How the colon got the shaft

Amidst the usual mob of protesters and tear gas, WTO ministers met last December in Hong Kong to discuss – among many things – the crippling global affect of low-cost export commodities from the US made possible by mammoth farm subsidies. However, the effects of US agricultural policies on global pricing continue to overshadow the more devastating health effects of these policies within our own borders.

The farm bill signed by President Bush in 2002, which pledged an astounding 190 billion in subsidies over the next ten years, was the latest in a long line of legislation that likely guaranteed that the next generation of Americans will suffer higher rates of obesity and diabetes, have more strokes and heart attacks, and consume less fiber than any previous generation in human history. While bulging waist lines and clogged arteries grab all the headlines, the decreasing health of our colons through diminishing amounts of dietary fiber as a function of government policy is a looming and disastrous health crisis that will knock the healthcare system flat on its back.

As an anthropologist, I’ve had the opportunity to peer into our nutritional past at the bits and pieces of meals and lifeways left by our ancient ancestors. Fortunately, they were messy.

In ideal preservation contexts we often see evidence for daily intake of diverse species of plants that provided 75, 100, and up to 150 grams of fiber a day. This is similar to fiber intake noted among many healthy, rural Asian people today, or what we saw 75 years ago in places like South Africa, Uganda, and other far away non-westernized regions. But in the US today, depending on gender, age, and activity level, our government recommends we only eat 25 to 38 grams a day – give or take. Based on this guidance, Americans promptly consume about half of that.

The important physiological role of fiber in human health lies in its ability to stimulate the growth and health of the trillions of good bacteria that live permanently in our colons. These evolutionary hitch-hikers have evolved a special symbiotic relationship with humans over eons and have become so intertwined in our health and well-being they are considered an organ. Importantly, these healthy bacteria require fiber to live.

Our diminishing dietary intake of fiber is literally starving our colonic bacteria, inhibiting their ability to defend us against invading pathogens that make millions of people sick, many of whom will die. A healthy and well-fed population of colonic bacteria increases mineral absorption (think calcium), has positive affects on biomarkers of colon cancer, reduces symptoms of IBS, and reduces the risk to coronary heart disease by modulating bad cholesterol. And the list goes on.

We cannot simply go from a species that evolved on a diet of nutrient-rich fibrous plants, to one that eats almost no fiber. The current US guidelines for fiber intake are – from an evolutionary perspective – in actuality, low fiber recommendations that represent nothing more than the efforts of lobbyists who represent industries that have an interest in seeing the “number of servings” for their “food groups” maintained or increased.

To understand the decreasing role of fiber in the American diet, we need not look farther than farm subsidies. Aside from boosting profits within the industry, these subsidies result in low-cost commodities – especially grains – which end up as highly processed (read: no fiber) ingredients in many popular foods. This is one of the reasons you can buy five boxes of macaroni and cheese – which supplies nearly 6,000 nutrient-poor calories – for $1. Further, the average American derives nearly 40 percent of daily caloric needs from heavily subsidized added sugars and fats/oils.

Though the government says we should eat more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, these categories historically receive very few subsidies. This is why fresh fruits and vegetables increased a whopping 120 percent in price from 1985 to 2000, while grain, fats/oil, and sugar-laden products increased far less. With an ever-increasing number of Americans barely making ends meet, choices for “what’s for dinner” have already been economically predetermined, and fiber-rich foods can barely be seen on the plate.

As anthropologists of the future look back upon our society, what will they see? Unless we stem the tide of unbalanced agricultural subsidies and honestly address the gaps in nutrition education among consumers, I’m afraid we will be judged on a never-ending sea of oversized caskets below a surface littered with empty prescription bottles and crumbling Food Pyramids built by congressional pharaohs run amok.

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