Dr. Irving Pascal

The recent Caribbean Wellness Day activities reinforced my decision to share my thoughts on the social and political aspects of food and good health. Most of what we think we KNOW about food and eating is actually based on BELIEF. These beliefs come from what our parents told us; what we pick up from the society around us; what we accept from advertising; what we read in magazines and books; what we see on T.V; and what our health practioners tell us (or don’t tell us).

Instead, I would like to suggest that the only confirmation of belief is EXPERIENCE; and it is based on my experience and the experience of others that I am sharing what I can about food.

In my medical practice I mainly treat illnesses involving the Ear, Nose and Throat, but eating practices have a major impact on nearly all medical conditions. Therefore, I found myself becoming sensitive to the issues of the economics and enslavement of eating while counselling patients on their diet. Moreover, I discuss Food for Thought from an African holistic perspective and because I always look to The African Ancestors for guidance this necessarily informs the fundamentals of all my thought.

Many people complain that The Caribbean Family is under threat! What I want to remind us all is that whatever its structure, one of the primary functions of any family is to feed its members. Our recent ancestors, having overcome physical enslavement, we Caribbean people of African descent often find ourselves focussing on other areas of oppression. One subtle aspect of this continued form of oppression that is overlooked but reflects our mental, economic and educational bondage is our continued enslavement by what we eat. What I call NUTRITIONAL SLAVERY.

In traditional, continental African culture, the socialization as it pertained to food was guided primarily by the adage, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food”. The implication is that by definition food should not only provide energy for life and growth but should also prevent or cure disease.

Therefore, for purposes of this article, I differentiate between FOOD (life enhancing and therapeutic) – and “FOOD-LIKE” (or NON-FOOD) anything else that we consume orally that does not subscribe to this definition. From the ancient African perspective the emphasis was on the health (physical, mental and spiritual) aspect of food. Contrast this with our present socialization where the act of eating seems primarily concerned with pleasure and convenience with apparently little concern for WELLNESS.

As noted previously, our nutritional brainwashing originates from several sources but perhaps the most insidious is our bewilderment by slick advertising, a form of witchcraft that acts at the subconscious level and manipulates our beliefs. Almost universally, we have come to accept that food is not about health, but happiness. Food advertising leads us to believe that it is more important that food be “finger-licking good” (pleasure) rather than “good for you” (health) and that convenience or “fast food” makes for happy, modern families.

However, food is not just about the “feel-good factor”. The economics of food production and consumption is a well recognized geo-political phenomenon. On a basic level we can see that the food we grow and sell is subject to international regulation and control by global entities such as the WTO, Fair Trade, etc. At another level, food is also used as a political tool for control of populations and in part explains the Developed World’s focus on their food security and sovereignty. Two quotes that exemplify this follow.
“Control the oil and you control nations, Control the food and you control the people.” Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, 1973.

“Food is power. We use it to change behaviour. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.” Catherine Bertine, Executive Director, UN Word Food Program from 1992-2002.

Undeniably food has power over life. The first two acts human beings perform after birth are BREATHING and EATING (breast milk). This points to the two most fundamental, acts to sustain human life, the former (breathing) is the domain of the Creator – it is involuntary – we have no control over it. The latter (eating) is however completely under our control. As adults, we should be wary of abdicating this divine responsibility of what we put in our mouths to anyone, least of all those who share the world-view of a Henry Kissinger or Catherine Bertine.

The programming for Nutritional enslavement begins at birth. Rather than the traditional breast milk and then wholesome fruits and vegetables we are programmed to focus on a wide variety of nice-tasting, processed baby foods generally with preservatives, salt and sugars (in tins, bottles and plastics!). This sets children up to become adults obsessed with pleasure-seeking behaviour, perpetual need for variety and hyper stimulation and the pursuit of instant gratification.

Additionally, the packaging and hyper-processing has a deleterious effect on the environment and the act of eating away from the home reduces family bonding. The superficial attributes concerned with how food tastes and looks is highlighted rather than how good it is for you. Worse, fruits and vegetables that naturally taste good lose their appeal next to the heightened sugar content and bright colouring of processed foods. Families “trust” complete strangers (often in foreign countries) to grow, process, package and prepare the meals they eat. It is amazing to me that we continue to be so naive and trusting despite the evidence of the physical enslavement of our ancestors in the not too distant past.

We ingest “non-foods” in large quantities not just because they taste nice but in part because they are not really wholly satisfying – they are created to leave us hungry for more. But as a consequence, we put profit in the hands of whoever supplies the raw materials and processes the “non-foods”. We also hand over our hard earned cash to the Pharmaceutical companies (that make drugs) and Physicians (that prescribe the drugs) and Pharmacists (that sell the drugs) to treat the dis-ease caused by the very “non-foods” that we eat. The diet of the western world is such that our bodies typically only really need one third of what we eat; the other two thirds is superfluous and is stored as fat, clogs up arteries, creates bulges in our midriff, makes us lethargic or hyperactive and essentailly promotes sickness.

That is not to say that food is the only reason we become sick but it is increasingly a factor in those lifestyle diseases that are rife in the Caribbean – Obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cancers. And for those people who say they use certain “non-foods” because they are cheap, well you end up paying twice – once at the checkout counter in the supermarket and then at the hospital or clinic or pharmacy looking for an antidote for the “non-food” you’ve ingested.

We should approach food in a traditional African cultural way. Most of what we need to know about how to eat is already known. Our fore parents knew it and so did we until we allowed “nutrition experts” and advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense ancestral traditions, the testimony of our senses, the wisdom of our fore-mothers and the evidence of our bodies’ health. Our diet must be a holistic activity. More than just a physical act, it includes psychic and spiritual components for example, prayers, libation, family gathering etc. The following are some important factors to consider.
• Communal sharing of food is important. Shared meals are about much more than fuelling bodies. They are uniquely human institutions where our species exercise language and this thing we call culture. It is at the communal table that we socialise and civilise our children, bless the food and teach them manners and the art of conversation. It is at the communal table that we can reinforce social norms about sharing, empathy, greed and waste. Communal meal sharing as opposed to the “fast-food” culture strengthens family life, and it reduces the likelihood of snacking.

We need to practise personal responsibility. Use at least the same level of care with which you choose your car or your clothes when you choose your food.

Eating should be a thoughtful process. Ask questions:-
• What is the brand? Typically the freshest food (from your backyard or your neighbour’s farm) is not labelled. The best food is home-grown, organic, local and pesticide free.
• What’s the colour? How does it look? Fresh fruits with a vibrant colour are best. If you must eat rice or flour, the brown version is better than the highly refined white flour or sugar etc.
• How efficient is it? What’s the calorie content of food? Will it give you energy for a few hours or will you be left feeling hungry in half an hour’s time? Foods high in fibre and complex carbohydrates that give a slow release of energy are more effective than foods that give a quick ‘sugar-fix’.
• What does it cost? Cheaper is not always better. There is often a hidden cost. Is it genetically modified? Where is the profit going? Will this food help, prevent or cause disease?

People of African descent have different nutritional and dietary requirements than other peoples. It’s just the way that we are wired. Take lactose intolerance (inability to digest milk) for instance. This is primarily a condition of people of African descent. It simply illustrates that we can’t eat what everyone else eats and assume that there will be no negative side effects.

We must minimize our consumption of denatured, highly refined, processed, synthetic chemical substances ie “non-foods”. Their constant consumption makes us “constipated slaves” physically, economically and mentally. Our obsession with sugar, flour, salt and fried food are addictions we cultivated from birth and early childhood. We should treat these food-like substances as carriers of ‘dis’-ease. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension and many cancers are generally the result of “food-paros”. We need to take these addictions seriously. We should introduce larger amounts of whole or live foods in our diets. By that I mean as fresh and pure as possible.

Even animals in nature understand that “Life begets life”. One has to wonder whether anything that needs to be cooked at high temperatures can still have much nutritional value, when we know that cooking destroys enzymes and vitamins and denatures fats and proteins rendering them less nutritious, less digestible and therefore constipating. Some foods however will need to be heated for reasons of sanitation; also when they have been stored for lean times cooking might be the only way they can be eaten, but fresher is better.

To further protect ourselves and facilitate our emancipation from Nutritional Slavery we need at the national level to:
• Reconsider the selling of our farm lands “willy-nilly” to anyone who can afford without having an idea of what will become of these lands in the long term. Why can’t we lease these lands? Will future generations have access to them to produce food when they eventually face the global food crisis akin to the present global economic meltdown?
• Improve our regulations to control and screen our imported foods.
• The Ministry of Health and Government needs to channel much more resources to educate citizens in order to effect behaviour change about these “non- foods” that are enslaving and killing them. This will help them to make wiser food choices for themselves and their families.

Our policy makers however will need to be mindful that seeking to convince individuals to practice healthy behaviours without addressing the broader socio-political, economic or cultural factors which may hinder such behaviour will be largely fruitless and cruel as it then holds the individual solely responsible for forces outside his/her control. Without a proactive comprehensive multi-sectoral government “healthy eating policy”, being ill becomes implicitly the individual’s fault and a condition that they deserve.

Finally, I submit that no social cry for African Liberation or Emancipation can succeed with a people who are constipated and enslaved by the “non-foods” they eat. So as we seek to further decolonize our minds and liberate ourselves from all forms of enslavement including Nutritional Enslavement, I recommend that we must as a priority revolutionise our diets in order to reclaim our minds. We are indeed what we eat!

May the spirits of my ancestors be pleased.