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Everything you need to know about ecological medicine

September 25th, 2018 | Health, Nutrition

If we are what we eat, how toxic are we?

The public is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of preserving our health through our choice of food: organic berries over pesticide treated ones, pasture grazed cattle over factory farmed produce and so on. Yet do we really understand the implications of continuing with our unsustainable consumer habits? As our series of insightful #GraceTalks continues, Ecological Medicine practitioner, Dr Shideh Pouria, provided a fascinating insight into personal and planetary health. For those who missed it, we have produced a summary of her exploration of the changing relationship between humans, their food and the environment, and discuss why conscious consumption is vital for not just our optimum health but for a balanced, healthy and fertile ecosystem.

The past few decades, we have witnessed and epidemic of serious degenerative, chronic disease in all age groups from children to the elderly. The World Health Organisation predicts a 57% rise in cancer diagnoses in the next two decades; fertility rates are dropping by 1.6% each year; and previously rare degenerative diseases are increasingly prevalent. Everything from asthma to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, digestive problems, eczema and even mental health has roots in our nutrition, inner ecosystem, as well as our changing environment. How has this serious pattern of disease emerged? As production methods evolve to meet demands for fast, convenient, and mindless consumption, we have increasingly had to pay the cost mostly through our loss of health.

We are living in a time where sustainability is a household concept: reduction in use of plastics and emergence of biodegradable alternatives are on the increase – and not a moment too soon. The damaging impact of extensive pollution and waste production on the planet is well recognised, but the fact that planetary and personal health are intrinsically linked is less understood. Barry Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology (1971) highlights that ‘everything is connected to everything else’. The damage being wrought on our ecosystems, of course, affects humans too. Plastic in the ocean is broken down to nanoparticles that is consumed by sea life – the same sea life humans consume. Food packaging is formed from myriad chemicals; juice bottles, crisp packets, yoghurt and milk cartons – even the smallest amount of plasticisers or metals leaking into food can be detrimental. The idea that it’s ‘too tiny a quantity to be harmful’ is a common misconception. ‘In our minds, we don’t connect the impact of large scale disasters with regular, low dose exposure to environmental and food contaminants,’ Dr Pouria points out. In the 1950’s mercury poisoning killed 900 people and over 2,000 more were sick, after a chemical plant began dumping mercury waste in Minamata Bay and yet, mercury is still used by dentists for fillings. It’s only in relatively recent history that we’re acknowledging the dangers of using Asbestos in buildings and lead in pencils. Smoking was considered fashionable, not harmful, for decades. Our understanding is still limited and Dr Pouria warns of circa 1,000 new chemicals being added to the mix each year.

As we immerse ourselves in this toxic bath, it’s difficult to establish clear-cut evidence connecting chemical overload and ill health. Our constitution will respond differently to a chemical cocktail in a way which is unique to each individual, depending on food choices and beauty products, how long they spend on electronic devices (most of which contain around 40 different substances), where they live (London is now Europe’s most polluted city) and other factors such as their genetic susceptibility to disease. In the absence of proper policing and corporate transparency, it’s essential that we take responsibility for our health and make enlightened choices. While it might not be realistic to alter the air we breathe, we can be in control of the food we eat. Through good dietary choices there’s an opportunity to make positive changes in our health and through changing consumer trends also have an impact on the ecological and social issues that we face globally.

We can all start to make, mindful, enlightened food choices with simple changes.

Buy organic, local, wholesome and seasonal foods

Modern agriculture is responsible for 1/5 of all greenhouse emissions and produces 30 million tonnes of chemicals per annum. A toxic environment does not yield mineral rich produce and the resultant meat and harvest is increasingly devoid of nutrients and laden with chemicals You only have to see the protective clothing required for spraying pesticides, the bleach baths that kill bacteria and plastic shipping containers transporting food by air, land and sea, to understand the plethora of toxins being passed onto humans.

Last year the Soil Association published government findings demonstrating a 17-fold increase in chemicals found in fruit and vegetables in the last 40 years. Wheat crops were treated with less than two chemicals in 1974; by 2014 this rose to 20.7, while potato crops are now sprayed with five times as many as they were in 1975. It has never been more important to eat organically – not least since some of the worst offenders including favourites such as oats, apples and tomatoes. In the UK the organic market is burgeoning and the Soil Association announced an increase of 6% in 2017 sales. Within foodservice (catering and restaurants) sales of organic grew by 10.2% as businesses recognised a growing demand for organic food and there has been a 22% rise in farmland being converted to organic production. Across the country it is becoming easier to source good, natural food and even London plays host to a vibrant collection of independent organic retailers and farmer’s markets. By choosing organic, we significantly reduce the number of toxins being ingested on a daily basis and fuel the demand for quality produce.

In European farming, legislation requires all farmers to adhere to certain standards and some countries – Britain included – go beyond this with additional rules that have a positive impact on the environment, combat climate change and ensure higher standards of farming and animal welfare. Sourcing locally not only gives the security of certified practice, but also reduces the impact of fossil fuels used for international transport of foods. 75% of organic produce in Britain is also Soil Association verified – and more stringent regulations are great news for health. With a little research you’ll also find a number of smallholdings, independent butchers and producers who go far and above the legal requirements but may not have been certified yet. ‘Look for farmers that grow organically or biodynamically. Animals should be free to roam not be incarcerated in factory farms devoid of space and deprived of exposure to the natural elements. Plants, animals (including their food), soil and water supply should all be free from chemicals. The resulting products don’t need to be ‘refined’ or treated; all these processes destroy naturally occurring microbes and bacteria in the soil that are essential to gut health,’ Dr Pouria advises.

For many of us, the concept of seasonality still exists; we look forward to British strawberries ripening in June and spend September picking blackberries for crumbles and pies. Convenience then comes into play making for a repetitive, non-sustaining and unsustainable diet consumed all year round. Supermarkets respond to the demand by shipping supplies from around the world (often produced in unsustainable conditions, as the earth simply can’t sustain production season after season). Humans should observe these cycles in the same way nature does. Lambs are born in spring because new grass, which mother’s need for milk, begins to grow. Trees loose their leaves in winter to conserve water, ready to bloom again when there is enough sunlight for photosynthesis. Historically, fruit was harvested in autumn to build up our fat store for winter – and it’s not a coincidence they’re full of immunity boosting vitamins and minerals to see us through darker, colder days. Fruits and vegetables are at their most nutrient rich when they’re in season, so enjoy them then and preserve what you can’t (more on that in a moment).

Embrace the best of the traditional ways of eating

A welcome food trend for 2018 – and please, let it not be a fad – is the age-old art of fermenting. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles can be found in supermarkets but they’re incredibly easy to make at home, too. Preserving raw foods when they’re in season is far more beneficial (and delicious) than buying imported varieties out of season. Beloved apple cider vinegar, pickled beetroots, gherkins and cabbage were all borne out of a need recognised centuries ago to make nutritious food last longer – and they managed it without the use of additives and chemicals. Once fermented, the nutrients are more bioavailable (pre-digested), making it easier for the body to reap the benefits, while the probiotics formed during the process encourage good gut bacteria, which is essential for a healthy digestive system. Add a serving of sauerkraut to salads, sandwiches and snacks before reaching for sugar-laden probiotics – your gut will thank you for it.

What’s the cost?

Adopting a conscious approach to eating is often seen as an expensive privilege, but Dr Pouria questions the alternative. ‘What will poor health cost you in the future; an ailing immune system, degenerative diseases and poor functioning organs, overladen with toxicity?’ There is no price to be put on good health – our own, or our family’s. ‘You’re likely to find it’s not as expensive as you might think,’ she advises. By buying seasonally (and therefore more readily available) you’ll find prices are lower and local produce won’t have the shipping costs associated with more exotic ingredients from overseas. By adapting to a traditional diet that’s high in natural fats (raw butter, ghee, coconut oil, avocados and nuts) you’ll find your appetite is satiated more easily and you stay full for far longer than you might on carbs, sugary snacks and fruit. Nutrient dense meals mean you’ll require smaller quantities and can instead prioritise quality – choosing organic and sustainable where possible.

Our first #GraceTalk with Dr Pouria was a fascinating first look at convenience culture and the health implications which can easily be ignored by those fortunate enough to be living in good health. Grace Belgravia champions preventative medicine and taking action now to reduce toxic build up is essential to this. We will continue to share insights with Dr Pouria in future talks exploring in more detail the relationship between different food groups, human health and the health of the planet. In the meantime, we would encourage everyone to consider their eating habits and consumption patterns. As ‘is this harming me and adding to the burden on my body and the body of the planet or is healing and nourishing?’ Learn to read labels. Be aware of what is in your food, skincare, cleaning products and toiletries. Demand better. We all deserve food and drink free from toxins, but we have to create the demand if we want producers to take notice and make changes. They’re currently responding to cries for readily available, cheap produce all year round, which is neither sustenance for us, nor sustainable for the planet.