Growing Health

Rebecca Hirsch
February 01, 2005

"America is a place that serves as a model for the rest of the world for eating behavior," said Dorothy Blair, "and it has been modeling some pretty bad behavior."

Blair, an assistant professor of nutrition at Penn State, spoke at "Farming for the Future," the 14th annual conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, held earlier this month at University Park. One of the event's many sponsors was Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Nearly 1,500 people attended this year's three-day gathering, which had the theme Reclaiming Health: Nourishing Our Farms and Families. While health was a recurring motif, the bulk of seminars and workshops were practical offerings geared to help Pennsylvania's small farmers. At mealtimes, the stage was given over to wholesome, homegrown food, much of it donated by Pennsylvania growers and prepared by chef Ken Stout of the Penn Stater Conference Center. A glance at the menu revealed tempting offerings like exotic mushroom and brie soup, organic mesclun salad, and roasted breast of chicken stuffed with fruits and spinach.

At the start of the conference, PASA board president Kim Miller, of Wolf Lake Farm in New Alexandria, criticized an industrial, profit-driven method of food production that he said produces "mountains of food and oceans of calories on the cheap," often to the detriment of good nutrition and good health.

Blair, in her talk, explored the connection between excessive consumption and poor health. She noted that the obesity rate in the U.S. is a whopping 31 percent, while life expectancy is 77 years. In Japan, by comparison, the obesity rate is just three percent and life expectancy is 81 years.

"What you eat will result in your health," Blair stressed. "Ninety percent of the diabetes in the United States is linked to obesity. Many cancers are associated with obesity." She pointed to research showing that vegetarians have lower body weight, lower blood pressure, and lower cancer rates. "It's not that meat is necessarily bad for you," she said. It's a question of what nutritious foods don't get eaten when meat is the focus.

Jennifer Wilkins, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, took aim at the current fad of meat-intensive, Atkins-style diets. She became motivated to research these diets, she s aid, after hearing of yet another study showing the weight-loss benefits of a low-carb diet. Her first concern was not health, however, but the environmental impact of so much meat consumption.

"I wanted to try to expand the discourse about diets," Wilkins said. Calculating the land required to produce food for the Atkins diet - not only for growing grain, but for grazing cattle - she compared the result to that for a more balanced diet based on the familiar USDA food pyramid, which limits meat consumption. The Atkins diet, she found, required 50 percent more farmland to produce the same number of calories.

At the close of the conference, keynote speaker Marion Nestle, a professor of nutritional sciences at New York University, talked about her research into the causes of obesity. Food industry tactics, Nestle said, play a larger role in the epidemic than people suspect. "The easiest way to get people to eat more," she said, "is to make the portions bigger."

For a nation struggling with its waistline, Nestle's advice was simple. Just eat fewer calories. Period.

"Larger portions have more calories," she said. "If I could get that one message across, we would be going a long way toward solving obesity."

Dorothy A. Blair, Ph.D., is assistant professor of nutrition and Science, Technology, and Society,

Last Updated February 01, 2005