Food, Health & Money

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Have you seen “Weight of the Nation?” It’s a documentary HBO released (in partnership with the Institute of Medicine) back in 2012. I highly recommend it! While the documentary focuses squarely on America’s obesity epidemic, it also does a good job at highlighting the linkage between American capitalism–including over-production (more volume, more profits) and over-consumption (fast-food joints on every corner supported by, what I consider, irresponsible marketing and pricing of fast-food, especially in low-income neighborhoods across the country).

Featured Image (Colorful Garden) Source: Link

Here’s one pictograph from the documentary I found enlightening. It shows how portion sizes have grown in the US from the 1980s to the early 2000s. In this example of four different types of snack (read: junk) foods, each one has more than doubled in size. I actually had an epiphany on this when I returned from living in the UK. Although the UK also has increasing levels of obesity, as do most western countries, we are the leaders. Yay! No, not really. Anyway, it was my first week back and I went to Ralph’s to buy some groceries. I remember looking for Veganaise (vegan mayo that contains no eggs). Anyway, it’s an American product but I used to also buy the same brand in London at my local Whole Foods. When I reached for the jar an held it in my hand, I’m not kidding you when I say, I had a slight out of body experience. I had to shake my head and re-focus my vision…was I dreaming or was this real? Why did this feel so strange in my hand? Turns out, the jar was at least 3x the size of the jar I used to buy in London. I was literally shocked! This is real. The larger the size, the more consumers buy and the higher the prices, simply because there’s more volume to what is being purchased. There’s more profit in larger economies of scale. That is, the more you produce of a certain product, the lower your cost of production.

portion of snack distortion
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For anyone who has researched transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, you’ve likely watched a documentary or video that quotes Hippocrates–the Greek father of modern medicine. The quote goes like this: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food” ~Hippocrates

The interesting point here is that while physicians are required to take the Hippocratic oath when they become doctors, basically swearing “upon a number of healing gods that he will uphold a number of professional ethical standards,” they only get 2-3 hours of nutritional education throughout their entire medical training. That’s it! Despite swearing to this man who

let food be thy medicine
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insisted that food is one’s medicine. The sad truth is that you’re doctor will tell you it’s important to stay within a healthy weight but has no educational foundation to tell you how to do actually achieve a healthy weight. It’s even worse in communities of color where physicians have an inherent bias that PoC are hopeless. These doctors are quick to put patients of color on meds figuring, “oh well, they’re not going to change their ways so I’ll just put them on medication.” You might say, “Becca, that’s quite a claim.” Yeah, well I worked in the healthcare industry for over 20 years and physicians have actually said this to me, to my face…somehow forgetting I am a Latina (that happened to me a lot).

Prior to taking up this new career path and quitting my job in Corporate America, I’d dedicated over 20 years to the healthcare sector, as mentioned above, specifically working in operations, finance, accounting and auditing. So…I know a little bit about health economics; at least, more than the average Jane–or in my case, the average Maria 🙂 I also have a degree in Finance. 😉 I’ve done well in the stock market because I have a deep understanding on how not only Corporate America works but also know how to read financial statements (and have audited them and put them together), understand market trends and am knowledgeable on how American Capitalism works. Lastly, I’m able to put all of this together and understand the impact of money (capitalism) on our health and our food supply. This is the knowledge I hope to pass on to you, my readers. It’s critically important for us to understand how powerful our choices and consumption habits truly are in a capitalist/free-market society driven by money.

A little bit about my struggle with developing health eating habits. I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life. There are two key reasons for this (in my view): one is my family’s “Americanization” and the second is the effect of Spanish colonization on the traditional Mexican diet–which all of my research suggests was at least 90% plant-based prior to the Spanish arriving and introducing beef, pork, chickens, lard and the “frying” method of cooking to the Aztecs. Traditional Aztec cooking was done via steaming, cooking over open fire and cooking on a griddle (Nahuatl word comalli or “comal” in Spanish). I’ll elaborate…

I am essentially third-generation American. My father was born in El Paso and my mother came to the US at age 14, sponsored by her step-father who was also an American citizen. When my mom came to the US, my grandmother was employed full-time. While grandma cooked traditional dishes, my mother (as any teenager would be) was drawn to American ways of eating considered novel at the time. She acquired a love of fast-food and used to love this place called “Pup ‘N’ Taco,” the equivalent to Taco Bell in her day. I recall as a kid she used to take us through their drive-thru in our station wagon and we’d pick up food that came in brown cardboard boxes (an indication of food quality? Oh…definitely)…the “Mexican food” was as Americanized as I’ve ever seen it and greasy and cheesy as hell. Nothing like the traditional dishes my grandmother made. Having said this, during this same time, we all collected at my grandmother’s house every Sunday for pozole or menudo, rice and beans, homemade tortillas and other homemade Mexican fare that I loved.

When we were home, however, my mother loved McDonalds, Jack-in-the-Box, KFC and

How the top 25 fast food restaurants in the U.S. scored in the Chain Reaction II report.
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loved buying stuff in a can (she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking although when she actually did it, she was good at it). And as kids, of course we loved it too! We regularly ate Chef Boyardee, you name it: Spaghetti O’s, the Spaghetti-in-a-Box, canned meatballs…I think about it now and OMG, was that terrible food–if you can call it food.

By the way, the image on the right is from an article reported by  Consumerreports.org on food safety at fast-food restaurants; specifically, grading some of the most well-known chains on their use of meat with antibiotics. Not a very good report card, if you ask me…

My mom also loved frozen food so “hungry man” dinners were a regular fixture during dinner time. One of my favorite meals, if you can call it that, was when my parents would buy a bucket of KFC and my mom would de-bone it and mix it up with minute rice. I LOVE salt, you see, so this was just heaven. Now, don’t get my wrong, my mom would sometimes make some Mexican and Tex-Mex food (my dad was a Tejano) like enchiladas, chile rellenos, picadillo and migas (fried corn tortillas with egg and sometimes–if we wanted to really get creative–we’d add wienies; once again, americanizing this dish with wieners and making it very high in sodium). It was always served with a side of homemade beans. She also made homemade flour tortillas that were so famous that when she made them, my friends who lived in the neighborhood would line up outside of our backdoor for a fresh flour tortilla with butter. Good times.

Here’s the conundrum. In the 1980s, people ate like this because it was a novelty. It was expensive (just like renting a VHS video was–who remembers having to leave a $20-$50 deposit with the video store in a case you ran away with a VHS tape?) and it was the exception, rather than the rule and portion sizes were much smaller as you’ve seen in the pictograph above. This kind of food was meant for the busy working family because it was convenient. Remember, the 1980s were also the years when women entered corporate America in droves and being a stay-at-home mom became passé. My family was middle-class; my dad earned pretty decent money as a unionized welder. However, had my family been poor and all we could eat was rice, beans and traditional foods at home, would we have been better off from a health perspective? Absolutely. And, this my friends, is what money in food resulted in. Slowly, many families who normally ate traditional foods (e.g. Mexican-American families such as ours) made of natural ingredients(cheese aside) were now eating fast-food and canned and processed food as part of their day-to-day diets. Many Americans experienced the same during this time.

"Where's the beef?" Wendy's commerical
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Do you remember the very effective fast-food campaign: “Where’s the beef?”

Who remembers the 1984 Olympics (if you’re from LA) and the very successful sponsorship with McDonalds? They must have reached “over one billion sold” in just that year. I know my family definitely contributed to their coffers that year.

I tell you all of this so you can get an idea of where I started and where I’m coming from. For many of us who’ve developed such bad eating habits at such a young age, it takes an act of God to change them. Many of us, especially Mexican-Americans or poor people of any color (who didn’t have money for fat camps), grew up with such terrible nutrition and diet habits that it takes years and an extremely strong will to undo all of the damage that one acquired during such formative years.

I strongly believe that my years of eating all of this junk and likely ingesting antibiotics, chemicals and poison I had no idea I was eating led to my body completely shutting down and rejecting many, many foods. Since 2013, I’ve been struggling with food allergies and sensitivities that didn’t affect me until I was in my early 30s and seem to get worse as I get older (given I’m still eating American food products). I will say, when I am in Europe or Mexico, I don’t have nearly the number of reactions that I get here.

This is what I’m talking about:

I’ve taken both skin tests and blood IgE tests and they’ve both confirmed all of these allergies (including potatoes, which was one that showed up on my skin prick but was not a food tested during the blood analysis).

I’m allergic/sensitive to wheat, corn, peanuts, soybeans, tomatoes, oranges, sesame seeds, clams, walnuts and scallops. On the left, you see what happens when I eat these foods (some I can tolerate small quantities of–like corn and tomato) but others I’m highly allergic to like peanuts and soy. In addition to hives, my immune system goes on overdrive and I literally knock out! When I’m getting an “attack” I feel so extremely fatigued that I literally can’t stay awake!

The interesting thing about this is that I thought I was only one of very few people with this crazy immune system. I then find out, via having a conversation with a fellow executive I used to work with that she also had the same issue. Then, as I was catching up on YouTube videos by Americans who’ve moved to Mexico, this young couple from Arizona posted a video on crazy food intolerances the woman in the video (Maddie) had which have just about disappeared now that they are living in Mexico (she’s still allergic to a couple). I then read the comment section related to this video and another American woman posted that she had the same problems. Lastly, before leaving my prior company, a colleague of mine and I were once having a random conversation on food in the US and she told me she also had numerous food allergies that didn’t develop until she was an adult. Hmmm, this is now a trend. Check out their video!

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So what does all of this have to do with food and health? I’ll tell you. In my blogs, I will spotlight the tremendous power we, as consumers, have in a capitalist society to change what companies do, how they treat us (their customers) and how we can take control by controlling them…let’s start a food revolution!

That’s right, one of the beauties of a free market society is that money talks and bullshit walks. We need to vote with our dollar. As free citizens we have the opportunity to influence and frankly control what companies do and don’t do merely by choosing to either to buy or not buy their products; posting on social media against their policies or practices (this is what we risk professionals call “reputational risk); or starting a quiet revolution where groups of like-minded individuals (power in numbers) use their collective buying power to reject food, practices, environmental impact we find unacceptable.

The KEY is to EXERCISE our power. We rarely do, just look at how many Americans actually vote in our elections. 😦 Well, that’s a story for another day.

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