Listen: Dr Caroline Leaf chats to Emma Mullings about the health principles in her latest book.
Dr Caroline Leaf is on a mission: to make Australians healthier. The South African neuroscientist , best known for her teaching on ‘rewiring’ your brain, has been touring the nation this month, speaking about her latest book, Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
She caught up with Emma Mullings at the Hope 103.2 studios for an eye-opening chat, leaving Emma wondering whether she can ever eat fast food again.
“In the last 50 years there’s been such a shift in people’s eating habits,” Dr Leaf said. “Kids are growing up on fast food. It’s become a ubiquitous problem. You go to the most remote parts of the world and you’ll find the modern American diet, you’ll find the McDonald’s logo, which is scary.”
Why is it so scary? Because of what’s in the food – and what’s not, says Dr Leaf.
The Modern Diet That’s Killing Us
“The modern American diet, it started around about 50 years ago,” Dr Leaf explained. “That’s when they started taking food and changing how they grow it.
“It’s very profit-driven, monoculture. That’s impacted the nutrition. Taking those products into the laboratory and fiddling with them and adding chemicals, by the end of the day, you are actually eating things that aren’t food.
“They have been so distorted that you’re eating food-like products that aren’t giving nutrition to your body, but are creating the lifestyle diseases that we see rampant today.”
‘Lifestyle diseases’ include Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, obesity, chronic renal failure, blocked arteries and some mental illness. These diseases – linked to both modern food and thinking habits – last year caused America’s early death rates to increase for the first time in decades.
“We can’t eat like this and then just expect our bodies and our earth to stay healthy…and then blame God.”
“We’ve seen kids as young as two with obesity, even younger,” Dr Leaf said. “Babies are born obese. So the way we eat as parents impacts our kids too.”
Dr Leaf, who is a Christian, often speaks in church settings encouraging believers to take a Biblical view of their health.
“As Christians, as stewards of creation, we can’t eat like this and then just expect our bodies and our earth to stay healthy…and then blame God. People ‘pray grace’ over it and hope it’s going to be okay. It doesn’t turn that processed food into organic kale. There’s a bit more responsibility involved.”
Why Mass-Produced Meat Isn’t Great for You
Meat, in particular, is one of the worst offenders in the Western industrial diet, because of the way it’s raised and produced for supermarkets and mass consumption.
“When happy cows, happy chickens, are doing what God made them to, they wander through the fields, they’re eating in a very relaxed way, at their own pace, eating herbs and grasses, they’re churning up the ground, they’re fertilizing, and there’s a complete balance in what you’d call agro-ecological methods,” she said. “The land benefits, the animals benefit and we benefit.”
“But when you take that away, and you try and increase production, these animals are taken out of the field, they are fed hormones to grow them quicker and fatter, they’re put into these mechanical lots where they can’t move around—totally abnormal.
“The stress affects their body, their hormones imbalance…they get [given] antibiotics because they get sick. So you are eating hormones, antibiotics, stressed animals.”
Not to Mention the Animal Rights Issues
Dr Leaf added that mass meat farming is cruel, and believes we should care for animals better.
“It’s unkind robotic feeding, robotic milking, and the females are kept pregnant the whole time to get the dairy,” she said. “They’re in pain, they treat them badly, they break their legs, they feed them grains and things that are very bad for their bodies.
“I mean, Google CAFO – concentrated animal feeding operations. You just have to take one look at those cows and you’ll start crying.”
In Australia, many dairy farmers are opposed to highly industrialised farming methods and are speaking out against it, Dr Leaf said.
Why Genetic Modification is a Worry
If there’s one agriculture issue that’s attracted a lot of debate in the past decade, it’s GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms. Dr Leaf is dead against them and recommends avoiding GMO ingredients.
GMO crops have been grown in Australia for 20 years and some are now approved for use in foods. Farmers are still debating over whether they are a good thing.
“God gave us seeds that reproduce…GMO seeds don’t…It’s a complete manipulation of the system.”
“Genetically modified is like a very fancy game of cut and paste where they’re fiddling with the DNA to create bug resistant products,” Dr Leaf said. “But the problem is…we don’t know the impacts on humans, on the land, on the animals, on the ecosystem, on future generations.
“God gave us seeds that are reproducable, so seeds will reproduce…whereas GMO seeds don’t. They last for one year and you have to repurchase. And they patent them. And all the diversity God’s given us, they breed that out. There’s just a complete manipulation of the system.”
We Need To Feed Ourselves ‘Real Food’?
Dr Leaf says that we need to feed our bodies ‘real food’, “the way God gave it to us”—even when it comes to chocolate.
“When you eat real food, you’re not going to eat too much,” she said. “You’re going to eat enough because it’s going to satisfy your body, whereas the modern American diet doesn’t. It’s been designed in the laboratories.
“They have laboratories…where they design how can they overcome the biological limit of your stomach…to overcome the hormones in the brain receptors…so that you actually eat more of this bad food which means they make more money.
“So with real food, you will eat the right amount.”
“Whole Food Is Too Expensive! And I’m Too Busy!”
Although whole, organically raised foods are more expensive, Dr Leaf said the more people buy them, the more prices will go down. But price shouldn’t be the main concern, she says.
“At the end of the day what is the real cost to your body? It’s a lot more costly down the line. Also [with ‘real food’], you’re going to eat less. You’ll be much more selective about what you buy and what you eat and you feed your body.”
“At the end of the day what is the real cost to your body?”
To nourish our bodies properly we need to actually make time for healthy eating, instead of trying to fuel ourselves on the run, Dr Leaf says.
“If you’re too busy, your body will not get nutrition out of it. Let’s say you’re eating really good health food but you’re rushed, worked up, upset, angry, any of those toxic emotions. Your body actually can’t digest the food properly.”
Be Aware of Marketing
As a neuropsychology specialist, Dr Leaf is particularly interested in the role of marketing and how it affects our shopping habits.
“As you walk in [to the supermarket], it’s all designed to catch your eye…to make you very aware with a lot of repetition, to build memories of brand,” she said. “Kids are marketed to with no control, and these food products are increasing obesity in young kids.”
She added that marketing of ‘fresh’ produce in supermarkets is deceptive, and that the word ‘fresh’ means little today because “most of those vegetables and fruits have been grown with…chemical substances”.
Changing Our Habits
Switching from a convenience-food lifestyle to a more organically based, whole-food lifestyle, takes effort—and can create withdrawal symptoms like headaches and cravings.
But Dr Leaf believes that by changing the family’s eating habits, a person can not only see improvements in their body, but in their childrens’ health and behavior too. And with four grown children now choosing healthy eating themselves, she says it’s up to parents to guide their childrens’ diets.
In Think and Eat Yourself Smart Dr Leaf outlines a plan of action for changing your thinking around food, your lifestyle, and your health.