This week I have been listening to the Food Revolution Summit, an online conference put together by John Robbins and his son, Ocean Robbins. For those who are not familiar with John Robbins, he is the son of Irv Robbins, founder of Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream. As he tells his story, years ago he rejected the family business and fortune to seek a simpler life. In 1987, he wrote Diet For A New America launching his crusade to make the world healthier and more sustainable. He is an animal rights activist who advocates a vegan diet, and he has won numerous humanitarian prizes. His conference brings together big names in nutrition and health and celebrities whose outlook match his own.
Online conferences are the rage. Each week, I get at least one email inviting me to register for a conference for a health, nutrition, mental health or other issue. The formats are similar. The organizer gets a group of thought leaders to agree to a one-hour interview in which they exchange ideas based on the interviewer’s questions. This week, the interviewer is John Robbins. He has an agenda, as do most of the conference organizers, and the people interviewed have the opportunity to advance their own agendas at the end of the interview. Some organizers seek to provide a range of points of views while others pick those who confirm their own point of view. Most conference organizers offer conference packages, MP3 and MP4 collections of the interviews, sometimes accompanied by transcripts, for sale before (at a discount), during or after the conference (at a premium).
In the past year, I have signed up for several conferences. There is usually no cost to sign up and listen to the live stream. Most of the time, the interviews are available to listen to until the next day’s interviews begin, so it costs no money to tune in. And there is a ton of wisdom available for the taking. But listening reminds me of something Marc David cautions – sometimes too much information from experts can leave us confused and keep us from trusting our own gut wisdom. So if you decide to listen to any expert, take their wisdom as right for them and interesting to hear, but it should not become your authority.
In this week’s conference, John Robbins has asked every vegan advocate to weigh in on the Paleo movement. After the first round of questions, Robbins’ bias was evident, but I was curious that most of his interviewees chose to characterize the Paleo movement as one heavy on animal protein to the exclusion of other nutrient-dense foods. One nutritionist couldn’t understand how anyone can increase their fat intake without slathering their food with oil. They assume all meat consumed comes from antibiotic-treated, inhumanely-treated animals.
I understand the arguments about finding a sustainable way to feed the planet’s 7 billion people. I understand plant-rich may mean incorporating whole grains in parts of the world. But what passes for whole grain and healthy in this country is a joke, which is a huge problem with our food supply right now. We talk about high-quality protein and organic fruits and vegetables, and the Paleo enthusiasts I know build their diets around both. Terry Wahls, whom I have mentioned before, advocates in The Wahls Protocol (a diet based on Paleo principles), eating 9 cups of leafy, cruciferous and colorful fruits and vegetables daily complemented by small amounts of high-quality animal protein, nuts, seeds and seaweed. This is a far cry from the Paleo descriptions I have heard bantered about during the conference this week.
Everyone on both sides of the nutrition debate agrees the standard American diet is making Americans fatter and sicker. It is easier and healthier, at least in this country, to stop eating the stuff that masquerades as whole food, including the latest fad of highly-processed gluten-free packaged foods. Food companies are big business in this country, and they are a formidable opponent for advocates of a local, sustainable, farm-to-table culture. There are those who say it is too expensive to eat this way. When I see commercials for KFC buckets of chicken for $10.00, including a cake for dessert, I know this is an uphill battle.
My idea of a food revolution is to educate people without having the movement co-opted by big food companies, as happened with Michelle Obama’s campaign. I recently read about a contest for kids to put together the “ideal, healthy” lunch. The prize was a trip to the White House. I was going to suggest my granddaughters enter, except I knew they would not be able to comply with the requirement to have “all four food groups” on their ideal lunch plate, even though their lunch plates would have been full of nutrient-dense food and devoid of gluten, dairy and sugar. The notion that one’s nutrients must come from a balance of grains, dairy, animal protein and vegetable is archaic and misguided, driven by the USDA, who represents the interests of US farmers and ranchers. Each of us has our own nutritional needs. Let’s clear the way for us each to discover the path that works best.