.
  • Governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.” (World Health Organization, n.d.)

There is not a single one of these tenets where food doesn’t play a role, and if it was possible to grant the planet personhood and apply the same principles, not a single tenet which wouldn’t apply there as well. Every time I read this it reignites me. It is a catalyst for visioning and dreaming. This is possible, currently not probably, but should already be established universally. The knowledge for this to be reality already exists, the obstacle is built into the entrenched systems our countries operate from. The illusion of inadequate resources is exactly that, an illusion, smoke and mirrors.

I believe it is established at this point that there is a relationship between food and disease and food and wellness, but just how far that reaches I think is still grossly underestimated. Human beings are unable to synthesize most of the nutrients our bodies need in order to function. This means we have to bring them in to our bodies through our food supply, and we must have digestive capacity adequate to assimilate the nutrients from them. This process is compromised by access concerns, knowledge around health promoting foods, and the ingestion of chemicals, toxins and inflammatory items that interfere with digestive function and ultimately health. According to the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, “Food, beverage and restaurant companies spend almost $14 billion per year on advertising in the United States.  More than 80% of this advertising promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy and unhealthy snacks, dwarfing the entire $1 billion budget for all chronic disease prevention and health promotion at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, food companies target children, teens and communities of color with marketing for their least healthy products”.

This is exacerbated by food deserts in many parts of the country. These are areas where grocery stores with fresh produce are difficult to access and instead there are mini marts, fast food chains and liquor stores. Not surprisingly, many people are consuming high amounts of empty calorie foods filled with chemicals that disrupt their endocrine function and neurotransmitter production. Sugar alone has the same dopamine effect on the body as cocaine. This affects mood and behavior, ultimately affecting relationships, parenting, work interactions and more. Due to soil depletion, it can be hard to meet all of your vitamin and mineral needs through diet alone when whole foods are available much less when they’re not. This means most people are moving through life with nutritional deficiencies. Also, foods that are high in chemicals and inflammatory ingredients compromise the integrity of the digestive system. This impairs nutrient absorption further and can contribute to higher levels of inflammation in the body due to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut). Our intestinal membranes are made to have some permeability, but when we consume a diet filled with inflammatory foods and low in fiber, that creates inflammation in the small intestine which increases the permeability. Increased permeability means that microparticles of incompletely digested proteins, and pathogens, make their way into the bloodstream when they should remain contained in the digestive system. This alerts the body that something foreign is present, upregulating the immune system and contributing to systemic inflammation. At this point it is understood that leaky gut equals leaky brain, and that many mood disorders are related to neuroinflammation which most likely began in the gut. In addition, the low quality, processed foods are destructive to the healthy bacteria of the gut microbiome. Instead, they feed all the organism that tear down health, i.e. yeasts, fungus, and pathogenic bacteria. Healthy gut bacteria also feed on fiber, so a low fiber (processed foods) diet will literally create no food supply for them. The bacteria also communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. It is estimated that 80-90% of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in our gut, and a good amount of our dopamine. Some conversion of thyroid (T4 to T3) hormones also relies on gut bacteria and a significant part of our immune system. Taking all of that into consideration, it is painfully clear that a diet of processed foods, full of chemicals and devoid of nutrients sets the stage for cognitive dysfunction (attention issues, memory problems, brain fog), compromised immune function, mood problems and the obvious blood sugar issues. All health conditions have inflammation at their core, so if all that is available are inflammatory foods, then health conditions will follow suit. In any socioeconomically depressed area, these are the foods that are available. Simply looking at the death rates during Covid, these disparities and their consequences are revealing. In a study published in February of this year in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, there is a strong poverty gradient in both infections and deaths. (Jung et al., 2021)

The detrimental health effects are, however, still more wide reaching. Most food choices are driven by pleasure seeking, comfort seeking or energy seeking. Of the foods that are accessible (at least within the U.S.), this will often mean food choices that disrupt the body’s balance rather than support it. Add to this that many foods once considered healthy, are now understood to not be that safe. Dairy, corn and wheat are perfect examples of this. We are at a point where we are under higher levels of stress, taking in more chemicals than ever before, and taking in fewer nutrients to support the body in dealing with it. Add to that the depleting hormone cycling that occurs in nervous systems that have been affected by trauma, and our bodies are unable to keep up. Going back a few generations, meals were prepared with whole foods, at home and eaten together without technology having a seat at the table. This offered nutrition, connection and hopefully a relaxed nervous system for eating. The state of the nervous system matters because the only time the digestive system activates is when we are in a parasympathetic state, known as the “rest and digest” system. Anytime we eat in a sympathetic or stress state, we don’t produce adequate chemical secretions or have proper internal muscular contractions to digest and assimilate our foods. All technology activates the nervous system, including television and smartphones. Today, most people are engaged with technology for at least one meal per day if not all. At a restaurant, you find people sitting at a table together but all on their phones, robbing the benefits of connectivity, creating internal stress and minimizing nutrient absorption. In addition, anytime we activate a stress state, there is a diminishing of the prefrontal cortex. (Arnsten, 2009) This is the part of the brain responsible for rational thought and impulse control, suffice it to say this would lead to less than ideal food choices. It is worth noting that the body goes through stress cycles in response to external stressors we are aware of, and external stressors that are more subtle that we may not consider, like decibel levels in cities. In addition, if there are toxins or chemicals or sugars ingested, we stress cycle. If there are dysbiotic bacteria or high levels of inflammation, we stress cycle. This all creates more cortisol production, more insulin production and subsequent resistance, and a gradual decline in health. Add to all of these the epigenetic changes due to intergenerational and historical traumas, along with chemical exposures, and people have reduced ability to detox through their livers, and reduced ability to metabolize B vitamins. This leads to compromised macronutrient metabolism, and altered neurotransmitter and hormone production.

Above I used the WHO preamble as a guidepost for defining health, building on that, I would like to close with asking the question, what is food? To me food is defined as something that nourishes you without harm. Food (as opposed to substitutes) brings support to the body. What we eat, how we eat, where we eat and who we eat with all matter. Meals offer a time to remember we are a part of a community, a tribe. To offer support and be supported and to connect with the land that provided our food. I find doing a practice of following your fork at least once a day invokes gratitude, recognition and a reminder that the work needs to continue. Following your fork is literally looking at everything on your plate and tracking every person that contributed, every resource and city infrastructure that was required and what nature had to offer to make it happen. Sitting with this, alongside the awareness of how many people on the planet are unsure where their next meal will come from makes conscious eating a much simpler process. It is estimated that 800 million people worldwide are chronically malnourished, and two billion more suffer from hidden hunger. Acknowledging those who are profiting from a food system built on keeping people unhealthy is uncomfortable, anger producing and disruptive. Understanding that there is already enough for people to not go hungry, and if we changed our production methods that would only improve, and we could dramatically lessen the toll on the planet is even more disturbing. At this point, the only way forward I can see is to keep trying to raise awareness and access, to keep supporting small scale organic producers and persist in turning the tides.


Arnsten, A. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 10(6), 410–422.

Jung, J., Manley, J., & Shrestha, V. (2021). Coronavirus infections and deaths by poverty status: The effects of social distancing. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 182, 311–330.

Mills, P., & Shah, P. (2014). Cancer incidence in California farmworkers, 1988-2010. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 57.

Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food (1st ed.). Penguin.

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Basic Documents. World Health Organization. Retrieved May 26, 2021, from;jsessionid=CF65369D91511861A545EC8B22BBC409?sequence=1