This week on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Dr. Christine McCullum-Gomez. Chris is a registered dietitian, writer, speaker and consultant. She serves as a column editor for the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (JHEN), and is a member of the JHEN Editorial Review Board. Needless to say, Chris has a plethora of nutrition knowledge.
Chris believes that we should be on the offensive rather than defensive when it comes to our health. In her words, “Treating diseases is much more expensive than preventing them.” In order to help prevent health problems, she says we should begin in the grocery store. And instead of buying the cheaper foods, which are often high in omega 6s (bad fats), we should look for healthier foods. Though healthy foods are often more expensive, they are better for the body and merely reflect the cost of producing them sustainably.
Chris can be described as a different kind of dietitian. Instead of only focusing on a healthy diet, she also focuses on the environmental impact of the food we consume. Chris says, “Biodiversity is connected to both environmental and human health.” She believes it is important to preserve and pass along the concepts of biodiversity and environmental health for generations to come.
To learn more about Chris, her work and her views as a dietitian listen at the link above, or you can listen on-the-go at iTunes and Stitcher. Read more of Chris’s writings at her website, www.sustainablerdn.com.
At about 8:30, where Ms. McCullum-Gomez says “having an omega 3 to omega 6 ratio,” it should say “omega 6 to omega 3.”
At 23:19, Ms. Marquez misstated two organizations’ names: the “National Dietitian Association” should be the “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,” and the “Society for Nutrition Educators” should be the “Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.”
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Chris McCullum-Gómez
November 28, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Dr. Christine McCullum-Gómez, who is a registered dietitian, writer, speaker, and consultant, with expertise in food security, food systems, organic agriculture, sustainability, and school and worksite wellness. Chris wears many hats, as you can see, and she has worked on biotechnology policy development, participated in the development of international food safety and environmental standards, taught at Mansfield University, and, on top of it all, is a mother of twins. Welcome, Chris!
CHRIS MCCULLUM-GOMEZ: Well, thank you, Theresa, for having me today. It’s a pleasure.
TM: As I look at this huge list of the things that you’re interested in, and all of it near and dear to my heart, which I sort of put together as the Good Food movement, I just wonder, Chris, what brought you to the career that you have?
CM: Well, it’s really interesting. When I started my undergraduate degree in nutrition, I thought I would be spending the majority of my career as a clinical dietitian. But then when I worked in the hospital, I realized that trying to educate patients after they had a heart attack, stroke, it wasn’t the ideal time for them to be receptive to receiving that education. So then, when I went for my master’s degree, I looked into the field of nutrition education. And I did find that nutrition education behavior change was very important. But then I realized if we want to make change that’s systemic and long-lasting, we have to affect policy.
So that’s when I did an internship at the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington, D.C. And after that, I studied at Cornell University. I took a wide variety of courses—of course, nutrition policy was one of those courses. Then I expanded my horizons by taking a six-credit one-year course in environmental policy with Dr. David Pimentel. So that, I would say, is how I ended up where I am today, with an interest in food systems, food security, and sustainability.
TM: Well, it just seems like a pretty, all related and all very, very connected. I was just thinking about, you know, one of the descriptions of your work is that you’re an environmental dietitian. And I had the great pleasure of interviewing Joan Gussow a while ago. I was always taken with her quote, “I trust butter versus margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” But I also was very amazed when she said, [paraphrased quote] “When I became a nutrition educator at Columbia, nutrition was only from the fork to your body. That was it. And anytime I wanted to bring the environment into education, there were people who wanted to slap my hands on that.” And so how did this whole look at health from a dietitian’s point of view, how is it that you’re able to be an environmental dietitian? Is it much more accepted today, I guess is the question. And how did that come about?
CM: Well, I think that today it is more acceptable. I think that there’s more research. And I think that the definition of environmental nutrition depends on the person as well as the organization that one works for.
So environmental nutrition could encompass things that, for example, would be the number of farmers’ markets one has in a community; the number of CSAs or community-supported agriculture farms. However, it also could mean looking at the water, looking at the soil, to see if there are chemicals present that could affect reproductive health, attention deficit disorder, autism, and even chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
TM: And possibly obesity—could that be part of it too, or not, since we seem to have such a huge epidemic?
CM: Yes, and I think that the research, there is more research being done, and also more recently looking into the possibility that the use of certain antibiotics and the contribution to the obesity epidemic. And as you may know, the majority of antibiotics are used at low levels and they’re fed to animals, both in their feed and in their water. So that is something that really needs to be looked at in more detail. And of course, the overuse of antibiotics by doctors who might want to give a mother a prescription so that she can take her son or daughter back to the daycare when she needs to go to work.
TM: And so, you know, there’s been so much ongoing, almost every week, articles about antibiotics as being such a difficult topic for us. The big message that we hear is that the overuse of it in livestock is creating immunities for humans. And you have sent many links out about this issue. How is your assessment of that today?
CM: Well, I’ve read several books that have enlightened me. Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes—you may be familiar with that book. And that’s where I was really pleasantly surprised to see a medical doctor talk about the need for more research on this topic—and as you probably know, treating diseases is much more expensive than preventing them—to really focusing on primary prevention. And for me, that includes spending more money at the grocery store. So looking at food quality—so yes, of course, grass-fed, organic beef as well as pasture-raised animal products, cage-free eggs, all of these things cost more. But they cost more because they actually reflect the cost of the production.
And actually it’s also extremely important that we support farmers, because if farmers go out of business, then we won’t be able to sustain ourselves in the future. And I think supporting farmers with the practices that we want them to use is extremely important.
TM: As I have said, [I] just so enjoy a lot of the links that you send out weekly, sometimes even more. And I just read the link that you sent out a week ago, which was about contribution of the omega 6/omega 3 to obesity, which is certainly a very important topic, I think, for anyone who wants to talk about our health. Here is a quote: “Advances in modern agriculture” could be contributing to obesity. What do you think, what was meant by that, “advances in modern agriculture”?
CM: Okay, well, I would say there are both direct and indirect effects. Now, if we are subsidizing a small number of products, and because of that they’re less expensive, and people who are living on poverty wages can only afford to buy those products—so even if they’re aware that having an omega 3 to omega 6 [correction: omega 6 to omega 3] ratio that is, say, 3 to 1, which would be better than 50 to 1, which is what the Western diet is—they may want to purchase those products but they can’t afford to because they live on poverty wages.
So I think one of the things we really need to look at is increasing the minimum wage. And then we also need to make sure that food and nutrition assistance programs allow people to participate in community-supported agriculture programs. Not everyone can afford organic, but if they have a CSA that has local products, the farmers may actually be raising the animals and growing crops organically but they may not have money to get certification.
So the system is very complex, and obviously, while some people are not happy with the subsidies, I think that in the short term there are other options, such as trying to get lower- and middle- to lower-income folks participating in a community-supported agriculture program. And they may even be able to get benefits from their health insurance for doing so, because it’s prevention. And again, prevention is much less expensive than treatment of diseases.
TM: I have to say, so many of your statements that made me want to ask so many different questions. But let’s back up, because some of our listeners may not really understand when we start talking about omega 6 and omega 3, and what does that have to do with subsidies? I believe what you’re talking about is the subsidies in corn and soy, which is basically omega 6—
TM: —versus omega 3. But maybe you can say a little bit about omega 6 and omega 3. We know both of them are needed for a healthy system, so why would having more of one than another be problematic?
CM: Well, a higher level of the omega 6 to the omega 3 could result in inflammation, and inflammation is really at the root of many diseases. And there’s actually a brilliant scientist named Dr. Rodney Dietert, and he actually has looked at how inflammation, systemic inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases. And if you look at how our animals are raised, it used to be that animals were raised eating grass, which their systems are meant to digest. Now they’re being given things like corn and even candy. So if the animals aren’t being nurtured and fed properly, there are going to be even stress hormones that could be released. And then we, as humans, consume those products.
TM: So omega 6 is more predominant in non-grazing animals, is I think what I’m hearing you say. But when you talk about, gee, if we could have lower-income folks looking at buying from farmers’ markets or CSAs, so that, of course, fresh vegetables, we know, are so healthy for everyone—are they oftentimes higher in omega 3?
CM: Well, again, it depends on the products. You know, we’re looking at mostly fat-containing products. Of course, you can have some plant sources, like flax seed. But the ones that are going to be absorbed more easily are going to be the animal sources. And there may be some people who choose not to consume animal products, and they may choose to get the omega 3s from plants. But the conversion is actually lower. And so that’s one of the things, if you look at someone like Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, she’s been working in this area for a very long time. So if you look at the kinds of oils, you know, like I said, animal products, plant products, it’s really a mix.
And one of the things that I advocate for is the Mediterranean diet. And the Mediterranean diet is not meant to be a low-fat diet, because traditionally it was not adopted as a low-fat diet. And so more and more scientists are looking towards the Mediterranean diet. Of course, if you have type 2 diabetes, you have to [do] carbohydrate counting, calorie counting. But for a generally healthy population, adoption of the Mediterranean diet is actually becoming advocated for by more and more medical doctors and scientists all around the world.
TM: So it’s really this good fat in the Mediterranean diet that is really a part of that, isn’t it? It’s not heavy meat either. Isn’t it like meat more as a condiment or more at the side?
CM: Yes, meat is a condiment or a side. That’s how it was traditionally used. And for many people who are healthy, they use that diet today.
TM: You know, and now going back to this connection between this imbalance of omega 6 and omega 3 in the Western diet—doesn’t it have a lot to do with the fact that most… Like, I’ve read 80 percent of the grocery products are high omega 6, corn- and soy-based.
CM: Well, of course, it makes sense that if that’s what’s being produced, that’s what’s going to be distributed in the grocery store. Now, you have to realize that there are some products that have omega 3s added to them. For example, like tortillas, you know, the flour tortillas; even some milk products have the added omega 3.
Now, what I always recommend as a dietitian is to stay on the outer perimeter of, if you are in a grocery store. That’s really what you want your grocery cart to contain, is more of the products from the outer perimeter of the grocery store. So you’re talking about, you know, fish with omega 3s; you’re talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, other plant-containing items. Like I said, some people may buy flax seeds that contain omega 3. And again, I tend to look at it more as the diet as opposed to any one individual food.
TM: Well, that makes perfect sense, because it’s a holistic approach. I notice you didn’t say whole milk. That’s been demonized now for so many decades. What do you think about whole milk for children?
CM: Well, again, I think it’s one of those things that pediatricians are taking a hard look at. And it used to be that everyone wanted to switch from whole-fat to low-fat or even nonfat now. And I think that if you’re looking at the brain, the human brain, and how important it is to have those healthy fats when a child is developing. So I do think there is a movement among pediatricians and other health-care professionals to look at the higher-fat milk, especially among children, especially young children who are developing and growing.
TM: And what about this obesity that everyone’s so worried about?
CM: Well, I think one of the things that people were worried about more recently is that if they were switching calories from fats to carbohydrates, that they wouldn’t have enough satiety. They wouldn’t have that fullness feeling, so that they may eat more, and so that their body cues wouldn’t tell them to stop eating, because they’re not getting that satiety with a higher-fat diet, because they were eating more carbohydrates. And then they may have had cravings for other foods that were not as nutritious.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Dr. Christine McCullum-Gómez, who is a registered dietitian, writer, speaker, and consultant, with expertise in food security, food systems, organic agriculture, sustainability, school and worksite wellness, as well as a lot about policy and pesticides and our health—a real wealth of information.
So this article by Kristen Monaco, you were sharing with all of us, there was a statement in there that kind of simplified it a little bit, saying omega 3 provides fat-burning signals to the body, whereas omega 6 sends “store fat” signals to the body. And so the premise is that maybe this big imbalance between omega 6 and omega 3 could potentially be the reason why Americans’ obesity is getting so out of control. And I’m interested in this because I understand that our health care costs twice as much in the United States than in Europe. Coincidentally, I believe we’re way more obese also in the United States than we are in Europe. Do you think there’s any correlation there?
CM: Yeah, I think it’s possible. I think it’s a line of research that needs to be explored. And actually we need to provide more funding for that type of research, because without research, policymakers are not going to be convinced. And so I do think that it is a line of inquiry that should be supported with federal research dollars.
And one of the things that I think is also frightening some foodies is the spread of the Western diet to other parts of the world. So you may have had countries in Europe, other parts of the world, where they were following a very healthy traditional diet, and if you have fast food coming in and people are consuming fast food four or five times a week instead of a very occasional treat, that over time this problem could spread to other parts of the world, which we don’t want to see. And if you look at organizations like Slow Food, they have been really the champions of trying to teach people the importance of cultural food habits. And it’s not just about the food—it’s about the social relationship, spending quality time, eating slowly. It’s really a way of life as opposed to just looking at the food.
TM: You know, Chris, going back to this culture, these social relationships and then our impact on the rest of the world, you suggest that perhaps the Mediterranean diet, which is not [unclear] American diet, maybe we should be influenced more from other countries than us trying to influence others. What about this thing that people say, that if everyone in the world ate like us we would need four Earths?
CM: Well, yes, I think if we’re looking at the carbon footprint, if we’re looking at how we live our life, the choices that we make, the amount of time we spend driving, the amount of meat and the amount of energy that we use. And yes, if other countries chose to adopt the habits that we had here, we would need four Earths. And that’s the concept that’s referred to as the planetary boundaries.
TM: And what do you think—how can we start communicating this better, out there into the world, both nationally and internationally?
CM: Well, I think taking it one step at a time, making small changes. Because I think if we try to present all of this at once, it may be too overwhelming for people and they may tune it out. So, for example, looking at meatless Mondays—some people may not be ready to give up meat completely, but they may be willing to give up meat one, two, or even three times a week. So making incremental, small changes. Exercise—if you currently don’t exercise, you may want to get 30 to 45 minutes of moderate physical activity, and there are different activities one can do: walking, gardening.
Gardening is actually a very effective way to burn calories, and you also get that connection to the earth. And there are research studies showing that people, both adults and children, who spend more time in nature are more healthy, both physically and mentally. And having that connection is extremely important, especially in neighborhoods where there may be very high crime rates. So getting people to connect to nature, to grow something, to take care of something, can actually have a plethora of effects that cascade.
And I think, again, if there are more federal research dollars to support this line of inquiry, our policy makers are going to be more likely to make changes in policy.
TM: Well, I hear you loud and clear when you keep saying, goodness, why can’t we put more money toward researching health? And I know, certainly, from my point of view, I would like to see a lot more research on so many things, and I’m going to agree with you all the way.
You know, you seem to be a very different kind of dietitian. I have been to different dietitian events—i.e, the National Dietitian Association [American Dietetic Association] has one; the Society for Nutrition Educators [Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior], and so on. Do you see yourself as slightly different, maybe a progressive dietitian?
CM: I don’t know. I think that my education at Cornell influenced me. Again, Dr. David Pimentel—he was very knowledgeable, and that’s where I learned a lot about the importance of biodiversity and how biodiversity is connected to both environmental and human health. So if we want the next generation to be able to understand these concepts, we need to have curriculums that support environmental nutrition and sustainability. And I think we are seeing more and more of that. If you look at Tufts University, if you look at other universities, such as the University of Massachusetts, and there are a number of other universities out there that they’re really responding to the interests and the demands that their students are asking from the professors.
And so I think that for the next generation, we need to get the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to support sustainability, environmental nutrition, and then have dietitians look for different jobs. There are always going to be dietitians who want to work in the hospital setting, and that’s very important. But we may need to expand the types of job opportunities that are available. And again, can we advocate for full-time equivalence for dietitians to be out there talking about the importance of the environment in addition to behavior change, which is very important?
TM: Very important. And I’m glad that you brought it back to that, because you started out talking about behavior. How, how difficult it is to, you know, even people who know they’re sick, change their diet. And now I want to come back to this idea that you brought up about how important culture and community is. And how could all of us start thinking more about the culture of good food and community? And, you know, what kinds of, for our listeners, what kinds of things could we be doing to shift our culture a bit, without having to take on massive behavior change?
CM: Well, I think I would suggest that people look, if they can go to the USDA website, and see if there are farmers’ markets in their neighborhood; they can see if there is a community-supported agriculture farm that they could support. It could be that they’d get deliveries once or twice a week. They can grow a garden. If they don’t have the space to grow a garden in their backyard, they can try a kitchen garden. Or there may be a Farm to School program.
And also, you talk about culture and encouraging people to enjoy meals together, and so the importance of cooking. And I think that is one thing that Joan Gussow was an advocate for many, many years, of the importance not only of growing healthy food but understanding how to cook it. And so that’s where organizations such as Slow Food come in.
TM: Thank you for adding that, because we have November coming upon us, when people come together. So I’m so thankful—yes, cooking and sharing food probably is pretty high on the top three most joyous events that we can do together.
And before I let you go, any websites that you would recommend to our listeners that they should, you know, maybe find more information about the Good Food movement? Anything that comes to your mind?
CM: Well, there is one locally based organization that I have the pleasure of knowing about here in Houston, called Recipe for Success; and also out of Houston, called Urban Harvest. And I’m going with local organizations because that’s who I’m familiar with. And then of course Slow Food would be another really important organization. I believe there are chapters of Slow Food around the country and around the world. And then finally, many cities have Edible magazines, and that would be another way to learn about local events that they can actually become participants in.
TM: Oh, thank you so much for bringing up the Edibles! I have seen many of them, and they’re excellent—they’re generally beautiful, and their recipes are always so good. This is an exciting time to be in the Good Food movement, so much good stuff going on.
CM: Well, thank you for inviting me. I really, really appreciated being with you today on this interview.
TM: Thank you so much for all the good information, once again, that you keep sharing with all of us.
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