“In food matters, we need to go back to our grandmothers’ wisdom and way of doing things”
Interview to the doctor Carme Valls about the importance of diet for health and the keys to healthy eating.
Carme Valls Llobet is a doctor and the director of the “Women, Health and Quality of Life” programme of the Centre d’Anàlisi i Programes Sanitaris [Centre for Health Programmes and Analysis]. She specialises in medicine with a gender perspective and has written several popular medicine books. Her latest book, Medi ambient i salut [Environment and Health], looks at the impact of the environment on health disorders, with an emphasis on women.
What is the relationship between health and food?
It is a fundamental relationship. Food is essential for repairing the daily wear and tear suffered by every cell in our bodies. It is fundamental not just while a person is growing but also when growth slows down and as we grow older. This is important because the elderly often eat much less healthily than they used to because they think they no longer need a healthy diet. And that’s not true. We always need to eat, and this must be done in a balanced way.
We need to breathe and eat to stay alive. The purer the air you breathe, the better; and the less contaminated the food you eat, the better.
Is a good diet synonymous with good health?
Yes, without a doubt. Food is key to the development of every tissue in the body. I can also tell you that some foods are more important at particular stages of life, and others are more important for men than for women. Women, for example, need iron supplements from the age of 11 or 12 because of menstruation; otherwise, they won’t have enough iron the following month. So they should aim for an iron-rich diet.
Nutrition is fundamental for our health because some tissues wear out faster than others. The musculoskeletal system, our bones, grow and get smaller every day. Cells are born and die every day. If the wear and tear is gradual and you do not repair it with what you eat, you can end up with cartilage disease, more osteoarthritis and more osteoporosis, and all this will make it harder to remain healthy as you age.
Does this mean that a healthy diet can help prevent disease?
Yes. Like I said, it can prevent osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, for example. It can prevent iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin B-12 and folate deficiency anaemia. Vitamin B-12 is mostly found in red meat, in some fish and in eggs; and folate can be found in green leafy vegetables.
It can also prevent cardiovascular disease, because a healthy diet means you eat protein and carbohydrates and not too much fat. If there isn’t too much fat, there’s also not too much cholesterol.
You can also help prevent infectious diseases by eating fruit ,which is high in vitamin C. Everyone is now rushing to the chemist to buy this vitamin to protect themselves against Covid, but it turns out that you can buy it every day at the market.
And can your mental health be related to your diet?
Yes, this is also true. When we analyse patients’ diet and nutrition, we find that people with anxiety or a certain degree of depression tend to have a bad diet, and making some changes to their meals and how they feed themselves can sometimes help with their condition. The condition then has to be treated, but precisely because the health condition has already led to inappropriate food habits, helping them to eat properly improves their neurotransmitters.
Is having a healthy diet merely a matter of the food you eat, or is it also about how you cook it?
Both. Because some foods, such as fruit, lose their vitamins when you cook them. But it’s also true, for example, that, in order for the body to absorb high quality protein, it must be cooked. Otherwise, you can’t absorb it. The human gut can only turn food into the proteins it needs if it is cooked. And that means cooking, not burning it to a crisp! [laughs] Some vegetables can lose their vitamins and minerals if you overcook them. You have to find the right balance for each type of food.
What are the keys to a healthy diet beyond the social trends surrounding certain foods and products?
The keys are diversification and the use of local products, so you can trace them back to their origin, know where they come from, what has been used to grow them, etc. We have got used to eating everything all year round, and this isn’t good either for our health or that of the planet.
We must find a way to strike a balance in what we eat and base our diet on seasonal food because, in addition, when we do this we will realise that nature is wise. For example, we eat oranges and tangerines in the winter, when it’s cold, and this makes sense because they are the fruit with the highest vitamin C content. We need to go back to our grandmothers’ wisdom and way of doing things. Find a balance with what’s available at the market and adapt to each moment while avoiding boring repetition.
What impact can the agrochemicals used in conventional agriculture have on consumer health?
Residues from the pesticides used in agriculture act on the human body as endocrine disruptors, substances that alter our hormone balance. This is more relevant in women than in men, because ingesting pesticide residue can affect the menstrual cycle. Eating these products leads to more cases of endometriosis, a greater risk of certain tumours in children of parents who were exposed to pesticides, and breast and prostate cancer in adults.
Some studies have shown that people on lower incomes have less healthy eating habits. Can a low-income household aspire to a healthy diet?
Yes, but it requires awareness. Some people have lost the habit: even on low incomes, our grandmothers managed to provide very balanced diets.
Some people with more precarious finances manage to stretch what little they have to make sure they get a more varied diet, but our greatest challenge is how to get toxin-free foods such as organic food to the entire population, rather than it being the privilege of the middle and upper classes.
What do you think of so-called “superfoods”?
I think some foods and very complicated diets have become fashionable, with promises of weight loss, greater energy or help with menstrual cycle problems. They are mostly fads pushed by commercial interests that are very detrimental to people’s health.
Take the case of avocados, for example: suddenly they’re wonderful, and no one seems to have stopped to think about what they cost to grow or about their environmental cost. What benefits do avocados have that other fruits or vegetables rich in vitamin A don’t have? How is an avocado any better than a tomato or a carrot, bearing in mind that these two can be grown locally?
They are just food fads that appear to be the solution to all our problems – eating such and such a product will make us healthier – but we need to know that any given food is not in itself a magic solution to all our problems.