How the Pandemic Has Redesigned the Food Pyramid

At the beginning of 2020, food analysts and registered dietitians predicted innovations in food and people’s increasing concern about the practices that go into making what’s on their plate would lead to improvements both for individuals and the planet. The Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute predicted sustainability would be a megatrend. One big way to work towards a greener food industry was by eating greens. 2020 would see aisles filled with plant-based ice creams, vegetable pastas, and, of course, plenty of chik’n tenders and meatless burgers. Not only would this help the planet by reducing the carbon footprint of heavy emitters like beef and cheese, but it would also improve individuals’ health. Getting sufficient servings of vegetables and fruits has long been one of the biggest challenges to a balanced diet. Incorporating a wider variety in convenient and novel ways was going to help.

Going from the global scale to the individual, the next trend focused on tailoring diets to meet individuals’ needs. As certain intolerances and allergies became more widespread, new diets also sprung up. The keto, paleo, and low FODMAP diets are various approaches to help people lose weight or ease digestive issues by eliminating certain food groups. One of the big draws to the paleo diet is that it helps those with Celiac or gluten intolerances. But there are also some benefits to choosing gluten-free options for those that don’t need to. For example, swapping chickpea or lentil pasta for traditional wheat pasta adds bonus protein and vegetables to lunch or dinner. 

Similarly, the low FODMAP diet aids those with digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease or IBS. The diet eliminates many fruits, sources of fat like nuts, grains, and dairy products. Diets like this have contributed to the growing demand for dairy alternatives. Milk alternatives now include banana, hemp, and oat. While the FDA is currently trying to ban the label “milk” used with these products, the popularity of these diets and the growing number of allergies means these mylks are here to stay.             

Functional nutrition shares much of its philosophy with alternative medicine. Like some practices in alternative medicine, functional nutrition seeks to support and heal the body through natural remedies such as eating more whole foods and adding supplements. Probiotics and prebiotics found in foods like kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut promote the good bacteria necessary for a healthy gut microbiome. The microbiome is thought to play a role in the development of conditions like eczema, cancer, and depression. 

In addition to helping the body, functional nutrition can also help the mind. Some mood-boosting foods fall under the category of botanicals, specifically nootropics and adaptogens. Examples include turmeric, ginseng, B vitamins, and ginkgo. CBD is another additive that was expected to grow in popularity. It is the non-psychoactive component of marijuana and hemp. While hemp products like protein and oil are legal, CBD products are not. However, it made its way into ginger beers, ciders, and water despite lack of approval from the FDA by complying with all other FDA standards like labeling and avoiding unsubstantiated claims. Additionally, while the FDA has currently outlawed it, some states have legalized CBD and regulate it as a food ingredient.                                  

Now more than ever, people are looking for ways to take their health into their own hands. Dietitians and food experts predict functional nutrition for immunity support and mood-boosting will continue through 2021. More people will look to prevent illness by taking supplements like zinc, selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin C. There will also be increased use in alternative medicines like echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, and ginger, as well as antioxidant-rich whole foods. 

Although people have established new normals, it is still a stressful time. Companies will seek to support people with products aimed at reducing anxiety and improving sleep. With CBD still a gray area, Copaiba may be the next big thing. The completely legal essential oil made from tree resin supposedly has similar effects as CBD. Established brands are also joining the “food as medicine” trend. Pepsi created Driftwell, a drink that contains magnesium and L-theanine and is supposed to help consumers relax before bed. 

A more balanced approach to eating will also provide some emotional support. While still good options for those that need to avoid certain foods due to intolerances or allergies, the restrictive diets of 2020 will fall out of favor as people continue to use food for comfort. However, people will still want to lower the number on the scale. One survey found over 3 in 4 Americans say they’ve gained up to 16 pounds in isolation. This may be due to lower activity levels, returning to comfort foods, and an increase in snacking. 

The emphasis on sustainability and plant-based eating will also stick around. These “climitarians” may become “flexitarians,” meaning there is more variation in their diet as opposed to strict veganism or vegetarianism. These flexitarians will still take action to limit the environmental impact their food has but do so in more moderate ways. This may include swapping beef for chicken, having meat fewer times per week, or opting for blended options like mushroom and beef burgers. Plant-based options will still be key for this trend, but all veggies or all meat will no longer be the only choices. Consumers will also look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint by continuing to pay attention to the manufacturing practices and packaging of their food. While this trend is still predicted for 2021, the pandemic has forced companies to put some climate-friendly initiatives on hold. They are choosing to delay or cancel new product launches.    A final trend for 2021 borne out of the pandemic is ghost restaurants and kitchens. These are defined as “a professional food preparation and cooking facility set up for the preparation of delivery-only meals.” Restaurants now double as grocery stores and turn fan favorites into meal kits for people to assemble at home. These alternatives are useful as lockdown policies continue to change when outdoor dining is and is not allowed.  Finding new ways to keep restaurants alive and bring them into people’s homes will continue in 2021. 

Benefits of Alternative Medicine Overshadowed by Wellness Culture Greed

Yoga, meditation, green tea- to some this may sound like the perfect morning routine; to others, it is a list of different types of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM includes a diverse range of therapies, practices, and products, like acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, and herbal medicine. What unites them and what defines CAM is simply that they are not currently considered conventional medicine. Because of this, the list changes as the therapies and products are proven safe and effective becoming mainstream. 

CAM use is growing, especially among women and those with chronic or recurring conditions who have not found relief with traditional treatments. About half the general population in developed countries uses it, and the majority use it along with conventional medicine. But with more popularity comes more criticism. Skeptics of CAM point to the lack of research and proven efficacy of treatments in clinical trial settings as key problems. They also argue that placebo effects and people’s ability to self-administer some of these treatments may lead people away from scientifically-proven solutions doing more harm than good. For example, relying on garlic supplements rather than prescribed blood pressure drugs. Additionally, because there is little research on the benefits, the risks of treatments of certain treatments are also unknown. 

Increased interest and use of CAM is a double-edged sword. As practices become more mainstream, prejudice against them may lessen. However, with influxes of users, practices can become diluted if the right teachers aren’t followed. Wellness culture, on the surface, promotes a balanced, holistic approach to health, incorporating mind, body, and spirit. This makes it the perfect proponent of CAM. But it is now associated with carefully curated, aesthetically pleasing brands, promising customers their products will help them live natural and holistic Instagram-worthy lives. 

The wellness market is flooded with these celebrity-backed brands. While some may have a vested interest in the practices, there’s no denying money is part of the appeal. The global wellness economy is valued at $4.5 trillion, and CAM accounts for $360 billion of that. Looking at how they become popular through social media and celebrity endorsements, it’s no surprise that the big brands and not local practitioners take the lion’s share of the profits. 

One company that’s earned a lot of attention is goop. Started in 2008 by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the lifestyle and wellness brand is worth $250 million. It has articles on the benefits of herbal pairings, overcoming first-time acupuncture nerves, and a wellness gift guide complete with an $80 meditation pillow, a 30-day supply of goop brand immune-boosting elderberry extract chews for $55, and a $105 metal whistle that helps with breathing. While it may seem like the website endorses CAM practices, it actually promotes a specific, expensive version of wellness using CAM. When goop elderberry chews cost twice as much as other brands, CAM and wellness become associated with wealth. As an article on the darker side of wellness states, brands like goop are built around “commercialized gurus metamorphosing ancient medicines and practices into an aspirational and desirable lifestyle.” 

This criticism points to bigger trends in the wellness industry. Although the use of CAM has increased, there is an expanding gap “in the rate of CAM use between non-Hispanic whites and African American and Hispanic populations. Whites are more than twice as likely to see a CAM provider than African Americans and Hispanics.” Asians use CAM slightly less than whites. Much of wellness culture is problematic because of who it says wellness is for. When the face of the company is a wealthy, white, Hollywood-elite, only so many people can see themselves stepping into the life portrayed. By making wellness exclusive and exclusionary, these brands give CAM a bad reputation by association. The practices face scrutiny, not from a medical or scientific standpoint, but because they are seen as elitist.   

Another problem: “‘Sometimes Western people take what they think is something powerful used in the Indigenous world, say a plant, an herb, a tea,” says Margaret P. Moss Ph.D., R.N., director of First Nations House of Learning and an associate professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia, ‘without taking the whole system that came with it, that made it work.’” In many cases, these celebrities and influencers simply appropriate practices. They do not take into account the full context and history of where they come from and potentially spread misinformation with little concern for how this could damage the reputation of such practices. The negative opinion people hold of these brands reflects badly on the practices they endorse. 

CAM has real potential to help people. Those that want more autonomy or those with chronic conditions can find real relief. There are a variety of options tailored to meet individuals’ needs. Those with chronic conditions may find CAM treatments beneficial when other, conventional approaches have been exhausted. Furthermore, “as long as alternative treatments are used alongside conventional treatments, the majority of medical doctors find most forms of complementary medicine acceptable.” An article in the National Center for Biotechnology Information argues against the distinction between conventional and alternative medicine. Instead, they propose, “there is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not…Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted.” While this is a nice idea when taken too far, arguments like this perpetuate the problems outlined above. It is important to remember where practices come from, their histories and contexts because they don’t just add trivia; they are part of the practices.