Science Lecture: Food, Health, and Happiness

Why do our food choices matter? How can we feed ourselves and save the planet?

These are questions that Bonnie Modugno, MS, RN, nutrition consultant, speaker, and author answered at this week’s science lecture at SMC. She discussed dietary choices and their influences on our health and the environment.

Modugno is a registered dietician who specializes in infant and child nutrition, eating disorders, metabolic health, weight management, and sports nutrition.

Having taught nutrition at SMC for 15 years and at UCLA for 12, Modugno now has a private practice in Santa Monica. Sometimes Modugno is called upon as an expert during child custody cases where she must conduct dietary analysis research. She also conducts workshops and seminars for health care professionals and the public.

Bonnie Modugno poses for a photo.
Bonnie Modugno poses for a photo.

“I am increasingly concerned about the language used to describe what we should be eating,” said Modugno. “There’s no right way to eat… We are all different.”

Dietary guidelines are general as they are targeted towards everyone.

“There are a lot of tools out there, guiding people on how to eat,” said Modugno. “Everything from a diet for vegans, [who don’t consume or use any products derived from animals] to paleo, where many grains and legumes are [left out of the diet] and it’s mainly protein and produce.”

The problem is that what may work for some may not for others. Following a diet that encourages less protein or carbohydrates may help someone lose weight but it may trigger health problems for someone else. For example, a general food plan recommending fewer carbohydrates may provide insufficient calories and could lead to or worsen diabetes.

Modugno offers personalized nutrition counseling to help individuals find an eating plan that meets their individual dietary needs.

“Many of my clients need to eat more protein and fat in their diet,” said Modugno. “They’re healthier. Their diabetes, their weight, their metabolic health improves when they eat a better balance of protein and fat in their diet. Other people want to eat a vegan diet, a vegetarian diet. I want that realm to stay wide open, so there’s room for people to figure out the approach that works best for them without this angst of having to struggle with people’s ideas about how they should be eating.”

The two most common recommendations are: choose a plant-based diet and eat less meat. However, Modugno is concerned that these terms are being interpreted incorrectly, meaning people are getting less of what they need.

“One of my biggest concerns is that [the plant-based diet] has kind of been hijacked by the vegan community to say that plant-based means [consume] only plants,” said Modugno. “It was meant to mean [to put] more plant-food on the plate along with the meat."

These recommendations are worldwide. Health Care Without Harm, a collaboration of 250 different international institutions, says the 2016 dietary guidelines are to eat less meat and more plants.

“Many of them assume benefit,” said Modugno. “[But] I think they require greater scrutiny.”

She highlighted that a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, as many products derived from plants are unhealthy. For example, corn syrup is linked to a variety of health problems including obesity, liver damage, heart disease, and high cholesterol.

Modugno believes that how we choose to eat impacts how sustainable we are.

“The focus can’t be just on health,” said Modugno. “How we grow our food matters."

According to Modugno, changing the way we grow our food and how animals are fed is imperative.

“Current food systems jeopardize current and future food production,” said Modugno. “Conventional agriculture is a huge problem because it uses pesticides, which render the soil sterile, it wastes so much of our water supply by using it to dilute that pollution, and it reduces the biodiversity of the land."

Regenerative agriculture includes farming without chemicals, using crop rotation, and replacing nutrients to soil.

“Ninety-percent of U.S. cropland loses soil at a rate of 13 times above the sustainable rate,” said Modugno. “It takes approximately five-hundred years to replace one inch of lost of soil.”

Modugno stated that if 25 percent of farms shifted to more biodynamic and regenerative practices, there would be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farming, if 50 percent shifted, there would be a profound drop, and if 100 percent shifted, there will, as it’s claimed, be a reverse in climate change.

Another concern that Modugno has is how much food is wasted before it even has a chance to get into our body.

“We need to figure out how to waste less, so we can grow better,” said Modugno.