Changing the way we eat - food writer Bee Wilson discusses her new book
Food writer and historian Bee Wilson is worried about the way the global standard diet is affecting our health and the planet and has taken a deep dive into the complex story of how we ended up so confused about food.
In her new book, The Way We Eat Now, she explores everything from the narrowing of western diets to just a few ingredients to why willpower isn’t enough in the face of global food marketing. She also discusses the impact of the disappearing lunch hour on our food choices and ways in which governments could help improve the national diet.
Bee will be talking about her new book at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month.
She said: “So many things are wrong with the way we eat now. It is really startling what a small percentage of our income we spend on food compared to what we did in the past and although it is great we are not having to spend 70 percent of our income on food now, as people do in countries where there is famine and hunger, we are now spending such a tiny fraction of our disposable income on food in the UK and the US is a sign that we have almost forgotten how important nourishment is."
As part of her quest to help people discover diverse, high quality food, Bee is part of a pilot scheme in Cambridge schools to encourage children to try eating more vegetables.
She said: “I’m involved in a charity called TasteEd where we bring vegetables into class and ask children to interact with them with their senses.
“I might bring in some ripe, flat peaches in summer or it could be broad beans or apples. It is simple and cheap to deliver and you just ask children to interact with the food with their senses. Instead of saying they must try a food you just ask them to, say, use their sense of sight to experience tomatoes. They might say it looks like a rugby ball or a little marble. They come up with amazing descriptions. Then at the end of the session you offer the fruit or vegetable to try, but they don’t have to. Almost all of them do try it, though. You can see them turning into different eaters before your eyes.”
Bee joined the project after hearing that one in five children arrive at primary school in reception class already overweight or obese and by the end of primary school it is one in three.
“At one secondary school in Cambridge I was amazed to find four children in the class had never tried a raw tomato,” she said.
But she doesn’t place the blame squarely on parents' shoulders, saying the environment - whether it is long work hours and not enough time to cook or bewildering amounts of food choices on the supermarket shelves - makes a healthy diet much more difficult.
“So many of us are carrying round this individual sense of there being something wrong with us because we can’t stop eating and we feel this temptation to eat unhealthy food,” she says.
“But there is nothing wrong with us. We are not lacking in willpower. The environment we are living in has completely changed since our grandparents’ time. They didn’t have loads of willpower but they were not confronted with, say, a metre long Snickers bar when they went to the shop.
“The options back then were so much fewer. Obviously those were hard times in a different sense. But there was a sense that you knew what you were expected to eat. There was a piece of research in the 1950s British eating habits and back then the vast majority of the country back then were sitting down to have a cup of tea with their evening meal and on a Sunday lunch they had a roast on a sunday evening they had a salad on weekend mornings they had eggs and bacon. These were certainties.
“On the one hand you can say that’s a bit boring and now we can go out and have things like Vietnamese or Korean food and we are experimenting with food and being more open minded. But on the other hand people had routines and lots of the decisions had been made for you so you didn’t have this option paralysis in the supermarket, thinking what on earth do I put in my shopping basket. There’s so much to consider, whether it will be good for you and for the planet, and what about animal welfare?”
During her research, Bee looked at how the range of foods we eat has actually narrowed even though we appear to have more choice than ever.
“Most of the calories that people are getting are from just five or six basic foods shuffled around in different combinations. Almost everything we are eating is either meat, refined sugar, refined oil, wheat, rice, maize and soybeans.
“But we have an illusion of variety because there are, for instance, 4000 different types of snack bars on sale in the US, and yet when you dig into the details of what it actually is we are eating it is a really small list of ingredients out of a whole wealth of nutrients, flavours and textures that the world potentially has to offer. In theory we are omnivores but omnivores have never been eating such a curiously limited and yet over-plentiful diet as people are eating today.”
A lot of the blame, she believes, belongs to big food manufacturers who are only answerable to shareholders and are simply aiming to make a profit. Of these she singles out confectionary companies, claiming their business model relies on people overeating their products.
“With confectionary, 80 percent of the product is eaten by 20 percent of the consumers,” says Bee. “In other words they need people to be suffering from binge eating disorders. That is terrible. How can they sleep at night?”
The problems with modern diets started in the years after the end of the second world war, explains Bee, when governments tried to ensure that food - especially wheat - was plentiful so that populations didn’t go hungry. This was based on the work of scientist Norman Borlaug who found a strain of wheat that produced a higher yield.
“He was credited with a billion people being alive wouldn't have been if it weren’t for the developments he made in the growing and technology of grain. You can’t argue with that but we are now living with that legacy of quantity over quality and it is playing out in so many ways from the co-existence of obesity and malnutrition in some parts of the world like Brazil and many parts of Asia and Africa.”
Looking for solutions to the crisis in healthy eating has taken her around the world. In Chile she discovered a government public health campaign around food that seems to be having an impact.
“Chile have produced the most radical food laws that the world has ever seen and I feel really encouraged by them. They produced simple stark labels with black logos. They just say Stop: High in fat,or Stop: High in sugar and Stop: High in salt. It is almost like a warning on a packet of cigarettes and there are signs that this is already changing consumer behaviour.”
Another project she highlights is a seed company - Row 7 - in American that is developing vegetables that taste better than other in the shops to encourage more people to eat them.
But at home Bee has some simple ideas to help you eat more healthily: use smaller plates and wine glasses to cut portion sizes; instead of having sugary drinks try flavouring water with slices of fruit or cucumber; give people a full lunch hour so they have time to eat something healthy and prioritise vegetables over carbohydrates in a meal.
Bee Wilson’s book The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change is £12.99 from 4thestate.
She will be in conversation with Erica Wagner at Cambridge Literary Festival on April 5. Tickets £12. Box office cambridgeliteraryfestival.com or 01223 357 851.
Read more about the Cambridge Literary Festival: Jeremy Strong discusses his new book ahead of his talk.