Preventing Waste vs. Eating Healthily: Is There a Conflict?

People need to learn how to eat better. Poor diet contributes to the two leading causes of death worldwide – heart disease and stroke – as well as a slew of other medical problems including obesity, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Without a doubt, promoting proper nutrition is one of the most important food policy focuses of our time. However, it is by no means the only issue.

I recently spoke with someone who is not entirely convinced of the importance of saving food. She understands the principle of preventing waste but cares far more about getting people to eat healthily. Her example: if a person were deciding between throwing away a half-eaten bag of potato chips or saving them, she’d say to throw them away. It’s not worth salvaging junk food that can wreak so much damage on our bodies, her logic goes. chips

As someone whose life’s mission is to fight food waste but also cares deeply about nutrition, I needed a moment to wrestle with this argument. Since I used to overeat in the name of preventing waste (here’s my reflection post about it), I know how the pretense of saving food can clash with healthy eating intentions. Many weight loss diets even explicitly say that people shouldn’t eat everything on their plates, since portion sizes tend to be excessively large. So, does trying to avoid waste mean making poor dietary choices? In a word, no. The keys are storage and smart decisions.

Back to the potato chip example: I say the eater should save the chips as leftovers. That way, the next time the person has a craving for salty, fatty food, he/she can have more chips from the bag, rather than buying a new bag (i.e. giving more money to junk food companies). Plus, with half the chips already eaten, the portion size is limited, whereas a brand new bag would present the temptation to devour all the chips at once. Alternatively, the remaining chips could be shared with friends or served at a party.

nutsBringing leftover junk food home seems like it just invites bad choices; but that’s where my “smart decisions” point comes in. Once food is in the home, it can lose some of its novelty, making it easier to moderate intake. Since the food will still be there tomorrow, there’s less temptation to overindulge now. Unhealthy cravings can be sated in moderation. Moreover, the root of the problem is buying potato chips in the first place. If you don’t want to consume so much sodium and fat, buy a healthier snack!

I realize my counterargument isn’t perfect, but neither is our food environment. Ideally, junk food wouldn’t be so prevalent, nor portion sizes so large, that we have to debate saving unhealthy food for later. Teaching people how to eat well can only go so far as long as we’re surrounded by unhealthy options.  Nevertheless, the pursuit of good nutrition does not have to undercut food waste reduction.

Food Politics

Local market in Quito
Local market in Quito

Empty stomachs and overflowing landfills. People eating ‘trashy’ fast food, while organic food is rotting away in the waste bins.

What world am I describing? Ours. Why? Because whenever there are politics, money making and mass consumption involved, illogical things become the status quo, while logical ideas become stories belonging to a ‘utopian‘ world.

One billion people are dying from hunger, while our world is producing more than enough for everyone. The only problem is that most of the food we produce is wasted, about 40% of it.

There are various reasons for food waste, some are understandable: lack of weather pattern information, need for better technology, bad infrastructure for transportation in developing countries, but other reasons fall under ‘first world problems’. A bruised apple, a banana that doesn’t meet the right curvature, and those sneaky ‘sell by dates’ created by manufacturers to keep their food moving on grocery shelves.

I’d like to dedicate today’s post to the country of Malaysia. It has been in the news for the past few days as people all over the world try to resolve the mysterious case of the missing MH370 airplane. It is devastating to see so many lives parish anonymously, and  my heart goes out to all the family members who are stuck in limbo, not knowing whether to keep hope for a better ending, or to start making funeral arrangements.

The sad reality is that 239 deaths from this incident doesn’t come close to the millions dying from hunger on a yearly basis. And while there isn’t much we can do to prevent such airplane accidents, there is definitely a LOT we can do to change our current food system to ensure that children and women don’t die from malnutrition.

800px-Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_DadaabOur food system is a mess, and we need to address factors that will help strengthen our food security. That includes, lowering the carbon impact of our food by cutting down the distance it travels, eating seasonally and organically.

Big companies like Monsanto want us to believe that GMO foods are the only solution to feeding 9 billion people, but that’s just talk. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no clear evidence that GMO foods provide higher yields, and there is definitely no clear evidence to show that messing with the genetical make up of our food (mixing it with genes of animals in some cases), is safe for our health.

What HAS been proven effective for the past thousands of years of human existence is local farming, eating by the seasons and preserving food for winter times.

In countries like Malaysia, a lot of pristine agricultural land is used for commercial production of crops that are exported to affluent regions and used for animal feeds. Beside that, many poor farmers in developing worlds cannot afford to use conventional techniques, machinery and crops to grow food. Therefore, turning to local and sustainable production of organic food would not only allow farmers to sell healthy produce, but do it in a manner that preserves and keeps their land healthy for future seasons. This means, disadvantaged farmers can protect their land, grow delicious food, improve the health of their community and their own, and if enough is left, sell this organic produce for a better price on the international market. December of 2012 there were 96 certified organic farmers in Malaysia. This number is expected to rise as organic and sustainable farming becomes the ‘go to‘ option for many countries. This trend is also visible in Azerbaijan, the country I’m from. Since 2000 more than 2,000 farmers were trained in organic farming and have moved their practices away from conventional methods.

The health of our planet and our people is not an option, it is a vital factor for a sustainable and happy future. It is time that all of us realize this and work towards making this the ‘status quo’. In my next posts I will focus on how individuals can eat healthy without having to pay too much money for it.

If you have any ideas or suggestions to contribute, please feel free to comment or e-mail me. You can also see some suggestions that list the ways companies, consumers and manufacturers can lower their food waste.

Here’s to a healthy and happy life!