For reversing the epidemic of chronic disease and healing the environment, food is the most powerful tool we have. What we eat has tremendous implications not just for our waistline, but for the planet, for society and the global economy. With the emergence of Covid-19, we have all had to adapt physically and mentally.
Nutrition is without doubt one of the quintessential pillars of wellness and if we didn’t give it much thought before, the current situation certainly compels us to think about ways to boost our immunity – and substantially – via food, so we really need to understand how our food system works, end-to-end.
Food and agriculture policies in this region have long relied on western medicine. For almost 50 years in the west, the sugar industry has funded studies that downplay the effects of sugar and places the blame on fats. These studies consistently demonize good fats, such as butter and coconut oil, while encouraging the public to incorporate more flour-laden products into their diet. These are inevitably laced with addictive refined sugars and pro-inflammatory fats and also derive from the corn and soy industries.
Countries all over the world tend to take heed of the principles dictated by such studies and put their faith in them. But the fact is that they are the result of lobbying and those lobbies are now responsible for driving a massive health crisis in the region.
The rise in lifestyle diseases is huge. A report from Health Statistics in 2017 noted that Weqaya, the screening program for UAE nationals, showed that 71 percent of them had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Many of them were unaware of it and had therefore not sought treatment. The report found that the risk factors in many of these patients were related to bad lifestyle habits and were therefore modifiable.
It should come as no surprise that the lobbyists are sponsored by massive industrial corporations who essentially represent Big Food, in the same way as we talk about Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. Big Food, bolstered by free trade, has consequently fostered the spread of obesity, food-related chronic disease, climate change, poverty, violence and gaps in educational achievement right across the planet. We are also beginning to learn how individuals with pre-existing conditions related to lifestyle diseases are more susceptible to contracting the novel coronavirus.
Just the other day while I was out in my car running essential errands, I was inundated by huge billboards on the highway with offers from Big Food chains that start at just Dh1. Moments later, I received a phone notification from one of the meal delivery apps about similar offers. To order a healthy poke bowl of wholesome greens, scoops of protein topped with a seaweed salad, would cost at least Dh45, yet I can get a burger or pizza with all the upsizing or buy-one-get-one (BOGO) offers for just Dh10.
At those prices, is it any wonder that our minimum wage workers or people currently going through a financial crisis gravitate toward ordering those kinds of food? With the dual burden of malnutrition in the underprivileged, who have less access to food that is rich in nutrients, and Big Food, which is so much more affordable, aren’t we heading for another overriding healthcare crisis?
As consumers, I’m sure we all want the products we buy to actually be as good as the marketing claims it is. Even before the lockdown, on my weekly grocery runs I found that nutritionally sound products are often ridiculously high in price. When I read the label on one such product recently, I noticed that the manufacturer was one of the Big Food conglomerates. If Big Food controls even the healthier products, why are they so ludicrously expensive compared to their other, regular products which are so much cheaper? Sure, those healthier products are made in smaller units, but the pricing also preys on the more affluent target demographic and the willingness of those consumers to pay more.
Isn’t that essentially unjust, even discriminatory? There is no denying that persuading more households to make healthy choices requires education, awareness and support. In the wake of Covid-19, it is about time we raised awareness on how locally sourced, real whole foods could help alleviate this crisis AND be easy on the wallet.
We have been privileged as a society in times like these, with a benevolent leadership that demonstrates care and empathy for those who live here. So, here’s a thought: by simply increasing the demand for locally produced whole foods and exercising consciousness when ordering from restaurants offering genuine healthful options, we can ultimately capture the market share for an increased supply of wholesome goods. Reclaiming our health and taking back our food system are the most revolutionary and most necessary things we can do right now.
Born and raised in the region, I have always had the inclination to support local businesses and especially those who purposefully curate what they offer with the aim of raising the wellbeing of the community. That is even more important now. However, these outlets rely on smaller-scale produce in order to make what they sell appealing to the customer as well as clean, so they are often perceived as pricey.
But here’s more food for thought: an actual strategy that encourages more affordable prices for such outlets. Maybe that would encourage Big Food to really work on altering their products because that’s where the demand would lie.
If we are to truly achieve what the leaders of this nation envision for us, we must stand up and take charge of our wellbeing for the generations to come. If these times have taught us anything, it is that our knack for mindfulness and resilience gives us the power to change, right from what we put in our grocery cart to what we put into our bodies. It is starting conversations like these at the dinner table during the lockdown, that could inspire each one of us to help raise the nation’s health, making wellness equitable and more accessible to all.
Dr Remy Shanker
Remy is a medical doctor with a masters degree in dietetics and applied nutrition. Born and raised in the region, Remy has worked with various multinational wellness companies across the UAE. She is passionate about providing simple, real and holistic resources to help students champion a fulfilling healthy life at New York University Abu Dhabi, where she is a wellness program specialist. Her life’s philosophy revolves around creating positive environments, starting with herself. “While we’re all a work in progress, be the change you want to see.”