We’ve all heard the proverbial phrase “you are what you eat” in some form or other. Proper nutrition and good eating habits are healthy living fundamentals. The deceptively simple act of eating healthy, however, is influenced by complex factors. You may assume that your regular diet is full of essential vitamins and minerals but the truth is that not all fruits and vegetables are created equal. 

Despite an abundance of healthy food options, America’s obesity epidemic doesn’t seem to be going away. The reason is three-fold: larger societal and environmental factors that are affecting the produce we consume (AKA “soil depletion”), corporations prioritizing profit margins over community health, and individual eating habits. When combined, these factors lead to a consistently calorie-rich but nutrient-poor diet. And a year of lockdowns has not improved the situation.

There’s another often-used proverbial phrase: “Knowledge is power.” Know what you’re consuming, avoid misinformation, and empower your eating habits. 

The Problem

“Soil depletion” is a contested term amongst nutritionists and health practitioners and is largely used as clickbait. In a nutshell, it refers to harmful modern farming practices and their negative impact on the soil, and consequently, the produce grown in it. Increasing demand has led to intensive agricultural methods designed to favor yield (plant size, pest resistance, and growth rate) over nutritional value. Animals, too, are being pumped with hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified feed in order for companies to increase their profit margins. The media has reported on the horrible conditions under which these animals live extensively. The “soil depletion” theory is that together, all the added chemicals from pesticides, fertilizers, chemicals, and hormone treatments have stripped our produce and meat of vital nutrients. 

But the nutrient problem is more complex than the standard “soil depletion” theory would have you believe. While there is a visible decline in nutrients of modern fruits and vegetables compared to those of 50-100 years ago, researchers have concluded that “the benefits of increased yield to supply food for expanding populations outweigh small nutrient dilution effects.” Genetically modified crops are more resistant to pests, actually eliminating the need for harsh chemicals and soil treatments. Some of the loss in nutrients can be attributed to plant choice and a shrinking variety in crops. Nutrient-poor processed foods are also typically much cheaper than the healthier alternatives, making them much more accessible and convenient to lower-income communities. Air pollution is another factor that can cause soil acidification and in more extreme cases, harm plants (and their subsequent nutrients) directly through their leaves. And according to one study, increasing CO2 levels negatively affect the amount of protein found in pollen, implying that too much carbon dioxide could over time diminish the amount of nutrients and vitamins that plants produce. 

While the particulars of “soil depletion” may be misleading, the term hits upon a greater truth. And the real causes behind our nation’s nutrient depletion problem—the unsanitary and cruel treatment of farm animals, the corporate trend of prioritizing profit over health, the neglect towards climate change warnings, and a lack of nutrition education in public schools—have real consequences.

Fruits and vegetables today do have less nutritional value. Obesity is a problem. Lack of nutrition is a problem. The Global Hunger Index describes a “hidden hunger” epidemic, where people are starving themselves of nutrition despite eating plenty of food. But what can we do?

The Solution

The big picture solutions are unfortunately just as complex and multifaceted as the problems they aim to solve. This includes better agriculture practices, restoration of unused or misused farm land, humane treatment of animals, corporate leadership that advocates for more eco-friendly sustainable methods, and a wider availability and affordability of healthy ingredients. I recognize that these are lofty ambitions and unlikely to be accomplished in the immediate future. Luckily, there are plenty of smaller actions that can make a big impact on our individual health.

A healthy, nutritious diet impacts not just our physical health but our overall mood and even mental wellbeing as well. If you can, try to buy more local, more veggies, grass fed meat, less sugar, and cook often. You can also make up for any lost nutrients with high-quality supplements (just consult your primary physician first).  

Proper dieting doesn’t have to mean a conversion to veganism or pricey shopping trips to Whole Foods. For instance, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Canned beans or tuna could be a convenient way of adding nutrition and protein to a meal. Frozen fruit and veggies ensure that they stay fresh and usable for longer. Check the ingredients list to avoid products with too many chemicals. If the ingredient list for a package of frozen green beans reads “green beans” and not much else, for example, you’re fine. 

Lastly, we’re not just what we eat. Our daily actions—going outside, exercising, meeting with people, sleeping more than 7 hours a night, dealing with stress—all contribute to improving our overall health. 

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