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Sustenance: Food as Nutrition and Medicine

Written by Mike McMahon, Founder of Urban Farming Education

When we think about food, the tendency is often to view it as a solution for a short-term need; I am hungry, so what can I eat to feel full? However, the view of food as sustenance takes a longer-term perspective. “Sustenance” stems from the word “sustain,” which means to continue, because sustenance allows you to continue to live. By such a definition, many foods that we consume today may not actually sustain us; others, such as corn, have become so ubiquitous in the American diet that their value as sustenance is taken for granted.

When we have a variety of foods to choose from, what are the healthiest ones we should be eating? Both meat-based diets, like the paleo diet, and plant-based diets are touted as the best options. In between, there is an old saying which I think is perhaps the wisest diet advice and is universally applicable: “everything in moderation”. As we look at food for nutrition and medicine, our choices of what to grow in our gardens become more of an educated calculation than a guess. Also, incorporating containers for growing mushrooms and microgreens and having a beehive start to make sense.

The question of what food choices are healthiest is central to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a 2006 book by journalist Michael Pollan that explored how food is grown, processed, marketed, and distributed — and how this system affects health, animal welfare, and the environment. Pollan argues that due to the industrialization of our food system since World War II, we have lost touch with where our food comes from, leading to confusion and anxiety about our choices as well as a host of new health problems — including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, along with food contamination scares and environmental pollution.

One major component of the industrial food chain is corn, which is grown on mega-farms in the Midwest, spurred by U.S. farm policies and the interests of big business. Thanks to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as mechanized farming techniques, we have a constant oversupply of corn — a key ingredient in many of the foods we eat, particularly processed foods that rely on starches and sugars derived from it. Numerous issues arise from our reliance on corn for almost every part of our food system; for one, the high sugar content in corn syrup used in many foods is a major contributor to obesity and diabetes. Researchers have also shown that the basis for many neurodegenerative diseases is primarily dietary, including a gluten-filled and high-carbohydrate diet that leads to inflammation in the brain.

Moreover, using corn as a feed for many animals — who are crowded together in small pens rather than being allowed to roam and feed on grass — leads to health problems that require antibiotics to solve, which then make their way into our food. And fossil fuels used in everything from petrochemical fertilizers to fuel for farm machinery and long-distance shipping are contributing to climate change on a global scale. Many alternatives have been proposed to this industrial food chain, and a number of food movements have risen up in rebellion against it. Pollan promotes true organic food chains based on grass, not corn, as animal feed, calling it the simplest and most sustainable option. These food chains work with nature by rotating animals through pastures to avoid overgrazing and using animals’ own manure as fertilizer rather than synthetic chemicals. It’s also become clear that we need to move away from a corn-based diet, which contributes to high blood sugar and eventually health conditions such as diabetes. This link was established after 1994, when the American Diabetes Association recommended that Americans consume 60 to 70 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, which led to a rapid increase in the rate of diabetes in the country. Instead, fresh fruits — which contain relatively low amounts of natural sugar — and fibrous vegetables, which slow glucose intake through the blood, have become the focus of health-conscious diets.

While the need to eat fruits and vegetables is relatively widely accepted, the more controversial debate now centers around meat — specifically, how it relates to health and environmental sustainability. Rising numbers of vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians are challenging the idea that meat or animal products are an essential part of the human diet, arguing, for example, that the human body is not naturally adapted to eat meat — with weak jaws and blunt teeth. A somewhat less popular movement that has nonetheless taken hold among many proponents of natural or healthy eating is the raw food movement, which has its roots in the Natural Hygiene movement of the 1800s. “Raw food” is defined as anything not heated above 115 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, which is meant to keep food in its most natural form and preserve its nutrients and enzymes. Because raw food takes a lot of energy to eat and digest, it can help contribute to weight loss; however, people who have raw-food-only diets may not get enough important nutrients, and with a lower energy intake, key biological processes such as hormone synthesis may be suppressed.

Finally, the movement towards natural foods and healthy eating has led to a focus on some specific foods — known as “superfoods” — and their benefits on the body. This is part of a larger movement towards holistic medicine that rejects the notion of dependence on synthetic drugs and instead seeks to prevent disease using a variety of natural methods, including superfoods but also exercise, herbs, oils, vitamins, and nutritional supplements.

Andrews, Ryan. “All About Raw Food.” Precision Nutrition, n.d.

Perlmutter, David, and Kristin Loberg. Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain's Silent Killers. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2013.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

“Sustenance.” Vocabulary.com, n.d. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/sustenance
Wrangham, Richard W. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.