A few years ago, I worked at a college full of bright and creative students. While there, I was invited to serve on a panel for a discussion on “Food: Society and the Environment”. During the event, one young woman in the audience asked me to describe conditions I encounter in my practice as a nutritionist. Then, and still, I consider this a very insightful and important question, relevant to the issue of how we are feeding ourselves–on the personal and societal level– and what are its implications.
I have worked in medical and community environments as a nutritionist for many years, during a period marked by an increasingly modified and aggressively marketed food supply. At the time of that panel presentation, I was working at both that small, predominantly female college and a large Ob/Gyn office– so my clients were mainly women, ranging in age from about eighteen to forty. And, at the Ob/Gyn office, many of them were pregnant.
A history of poor dietary habits exerts its influence on the health of a society in more subtle ways than the common indicators of end-stage problems like diabetes, stroke and heart disease—but those are the conditions that get the ink. However, increasingly and alarmingly, I see many health issues with dietary or nutritional antecedents affecting young and middle-aged adults. Likewise, I see conditions once only ascribed to aging, presenting in younger people.
I would rather present this in a more artistic format, but for now, I must rely on a mundane bulleted list. If I were to expand the demographics a little, the list would be even longer. Perhaps to best appreciate this– if you are more fully ripened– imagine yourself sitting in a college campus student union or going to a Lil Wayne concert. You are not having lunch at the senior center. This is what a day at the office could present to me while serving this young adult population. I note only those conditions which knocked with at least occasional frequency–not rare occurrences.
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance
- Heartburn and reflux (GERD)
- Constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and digestive disorders
- Gall bladder conditions resulting in removal
- Moderate to severe obesity
- Menstrual irregularities
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
- Food allergies
- Behavioral disorders
- History of frequent illness in childhood
- Eating Disorders
- Depression and Anxiety
- Toxemia of Pregnancy—a syndrome associated with high blood pressure and kidney involvement
- Gestational Diabetes
- Recurrent yeast infections
- Severe skin inflammations
- Orthopedic Problems
Bouncing between the two work settings, I rarely had a day without a starving client struggling with an eating disorder; or without a client who weighed more than 250 lbs—who may also have been struggling with an eating disorder. As the numbers on the scale were increasing, so was the volume of the diatribe against the body. Both were distressing to witness–as was considering young, diseased gall bladders.
Some of these conditions are interrelated; and many are exacerbated by stress–another marker of dis-ease affecting our youth. The prevalence of these conditions also means that many of this millennium generation are on at least one medication, including those that treat depression, anxiety, blood pressure, heartburn, inflammation, behavior, and hormones. The use of these medications will result in increased prescriptions for erectile dysfunction and osteoporosis medications for this generation as well.
My contention is that young children who are exposed to processed foods, do not develop the ability to appreciate the more distinct and varied flavorings of more natural foods—especially those of the plant kingdom. Therefore, these more healthful foods are not incorporated into their food vocabularies. These young children grow into big kids and young adults, quickly accumulating the years that their bodies are exposed to altered, nutrient and enzyme-deficient foods.
Craving the whole foods that our bodies and brains require by design in order to function, an underlying “true” hunger festers and grows. The hunger is either pursued voraciously or feared and denied. Even in the middle ground, before too long, this compromised nutritional state can take its toll and the above conditions can manifest.
One of the difficulties of inspiring behavioral change in regard to eating and nutrition, and in explaining how food matters, is that it is not very easy to show direct cause and effect between food choices and health outcomes. Many might argue that they would prefer to just eat happily and without dictates—even at the cost of a possible slightly premature end. Could considering the consequences that physically and emotionally damage us decades before the final blow serve to amend such an attitude? Attention to dietary change has become essential. Through positive food experiences may we begin to show that nutrition can prevent not only life threatening conditions, but life limiting ones as well.
Any thoughts on this? Any reflections of how you eat/ate at this phase of your life? Please let me know.
In health, Elyn