Hi there, I’m Dr. Nivien Saleh. My most recent academic appointment was at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, where I served as a professor of global studies. I hold a Ph.D. In political science from American University in Washington, DC. So yes, I am a doctor, but no, I am not a medical doctor. For some of my publications and media appearances, check out www.NivienSaleh.info.
You wonder: What does this background have to do with health? Or plant-based nutrition? So let me ask you a question in return: How important is it for a nation to have a healthy population? Right. It is super important. Healthy human beings are productive and innovative. They provide for themselves and others. They grow their economy. Human beings who are ill can’t accomplish these things. Just think of countries ravaged by AIDS, where entire generations of children are orphaned. By losing their parents they lose the connection to their society’s history and culture. Because they have to fend for their survival, they can’t go to school. And as a result, they don’t learn how to read and write and forgo their potential to become community leaders, creators, trendsetters. The less healthy a population is, the more their nation’s development gets stunted.
While AIDS makes itself especially felt in poor countries that cannot afford expensive drugs, a more silent epidemic is creeping through wealthy countries like the United States: Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome is an imbalance in the way individuals absorb, store, and process energy, marked by abdominal obesity (a paunch), high blood pressure, high fasting blood glucose levels, high triglycerides, and low levels of high-density cholesterol (HDL). It is caused by the way we eat. And if left untreated, it leads to Type 2 Diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Suffering from these conditions means getting overwhelmed with healthcare expenses, drowning in debt, managing illness rather than shaping communal happiness, and dying way before one’s time. I know a few things about this: In recent years I lost several close relatives to the Metabolic Syndrome.
So yes, nutrition is political. And here’s how significant it is: According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, in 2012 there were 29.1 million Americans with diabetes. That’s a whopping 9.3% of the population. But only 21.0 million were diagnosed, which means that 27.8% of the diabetes population had no idea they were suffering from the disease. What’s more, 86 million Americans aged 20 years or older are afflicted with prediabetes. You read correctly: One third of the U.S. population is either diabetic or prediabetic!
America is wealthy, and there are many other rich countries facing the same challenges. In Qatar, a tiny nation in the Persian Gulf with an abundance of natural gas, the government spends $2,960 per person per year on treatments for Diabetes. In Europe, Metabolic Syndrome is on the rise too, and the same is true for many other industrialized nations.
The root cause of the problem is the way we feed ourselves: In the United States our diet is high in fat, sugar, animal products. Not only do we consume more calories than we can healthily process, but we also consume the wrong kind of calories: Instead of eating food that is nutritionally dense, we eat things that through processing have been stripped of many important, health-giving, nutrients. In addition our diet is too acidic, thanks to the high sugar and protein content. For our body this means it has to work extra hard to keep our pH balance at 7.4. In the long run, it neutralizes this acidity by pulling calcium out of our bones. Perhaps you have noticed that in the U.S. osteoporosis is at an all-time high – the National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates the number of Americans living with or being at risk for osteoporosis at 54 million, and it says that much has to do with poor nutrition. The International Osteoporosis Foundation, moreover, warns that “if current trends continue, the figure will climb to more than 61 million by 2020.”
People want to live healthy lives. The problem is that feeding oneself is a necessity, a fact which makes for a lucrative processed food industry. Food manufacturers gain by labeling their foods health foods, even when there is not much health to them, and producers of dietary supplements gain by announcing that that they have found the one pill for painless dieting. Consumers find themselves in a maze of fads and misinformation, and it becomes difficult for them to do the right thing.
My interest in nutrition is rooted in a desire to be healthy and protect my loved ones from illness. It has been nurtured by my love of learning, my talent for research, and my multi-cultural background, which teaches me that eating is a deeply cultural activity. At some point I realized that I could use my knowledge to help society be the best it can be.
On these pages I will share my journey – the things I have learned and the insights I am only now beginning to acquire. Thank you so much for stopping by, and please do join me for the ride!
Nivien Saleh, Ph.D.