Some people “eat to live” while others “live to eat,” and these two examples embody two extreme ways of defining nutrition. The first assumes that people eat to meet their physiological needs and stave off hunger pangs, the second implies a deeper, more complex relationship with food that requires a level of planning, anticipation, and contentment.
Unfortunately, the act of eating is far more complex and multi-faceted than these two extremes suggest. It affects our psychological makeup, our social environment, our genetic makeup, our economic situation, class, and even the availability of food.
By the early twentieth century, science had advanced enough to begin to understand what nutrients our bodies needed and in what amounts. Today, however, we have come to realize that while the diet in the western world theoretically provides all of our nutrients, it also directly contributes to some diseases. Today, the focus is on which nutrients directly cause disease, and we are learning that the best way to address nutritional needs is through “optimal nutrition.” However, changing people’s eating habits is actually quite difficult and underscores the difficulty of even defining nutrition. At best, it can be defined as the study of people’s relationship to food.
Another definition can be the nutrients that the body needs to grow, maintain cells and produce, but the danger with this definition is that people don’t eat nutrients, they eat food. This is underscored by increases in the mortality and morbidity rates of many diseases such as cancer, bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, all of which are food or diet related.
In 1997, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (IARC) consistently and scientifically evaluated the role of food in the development of cancer. Most cancers are more common in the Western world, the Chinese call breast cancer the rich woman’s disease, and some cancers are up to 30 times more common in the West. This would suggest that there is a strong link between the environment and cancer because while we tend to have the idealized thought that everything is cleaner in the third world, this is not necessarily the case.
Many different observational studies have been conducted comparing communities and their way of life, including groups within groups and migrant studies. However, there is still no evidence for biological mechanisms or causality of cancer, and all findings are supported by preliminary experimental evidence.
Eventually we will be able to link biological markers and genetics, but more genetic research needs to be done before then. Many of the studies have allowed researchers to calculate risk from exposure to certain factors, such as the hormones in red meat.
Thanks to Rita Goldman