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Understanding of changes in human nutrition – from scarcity to Superanbundance

6 July 2009 1,176 views No Comment

It should perhaps come as no surprise that our perceptions of food differ from that of our ancestors. What is surprising, and not a little troubling, is how far these perceptions have moved in just a few generations. Today we interact with food in ways that would have left our great grandparents scratching their heads in disbelief. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than when it comes to the issue of food security.

For most of the history of the human race food security was one of the top concerns of just about every man and woman alive. This was because food was a perishable, finite and scarce resource. These facts manifested itself in the cycles of ‘feast and famine’ that most societies went through on a regular basis. The feast part of the cycle usually coincided with harvest time or the conclusion of the hunt. People would very often eat to excess at these times as they knew that the lean times were on their way. Lean times did indeed appear with clockwork-like regularity. They could normally be traced back to: [hidepost=1]

• Changes in the season
• Failed harvests or hunts
• The inability to keep food from spoiling
• Ongoing struggles to move food from places where it was plentiful to where it was not

The fact that food was scarce inevitably led to it being viewed as a precious commodity that should be used wisely. This does not mean that previous generations were ‘food saints’, they did however strive to use the food they had in the best possible ways. These included:
• Using as much of a particular food source as possible
• Efforts to minimise waste (“Waste not, want not!”)
• Adjusting consumption patterns to coincide with times (particularly certain seasons) when certain food sources were plentiful.
All of the above factors often translated into remarkably healthy eating patterns, especially when you consider that very few people had the opportunities for the kinds of overindulgence that are so prevalent in modern society.

It is, of course, no secret that the consumption patterns discussed above belong firmly in the past for most people. There are several reasons behind this shift:
• Improved transport links ‘shrank the world’ to such an extent that we now think nothing of eating food produced in several different countries with almost every meal.
• Pesticides and fertilisers dramatically increased agricultural yields (This did not come without a price tag attached! Please see the previous 5 articles for more information on this issue).
• Greenhouse and cooling technology allow us to virtually eliminate seasonality. We can now eat anything, anytime, anywhere.
• Industrial production methods were increasingly applied to every step of the food production process. This is nowhere more apparent than in the so-called ‘fast food’ industry where every step of the production chain is automated in the service of producing super cheap, and superabundant, food.

The purpose of this article is not to romanticise and glorify the past. No one in his or her right mind would choose to live in a society where the majority of people are not certain where the next meal will come from. The fact is, however, that the superabundance of food that most North Americans currently experience did not come without some severe consequences. The most damaging of these consequences is the ‘devaluing’ of food in our culture. The perception that food is ‘just there’ (and not a valuable resource) led to many people being much more careless in thinking about what they put in their mouths and what it is likely to do to them.

The problem is compounded even further, especially from the perspective of those who battle the effects of ADD/ADHD, by the fact that the types of food that lend themselves to successful mass production are often exactly the types of foods that should be avoided. The best way to confirm this is to pay a little visit to just about any ‘fast food’ outlet. The products on display are the result of intensive industrially inspired production and preparation methods. They are also very likely to be a) high in saturated fats b) high on the Glycemic Index and c) filled with preservatives and other additives. [/hidepost]

It is perhaps quite easy to decry the effects of food superabundance. It is, however, much more difficult to decide what to do about it. It would surely not be advisable to wish for a return to the kind of ‘hand to mouth’ existence that many previous generations were used to. We should however recognise the fact that having so much more than what we really need is harming us in some subtle, and not so subtle, ways. Our response to this recognition should translate into some practical steps on the road towards enjoying the abundance around us without being seduced into patterns of consumption that could be very harmful over the long run. The next article will focus on ways in which this can be achieved. See you then!

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