30 foods, 5 colors

Diet diversity and variety doesn’t just provide lots of different nutrients that the body needs but other important non-nutrients such as antioxidants that becoming very critical in decreasing the risk of diet-related noncommunicable diseases. And although we have nutrigenomics to thank for our understanding of the importance of diet on disease risk, we are just hitting the tip of the iceberg on how foods, the different types within a food group and the different types of varieties within one particular food interacts with the human body.

It is not so easy to define what is a “diverse” diet without getting into details of where someone lives, how the live, what they have access to, and what they like to eat. There are diversity “rules” and there are “diets” that have been shown to be beneficial for nutrition and better health. The Mediterranean diet is one. The Japanese diet is another. A mixture of both is even better – the “japomediterranean”! Some say to put lots of color on your plate, and get bright colors in the diet like purples, red, greens, yellows and oranges. Nice concept. My friend told me that in Japan there is a rule that one should consume 30 different food items each day. Even better concept. And probably also means smaller portions of many foods, the brass ring to maintaining weight.

But what does one do in remote, rural parts of Africa where subsistence farming is the common thread? There is little access to lots of varieties of foods, and they basically grow what they eat (but are mostly net buyers). Promoting diet diversity gets tricky. If food and diet diversity could solve all the problems, I don’t think we would have the burden of undernutrition that we face globally. It is a complicated answer and story.

No doubt that diet diversity is critical for optimal nutrition. A recent study showed that a lack of diversity in consumed food groups was a strong predictor of stunting across all age groups of children under five in rural Bangladesh, regardless of breastfeeding status, morbidity, gender, and maternal and household characteristics.

But how to ensure that the kid in the Bronx who lives in a food desert gets more than just cheetos for 89 cents, or the kid who lives in Dertu Kenya where the only things that grow are camels and goats, and the occasional WFP food assistance truck from the mirage?

One place to start is with agriculture itself. Moving beyond just growing monoculture crops, which mistakenly America has done to its detriment, but to start growing diverse crops, and promoting more agricultural biodiversity for home consumption. We have to bring the land back to our plates, and those that live primarily off the land, to give them the resources to diversify their palate and pockets.

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