The role of diet and health in medical treatment is a critical one, but remarkably, one that is broadly overlooked by the medical profession. This extraordinary disconnection is only now becoming a frequent topic of discussion, as exemplified in the Harmony, Diets and Health parallel session led by Dr. Martin Scurr. Scurr opened the session by quoting himself from a piece published that morning in the Daily Mail: “It’s time doctors woke up to the healing powers of what we eat,” he said.

Dr. Scurr was a general practitioner for 37 years and he noted that doctors’ training in nutrition, “…is no better now than it was in the late 60’s when I was a student.” He called to attention the need to promote healthy diets and their importance in health much more than medical education does now. The lack of training in the area, as well as in the value of exercise, is making it difficult for doctors to appropriately treat the exponential rise in so-called ‘lifestyle’ diseases. But, Scurr makes the point that food’s role in health is one that is really preventative – a healthy diet is not going to cure disease, however, it may prevent you from getting ill in the first place. Eating good food is a long term strategy for health.

At the root of healthy food is healthy soil, and Scurr was followed by Graham Harvey, the agricultural editor of the long running radio drama, The Archers. Harvey spoke on the changes in agriculture in Britain that he’s witnessed through his lifetime, calling it “a catastrophe.” The model of mixed farming that was championed by George Stapledon, prior to the industrialisation of farming in the 70s, is ideal for Britain because it is self-sufficient, flexible and sustains fertility. However, we have moved well away from mixed farming practices, replacing these with a cycle of continuous cropping and chemical warfare on our soils – which had fertility built up in them over centuries. Our current ecosystems cannot produce the same nutrient-dense foods that were possible in previous generations before the arrival of nitrogen fertilisers. As current practices veer away from traditional farming in ways that are unsustainable, Harvey champions the importance of soil health and the microbial communities that support this, which function in a similar way to the microbiome of the human gut. The roots of health in both soil and humans lie in these microbes. Ruminants play a vital role in fostering these microbes in the manures they leave on the land. Harvey suggests we now need to ‘rewild’ our agriculture and create the kind of semi-forested systems that our hunter and gatherer ancestors once thrived on. We must restore what we have destroyed in agriculture.

How we quantify the quality of food has been an ongoing and significant debate in agriculture, especially as organic and sustainable agriculture argues for the health benefits of its production systems. Dr. Angelika Ploeger, a professor of food science and nutrition, spoke on her work, using a ‘bio-crystallisation’ process to help distinguish ‘health’ in food. Ploeger commented on the Harmony Supper, the previous evening, noting the beauty of its presentation and the quality of the food which could be tasted, she said. Referencing the session, ‘Eating is an agricultural act’, she acknowledged the impact of a farming system on the kind of food that is produced and its taste – the meadow, the animal and the animal husbandry all contribute to this.

Ploeger’s department at the University of Kassel, Organic Food Quality and Food Culture, puts emphasis on the cultural context of food. She also argues for the role of emotion in eating and drinking, running a module called Feeling how it tastes to educate children and young people in schools. Ploeger is particularly interested in our food values and how we evaluate ‘health’ in relation to these. This is important because “What we are eating and drinking not only influences our personal health, but also the health of the whole ecosystem.” Ploeger contests that there is a big gap between the intentions of people, and what they actually do in relation to health and nutrition, and education is extremely important in remedying this.

The question is, how can scientists influence people to change what they do? Ploeger’s work seeks to determine a distinction between organic and conventional vegetable production which could be used to define food quality.

Placing health and nutrition within the context of the wider environmental ecosystem is an important step forward in understanding how they function. Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar from the University of Louisville, Kentucky spoke on diet and health in relation to his work on cardiovascular disease. Relating to the conference’s theme on harmony, he stated that, “Part of the chronic disease burden that we have, could be attributed to…the lack of harmony between our ancestral genes and our current environment.” Through millenia, our environments have changed significantly, creating a mismatch that “underlies the basic development of disease.”

Dr. Bhatnagar framed his presentation around three domains within the environment: the natural, the social and the personal. He noted the impact of each: in the natural environment, communities with more green space were correlated with a decrease in cardiovascular mortality; while the social environment can modify the effects of the natural environment, in both a positive or negative manner – Bhatnagar mentioned the potential for obesity and smoking to spread through social networks like a contagion, indicating the influence social environments can have on health; in the personal environment, nutrition and physical inactivity are the most proximal and have the most influence on our health.

Dr. Bhatnagar stresses the need to consider all three domains of the environment when addressing nutritional needs and combatting disease. Avoiding universal recommendations on diet and nutrition, he argues that, “the types of food we need may differ in different environments.”

Scurr noted in the session that “whatever the outcome is in the end, it has to be about education and about children – we may not change the old geezers like me, but we can change children and give them the information they need to make their future decisions about what to eat…” This growing revelation that research is revealing, about how much what we eat matters to health, promises to change the way we think about food in radical ways. It will hopefully help us to take a more holistic approach to health, that understands it, quite literally, from the ground up.

You can watch a film of the session here.

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