Food for thought: Exploring the complex relationship between diet and health


Food has long been a part of the story of humanity. Our relationship with food has changed in significant ways over thousands of years but perhaps the most dramatic changes have occurred only in the last 50 years. Food has gone from merely a means of survival to a key aspect of the human experience with a huge role in culture, comfort, and health. Even though diets hold a sacred space in the story of humanity, they may also be underpinning what is turning out to be one of the most destructive healthcare challenges of the modern era the rise of overweight and obesity.

Increased adiposity and obesity are increasingly linked to many other diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer. The challenge that these non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer) present are vast and significant, representing a great burden on resources not only in Australia but across the globe, with the epidemic spreading to developing nations. Amongst the plethora of environmental changes that have arguably contributed to this crisis, a marked nutritional transition stands out.

Ancient Bodies in a Modern World  

In many ways, our bodies are engineered for a world of scarcity, now struggling in a world of abundance. Food scarcity was something we had to deal with for much of human history — every meal was crucial in ensuring our survival. It was in our biological best interests to be hard-wired to seek out calorie-dense foods and optimise our fat storage for times of food shortage. It was not unusual for humans to go without food for long periods of time throughout much of human history. Our biology has evolved over thousands of years to optimise for this food scarcity by having metabolically advantageous genetic adaptations that allow for the deposition of fat as an efficient store of energy.

However, the past 50 years a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms have seen significant changes to our diet in industrialised economies. The presence of ultra-processed, high fat, high sugar foods is ubiquitous and worryingly accessible. Bodies that were fundamentally wired for scarcity are today placed in a world of full fridges and pantries. With the effects of increasingly sedentary lifestyles compounding the problem, poor diets have arguably wreaked havoc on human health. Two-thirds of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese and the challenge of non-communicable diseases is one of the biggest burdens on the healthcare system. Our bodies being out of their depth in this modern food landscape only scratches the surface of this problem the challenges of the ‘obesogenic’ environment are underpinned by economic, political, and sociocultural factors that are deeply ingrained in our society.

In many ways, our bodies are engineered for a world of scarcity, now struggling in a world of abundance.

How did we get here? 

The obesity epidemic is more than just a diet problem, it is a deeply rooted systemic issue that plagues the lower socioeconomic classes. Increased adiposity and obesity are diseases that disproportionately affect those in the lower socioeconomic classes. From a nutritional perspective, the lower socioeconomic classes are often deprived of access to affordable, fresh, and nutrient-dense produce whilst being inundated and often targeted by fast food and unhealthy options which may be the only options in some cases.

Big Food (corporate food and beverage companies) represents some of the most powerful and destructive entities in the world when it comes to public health. Funding scientific research, financing political campaigns, lobbying, and financing campaigns are some of the ways in which these large companies yield their power. Ultimately, the problem with our diets is hardly an individual one it is deeply intertwined with political, social, and economic factors that need to be considered. 

Where to from here?

The future presents significant challenges not only for our diets, but food sustainability globally. By the year 2050, we will have 10 billion mouths to feed. Rethinking our global food system will be inevitable as new challenges emerge concerning agriculture and sustainability. From a health perspective, addressing our diet is perhaps one of the most important issues to tackle in the journey towards a healthier human population and reducing the burden of non-communicable diseases. The sociological challenges are many in this arena, but huge strides of progress continue to be made nonetheless. From huge changes such as the plant-based movement to the work of grassroots organisations that are involved in health promotion, fixing our diets is a shared responsibility that must be championed for a healthier society.

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