Life Extension Magazine®

Issue: March 2020

The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World

In her book, The Way We Eat Now, food historian Bee Wilson explains how big changes in the way we eat are taking a toll on lives around the globe—and how we can have a healthier future.

By Bee Wilson.

In general, the nutritional quality of what we eat when out is not the same as what we eat at home.

The world has undergone a bigger transition in the way we eat over the past 100 years than ever before in human history.

We’ve experienced easier access to food, more variety on a global level, and less hunger and starvation in many countries. At the same time, the abundance of food, and the type of food we’re eating has given rise to diseases of modern, western civilization, like heart disease and type II diabetes.

For the first time in history, even when food is plentiful, the leading cause of mortality is poor diet.

In her latest book,The Way We Eat Now, food historian and award-winning food writer Bee Wilson explains how the food revolution has transformed our bodies and our world (both for good and for bad).

She details how the transition from savory foods to sweet ones, from home cooking to eating out, from meals to snacks, from independent food shops to supermarkets, and from fresh food to ultra-processed junk food is taking a toll on lives around the globe.

But Wilson believes we are on the cusp of another major food revolution that will bring about greater health and greater sustainability on a global level.

In this interview with Life Extension® Magazine, Wilson talks about how we got to where we are—and more importantly, how we can bring about the changes necessary for a healthier future.

—Laurie Mathena

plants growing in a beaker

LE: Can you paint a picture for us of “the way we eat now?”

Wilson: For most people across the world, life is getting better, but diets are getting worse. This is the bittersweet dilemma of eating in our times. Unhealthy food, eaten in a hurry, seems to be the price we pay for living in liberated, modern societies.

Millions of us enjoy lives that are freer and more comfortable than those our grandparents lived; a freedom underpinned by the amazing decline in global hunger. Yet our free and comfortable lifestyles are undermined by the fact that our food is killing us, not through its lack but through its abundance—a hollow kind of abundance.

What we eat now is a greater cause of disease and death in the world than either tobacco or alcohol. In 2015, around seven million people died from tobacco smoke and 3.3 million from causes related to alcohol, but 12 million deaths could be attributed to “dietary risks” such as those that arise from diets low in vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seafood or diets high in salt (mostly from processed food) and sugary drinks.

Where humans used to live in fear of plague or tuberculosis, now the leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet. Most of our problems with eating come down to the fact that we have not yet adapted to the new realities of plenty, either biologically or psychologically.

LE: What is the paradox of being overfed and undernourished?

Wilson: As of 2006, for the first time the number of overweight and obese people in the world overtook the number who were underfed, in absolute terms. That year, 800 million individuals still did not have enough to eat, but more than one billion were overweight or obese.

To our hungry ancestors, having too much to eat might have looked like the gold at the end of the rainbow, but what these new calories are doing to our bodies is not a happy ending.

The problem isn’t just that some people are overfed, and others are underfed. The new difficulty is that billions of people across the globe are simultaneously overfed and undernourished: rich in calories but poor in nutrients.

Our new global diet is replete with sugar and refined carbohydrates yet lacking in crucial micronutrients such as iron and trace vitamins.

Malnutrition is no longer just about hunger and stunting; it is also about obesity. The literal meaning of malnutrition is not hunger but bad feeding, which covers inadequate diets of many kinds.

LE: What are the consequences of malnutrition?

Wilson: Malnutrition in all its forms now affects one in three people on the planet.

Plenty of countries—including China, Mexico, India, Egypt, and South Africa—are suffering simultaneously from overfeeding and undernutrition, with many people suffering from a surfeit of calories but a dearth of the crucial micronutrients and protein a body needs to stay healthy.

As a result, not just in the West but across the world, people are suffering in growing numbers from diseases such as hypertension and stroke, type II diabetes, and preventable forms of cancer. The lead cause of these diseases is what nutritionists call “suboptimal diet” and what to the rest of us is simply “food.”

Our ancestors could not rely on there being enough food. Our own food fails us in different ways. We have markets heaving with bounty, but too often what is sold as “food” fails in its basic task: to nourish us.

LE: We can’t talk about “the way we eat now” without mentioning the way our ancestors ate “then.” How have eating habits changed over the course of history?

Wilson: One way to think about human history is as a series of diet transitions, with each stage driven by changes in the economy and society, as well as shifts in technology, climate, and population.

In the beginning, we were hunter-gatherers, eating a mostly low-fat diet of varied wild greens, berries, and wild animals. Stage two, starting around 20,000 BCE, was the agricultural age, which was characterized by a switch to staple cereals and a huge increase in population.

In Europe, we could go back a mere couple of hundred years to the third stage. During this period, advances in agriculture, such as crop rotation and fertilizer, led to a more varied and plentiful diet, with fewer starch-based staples and a bigger variety of vegetables along with animal protein.

LE: What makes our current stage—stage four—different from the rest?

Wilson: One of the frightening things about stage four has been how fast it has happened. It took thousands of years to get from a hunter-gatherer society to one based on farming (from stage one to stage two).

The effects of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States took only a couple of centuries (stage two to stage three). But the new shifts in the West away from home-cooked meals and tap water and on to packaged snacks and sugary drinks were speedier still, taking only a couple of decades.

This era is different in quality from any of the other stages. Suddenly, the diet changes much more rapidly, with consequences for human health that are more extreme.

The economy shifts away from manual labor and toward mechanization, people move from the countryside to cities, and they start to expend less energy. There are revolutions in food processing and marketing, and people start to eat more fat, more meat, and more sugar, with far less fiber.

Stage four sees human life expectancy hit new highs with the decline of deficiency diseases and the wonders of modern medicine. But it also sees populations suffering from diet-related chronic illness as never before.

This “nutrition transition” happened all over the Western world in the decades after the Second World War and is now happening even faster among low- and middle-income nations in the rest of the world. This transition explains why our food is sickening us now, through excess rather than hunger.

LE: Another major change in recent years has been the rise in eating out (as opposed to cooking at home). Why is this problematic?

Wilson: In general, the nutritional quality of what we eat when out is not the same as what we eat at home. Analysis by the USDA in the 1970s found that the nutrient quality of food eaten out in the United States tended to be significantly lower in vitamins and higher in calcium and fat than food eaten at home.

Back in the 1970s, this didn’t matter for the overall quality of American diets, because eating out was still a rare treat back then. It is different now that ever-more meals in the week are eaten out. The nutrients that we get—or don’t get—from these meals starts to matter more.

plants growing in a beaker

LE: What is one major obstacle keeping people from consuming a healthier diet?

Wilson: When it comes to choosing healthy foods, the dice are heavily loaded against consumers on low incomes. Over the past thirty years, the cost of healthy foods has consistently risen faster than the price of junk foods. Fruits and vegetables have always been expensive to produce; crops such as bell peppers or spinach take a lot of water to grow and are by their very nature costly to ship and store.

The salient point, however, is not just that vegetables are expensive in absolute terms but that they are much more expensive than they used to be, relative to other foods.

In the United States from 1980 to 2011, it became more than twice as expensive for Americans to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables compared to purchasing sugary carbonated beverages. Energy-dense foods such as cakes and burgers have become far cheaper now in comparison to fruits and vegetables.

LE: How is the government of Chile stepping in to change the destructive patterns of eating in its country?

Wilson: As of 2016, Chile had the highest average consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages on the planet. More than half of the food purchased by the average household was ultra-processed, and Chileans had the second-highest rates of obesity in Latin America, after Mexico.

According to estimates by the Chilean Ministry of Health, around 66% of Chilean adults were overweight or obese, when as recently as the 1980s it was more common to be malnourished.

All the Latin American countries have suffered the worst effects of the nutrition transition later than the United States or Europe but at an accelerated pace.

The difference was that as of 2016, Chile also enacted the most aggressive range of laws against unhealthy foods the world has yet seen. The government passed an 18% tax on sugar-sweetened sodas, one of the highest sugar taxes to date. Schools in Chile are no longer allowed to sell ultra-processed foods such as chocolate or potato chips.

[But] the most striking aspect of the Chilean food laws has been the new food labeling requirements. It started in 2014 with a series of warning labels on children’s foods such as flavored milks and highly sweetened yogurts and breakfast cereals.

Simple hexagonal labels announced “warning: high in sugar,” “warning: high in salt,” “warning: high in saturated fat,” and “warning: high in calories.”

By the standards of US food labeling, the messages were astonishingly blunt.

LE: What kind of impact have these changes had?

Wilson: There is no denying that the new laws have spurred the food industry into action. As many as 20% of all food products for sale in Chile—more than 1,500 items—have been reformulated in response to the law, with sugars and fats reduced, in order that foods can avoid the dreaded black labels. Coca-Cola has said that 65% of the drinks it sells in Chile are now low sugar or reduced sugar beverages.

LE: What’s next for the nutrition transition?

Wilson: I remain hopeful that we can somehow fight our way through stage four of the nutrition transition to stage five. This stage would be characterized by people eating more vegetables and fruits and experiencing a rapid decline in degenerative diseases.

During this phase, greater knowledge of the links between diet and health would lead people to eat better diets. Phase five is where we would all like to be living and eating: a comfortable life with neither hunger nor disease, with delicious food but not an excess of it.

We will not reach this state, however, without outside help, which means that governments and other organizations will have to do their bit to reset the needle on food.

Changing the world in which we eat will require action on multiple fronts, from agriculture and better regulation of food markets to education and cooking lessons.

If history teaches anything it is that we won’t always eat in the particular ways we do now. Here is the consolation of eating in these strange times: the best of it is better than anything that came before and the worst of it won’t stay the same forever.

The Way We Eat Now
Item #34164

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

Excerpted from The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World by Bee Wilson. Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

To order a copy of The Way We Eat Now, call 1-800-544-4440.

Subscribe to Life Extension Magazine®

Subscribe Now

Advertise in Life Extension Magazine®

Learn More