You are probably familiar with the terrific quote from Michael Pollan (author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and This is Your Mind on Plants): Eat real food; Mostly plants; Not too much. Even before Pollan made that expression famous, Andrew Weil coined the term True Food to emphasize the same point.
The point they are both making is this: too much of what we consume is not really food. That statement might make you wonder, what is ‘food’ anyway? The definition we like is this one: Food is the stuff we consume to enable our cells to grow and function. In other words, food is what makes us who we are.
Think about the last thing you put into your mouth: did it contain good macronutrients (protein, healthy fats, complex carbs)? How many of the roughly 30 micronutrients did it contain (minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, amino acids)? In other words, were you eating True Food or highly processed stuff?
Some of the data coming from American scientists in the last few months is truly alarming: one study examining the nutrient intake of Americans aged 2 – 19 years reported that 67% of what they are now consuming does not qualify as ‘food’ as defined above. Why not? Because fully two-thirds of what our young people are eating is ultra-processed stuff: fast foods, packaged and highly processed foods, lots of refined carbs. This is the type of thing found in corner stores and vending machines, and it also constitutes roughly two-thirds of the food of what is now found in large grocery stores. These figures reflect demand: our society wants to buy ultra-processed, packaged items, because our educational systems have not explained the importance of feeding our brains.
What can happen if people cut back on their micronutrients by more than 50%? Science answered that question over 70 years ago. As part of the Minnesota Starvation experiments, 36 healthy men were put on a starvation diet containing 50% of the normal amount of calories and nutrients. Six months on the deprived diet led to all the mental symptoms that are typical of depression, anxiety, attention problems, and even some psychosis. These results were not terribly surprising at the time of publication (1950), because it had been accepted for millennia that good nutrition was essential for mental health. But this knowledge was lost after the so-called psychopharmacology ‘revolution’ in the 1970s, which led to expectations that we could and should control depression and anxiety with a single pharmaceutical pill.
The question you might be asking yourself is what you could be doing right now for your children and teens. Remember the old saying: if it’s not in the house, they won’t eat it. Can you shift your food purchasing habits? Snacks might be a good place to begin. Instead of packaged snack food, how about carrots and hummus when they come home from school? Or bowls of nuts and seeds? Or raw veggies and some other dip or dressing they may like? And this isn’t just for hungry school children – it might help the adults in your home also.
The two of us recently participated in the Quit Sugar Summit, and several times we heard this interesting report: when people cut out sugar (in other words, all refined carbs and ultraprocessed foods), in the long term they report decreased weight and increased energy. But the most immediate result is in their brains: brain fog disappears and they can focus much better. People are excited by their improved brain function!
There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ food, and there is no such thing as a single perfect food. But if we can all shift the balance of our intake toward real, whole, true food, then we will improve everyone’s mental health and focus.