A Big Idea Worth Sharing – My Would-Be TEDx Talk

A few months ago, I got a call from an organizer of TEDx Seattle, asking if I would audition for their 2015 season. It took me a few weeks to get on board with the idea, but eventually I agreed as I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to work with some great speaking coaches and have a forum through which to crystallize some of my current thoughts about food and health. Long story short, I was not selected. Fortunately, I’m okay with it as the exercise still provided much of what I was looking to achieve. I got some great coaching and had an opportunity to draft a big idea worth sharing.

As a way to close the loop, I thought I would write out my big idea here. It’s not as polished as I like to think it could be, but I certainly believe it’s important and that’s why I’m sharing it. It’s about the way we define “healthy” in our society, specifically healthy food, why I think we’ve got it wrong and how I suggest we change it.

As a naturopathic doctor, I’ve found a rather non-conventional use for my training as a nutrition and health strategist to the food industry.

Naturopathic medicine is based on a set of principles, and there are two of these principles that I refer to most in my role. The first is docere, doctor as teacher, which is the idea that the role of a physician is to share information that empowers others to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The other principle I frequently refer to is vis mediatrix naturae, also known as “the vis” or the healing power of nature, which is the idea that nature holds innate intelligence for how to be well.

It’s with this idea of “the vis” that I am struck by our current approach to health and nutrition science. Modern science allows us to drill down to amazing detail, seeing the microscopic elements of our world, and through this approach, identify and understand many important things. This approach has also led to the creation of a highly reductionistic framework where we understand things based on their individual elements versus the collective whole. In this way, the idea that the whole may somehow be greater than its parts…that there is an innate intelligence in the balance Mother Nature has created, is largely forgotten.

And from a food perspective, this is absolutely the case. Foods are largely seen as carriers for their elements: protein, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A, C and E. How these element naturally exist in relation to each other, or if they exist naturally at all in relation to each other is no longer something we seem to question or even have a context with which to understand.

A great example that brings this reductionistic philosophy to life is our government’s current definition of a “healthy” food which is defined by limits on fat, sodium and cholesterol plus the presence of specific levels of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, or vitamins A or C. Based on this approach, a jelly bean with added vitamin C could technically meet the definition of “healthy” while an almond does not.

It should be no surprise then that consumers are confused by this and it shows. Rates of obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases that are largely influenced by dietary choices are at epidemic levels. As a nation we are sick and fat and clearly unable to make healthful choices for ourselves and our families. The principle of docere in the food industry is failing. As the saying goes, this reductionistic approach to food and nutrition has left us unable to see the forest for the trees.

So, what if instead of continuing to focus on the individual elements, we took a step back and started to prioritize the bigger picture, or in the case of food, the whole apple, the whole broccoli, and the whole soy bean? I believe we can re-frame our understanding and approach to healthy food by doing two things:

  1. Reconnect with food in its natural state and understand what that means, especially from a nutrition perspective
  2. Trust that there is innate intelligence in the way food is naturally made and honor that innate intelligence

Fortunately, people are beginning to ask some of these questions and re-frame the way we define nutrition and health. Due to our current Food Movement, people are beginning to ask questions about how their food is processed, why their packaged fruit snack has a two year shelf life and if 30g of protein in their snack bar is realistic. And people are connecting the dots on a bigger level as well, asking questions about humane treatment standards for animals, genetic modification in food, and large-scale mono-cropping approaches to farming.

As someone who proudly considers the food industry to be her number one patient, I believe we have reached a tipping point and are primed to create a new framework for food and nutrition. Let’s ditch our reductionistic approach of jumping from high-protein to low-fat to vitamin-fortified trends and instead start examining the innate intelligence of nature.

And who better to do this than the Whole Food Markets, Wal-Marts, PepsiCos and Kelloggs of the world? That’s why making the decision to leave private practice and join the food industry ultimately became an obvious decision for me. With the principle of docere, doctor as teacher, and the food industry as my patient, I can bring “the vis”, the healing power of nature, to them…an industry that when it makes a small change has the power to impact the health of millions. That is the healing power of nature.

Image by Bartek Kuzia

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