Food can fix it! – A non-foodie´s journey to save the world, starting at the plate

Written and submitted by Gunhild Stordalen

This guest blog post is by Gunhild Stordalen, co-founder of The Stordalen Foundation and initiator of the Eat Forum. Gunhild spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.


I am an environmentalist at heart, but a medical doctor by education. Life takes some strange turns sometimes, and in 2009 I found myself serving on the board of one of Scandinavia´s largest hotel companies. There, I started looking for ways to reduce the hotel´s environmental impact as well as to improve the health of guests and employees. Quickly, my eyes focused on food.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl-Djerf
Gunhild and EAT have hosted several events during the UN General Assembly. In 2016 they led a discussion on urban food systems. Learn more here.

In an average hotel, food and drinks account for as much as 70% of the environmental footprint. Additionally, what we put on hotel restaurant menus can have a huge impact on human health. My question was therefore: “What food could we serve that would be healthier for people, better for the climate and better for the environment?”

I searched the literature, read reports and called experts everywhere. I found lots of papers published on health and nutrition, climate-smart agriculture, organic food and biodiversity. But I found literally nothing that could answer my simple question: “What types of food are both healthy and environmentally sustainable?”

Not being able to find a healthy and sustainable menu solution for some 190 Nordic hotels was quite frustrating. But the fact that no one had the answer for how to sustainably feed a healthy diet to our growing population was straight up shocking!

What we eat and how we produce it is already causing some of our greatest health and environmental challenges. While almost 800 million people are getting too little food, more than 2 billion are getting too much, which causes them to become either overweight or obese. Another 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Increasingly, poor diets are posing a bigger threat to global health than tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

At the same time, the agricultural sector is the single biggest driver of both climate change and environmental degradation. It causes more than 30% of the planet’s loss in biodiversity and consumes 70% of the world´s fresh water. The meat industry alone is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world´s cars, planes and ships combined. And, around one third of all food we produce is either lost or wasted.

Today, we produce enough calories to feed everyone, but those calories are unequally distributed and hugely inefficient. With business as usual, current population growth and diets trend toward more meat and animal-sourced foods; feeding the world’s population will mean increasing food production 50% by 2050.

There is no way we will reach the Paris Climate Agreement or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals without a radical shift in the way we eat and produce our food. Getting it right on food is our great opportunity to get a lot right for both the health of people and the planet.

In 2013, I founded the EAT initiative with professor Johan Rockstrom and the Stockholm Resilience Center as our main academic partner. Last year, British research charity Wellcome Trust joined us, and together we established EAT Foundation. Gathering international leaders from science, politics, business and civil society, EAT is a global platform that aims to help speed up food systems transformation. Through our partnerships and collaborations, we create pathways and measures to make healthy and sustainable food choices accessible, affordable and convenient—for everybody, everywhere.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl Djer
The EAT Stockholm Food Forum gathers leaders from science, business, politics and civil society, including chefs and activists. At last year´s conference, Jamie Oliver and Gunhild joined forces to get more food professionals involved in a healthy and sustainable food revolution.

I am a hard-core optimist. Even more so after seeing the rapidly growing awareness on the interlinkages between food, health and sustainability challenges in just these four years since I started EAT. I meet business leaders, investors, politicians, UN agencies and consumer organizations that are all ready for change, and I am thrilled to see healthy, green initiatives and innovations popping up everywhere!

Together, we can fix the food system! Of course, significant work still remains, from setting science-based targets to creating coherent policies, and in implementing new business models that are “all good” and not only “less bad”. But right now, the bottlenecks are not lack of evidence, lack of political will or lack of technology. The main obstacles are lack of collaboration and co-creation. I started EAT to connect the dots. That’s why I am proud to work with leaders and game-changers that work together for a healthier, happier and more prosperous future for all.

I´ve never been a foodie. To be honest, I can hardly cook. But I love food because it represents the closest thing we will get to a silver bullet for healthy people on a healthy planet. Whether you are the most powerful man in the world, sit on the board of a hotel chain or you simply prepare dinners for your family and friends, we all have a role to play. What better way to bring people together for a better world than over great food!

Emotional Well-Being is the Missing Key to Better Health

This guest blog post is by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General and TEDMED 2015 speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.


Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight.

It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

Emotional well-being is the often overlooked counterpart to physical well-being. Emotional well-being is about much more than the absence of mental illness in the same way that physical well-being is about more than the absence of injury or disease. Commonly thought of as happiness, emotional well-being is a powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity. Emotional well-being is what can make the difference between surviving and thriving.

It might be tempting to assume that emotional well-being is solely a consequence of our circumstances. We may tell ourselves that we’ll be happy if we get the promotion we want, make more money, or lose some weight. This is not to say that circumstances don’t matter. They do. In particular, external factors such as poverty, violence, and poor access to health care have a real impact on health and well-being – and we must do everything we can to address them. But science tells us that there are also internal factors that influence emotional well-being and that we can in fact proactively cultivate emotional well-being using tools that are surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive.

We can cultivate emotional well-being with physical exercise, which research shows can improve mood and outlook as well as reduce depression. Contemplative practices like gratitude exercises and meditation have also been shown to improve emotional well-being, as has getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving emotional well-being is social connection – the presence of genuine, strong, relationships where one feels known and supported. Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Helping people find and build meaningful relationships is one way to improve emotional well-being. The good news is there are a growing number of communities that have begun to invest in improving emotional well-being and are seeing remarkable results.

sg-visitacion-valley-msOne example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in California.  The school is located in a community where violence is prevalent.  The majority of the students come from economically-challenged families. Many have one or both parents in prison.  Several years ago, suspension rates were high, academic performance was low and anxiety and trauma were commonplace.  Desperate to do something, the school teamed up with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education to develop a voluntary “Quiet Time” program for students – that included the option to practice 15 minutes of meditation, twice a day. In the first year alone, there was a 45% reduction in suspensions, teacher absenteeism dropped by 30%, grades and test scores went up, and the students reported less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances. The program has since been expanded to more schools, with promising results.

Emotional well-being is a relatively untapped resource that has the potential to transform our health. It can help us build resilience, enhance productivity, and shift our mindsets away from fear and pessimism toward peace and possibility – a shift that is increasingly necessary and urgent in today’s world.

Imagine if we prioritized emotional well-being as much as test scores in schools. Imagine if cultivating emotional well-being was seen as a priority in our workplaces. Imagine if emotional well-being was understood by all our policymakers to be the fuel that enables us to be healthy, productive, and strong.

The question is: can we make the cultivation of emotional well-being a priority that is reflected in our culture, our policies, and each of our lives? For the sake of our health and the health of future generations, we must ensure the answer is “yes.”

Illuminating the importance of light design

This is a guest blog post by Mariana Figueiro, Light and Health Program Director at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) and Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her talk at TEDMED 2014 reveals, surprising facts about the effect of light – its presence, its absence, and its patterns – on human health.

Mariana Figueiro

“We are all swimming in a sea of light” – Mariana Figueiro at TEDMED 2014

All creatures, great and small, are governed by the natural 24-hour, light-dark cycle. Every cell and physiological system in plants and animals exhibits a circadian cycle. In the absence of a regular 24-hour light-dark cycle, a circadian cycle in humans runs with a period close to, but not exactly, 24 hours. Daily exposures to morning light, especially blue light, reset the timing of our biological clock and synchronize our circadian rhythms to the local sunrise and sunset. Disruption of these circadian rhythms resulting from exposure to irregular light-dark patterns or exposure to light at the wrong time of day can compromise health. For example, it has been shown in animal models that circadian disruption is linked to increased risk for diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.1-5  Therefore, receiving the right light at the right time can be the key to good sleep, good health and wellbeing. We are swimming in an ocean of light, but like fish that take water for granted, we generally pay little attention to our environmental light. Light is the conductor of our internal symphony, influencing when we sleep and wake, our cognitive abilities, how much we eat, and even how well our medicine works.6-8

Recognizing the impact of light on the individual and on a global scale, the United Nations has proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light, citing that light plays a vital role in our daily lives, has revolutionized medicine, and that light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health.

Just last year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was presented to the inventors of the blue LED, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura.

At the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we focus on the myriad effects of light on human health at all ages. We are working on developing a lighting system that can be used with premature infant incubators in the NICU to provide cycled lighting, which has been shown to improve health outcomes in premature infants. We are also investigating effective ways to deliver light as a treatment to improve sleep, depression and agitation in Alzheimer patients.

Beyond the long-term health benefits of synchronizing our circadian rhythms to the local time on Earth, light has an acute effect, an alerting boost, like a cup of coffee, which can help give us the energy we need when we wake up in the morning and also help to fight the post-lunch dip. We are trying to figure out how red light impacts alertness and performance during the day and at night. This could benefit shift workers, because red light can increase alertness without affecting melatonin levels. The suppression of melatonin by light at night has been implicated in health problems such as breast cancer in these shift workers.

The newly constructed 24-hour lighting scheme demonstration room at LRC provides cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. Construction of the room was made possible through funding and donations from the Light & Health Alliance, led by Dr. Figueiro. Light & Health Alliance members are Acuity Brands, Ketra, OSRAM Sylvania, Philips Lighting, Sharp, and USAI Lighting.

The newly constructed 24-hour lighting scheme demonstration room at LRC provides cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. Construction of the room was made possible through funding and donations from the Light & Health Alliance, led by Dr. Figueiro. Light & Health Alliance members are Acuity Brands, Ketra, OSRAM Sylvania, Philips Lighting, Sharp, and USAI Lighting.

Aside from the special light needs of these select populations, there is every reason to believe that introducing a regular 24-hour pattern of light and dark by modifying the amount of electric lighting we are exposed to daily, could improve the health and productivity of everyone. We are currently looking at the impact of artificial light and natural daylight on the health and wellbeing of federal employees working in buildings owned and leased by the U.S. General Services Administration. To further study this question in the home environment, we are also developing a lighting system that could be incorporated into the design of Swedish homes. The availability of daylight in Sweden during winter months is very limited, and so we are designing a “healthy home” using lighting principles that will promote health and wellbeing not only in Swedish homes, but in other places where daylight availability is limited. The system will provide cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. This type of cycled lighting is ideal for circadian health, encouraging restful sleep at night and increased alertness and performance during the day – not to mention many other general health benefits, such as improved mood and reduced risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.1-5, 9 DSC03686

An important component of the healthy home concept is the “Daysimeter” – a personal circadian light measurement device. The Daysimeter measures how much circadian light an individual receives over a 24-hour period, and then via smartphone it automatically adjusts lighting in the home and office to provide the ideal type of light needed to support health and wellbeing.

Imagine wearing this small, unobtrusive device, that would measure a dark, snowy day in January with little or no circadian-effective light, and then adjust the lighting in the morning to provide cool, high light levels to entrain you to the 24-hour solar day and give you an alerting boost of energy. In the afternoon, light levels would be adjusted based on how much light was received during the day, as measured by the Daysimeter. In the evening, the lighting would automatically adjust to provide warm, low levels of soothing light to ensure restful sleep. Thanks to advances in LED technology, the healthy home of the future could realistically happen in the next decade. We have developed the 24-hour lighting scheme and Daysimeter and have completed extensive testing in the lab and in the field, and are now working to study the real-world effects of this lighting scheme with people living their normal, daily lives. Today, many people think of light as just part of a building. In the future, we believe light will become more personalized, customizable, and tailored to the needs of each individual. Perhaps 2015 is the year that we will see the world in a new light.

References 1. Leproult R, Holmback U and Van Cauter E. Circadian misalignment augments markers of insulin resistance and inflammation, independently of sleep loss. Diabetes. 2014; 63: 1860-9. 2. Ye HH, Jeong JU, Jeon MJ and Sakong J. The association between shift work and the metabolic syndrome in female workers. Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2013; 25: 33. 3. Young ME and Bray MS. Potential role for peripheral circadian clock dyssynchrony in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular dysfunction. Sleep Medicine. 2007; 8: 656-67. 4. Maemura K, Takeda N and Nagai R. Circadian rhythms in the CNS and peripheral clock disorders: role of the biological clock in cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Pharmacological Sciences. 2007; 103: 134-8. 5. Schernhammer ES, Laden F, Speizer FE, et al. Rotating night shifts and risk of breast cancer in women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2001; 93: 1563-8. 6. Hrushesky W. Circadian timing of cancer chemotherapy. Science. 1985; 228: 73-5. 7. Hrushesky W, Wood P, Levi F, et al. A recent illustration of some essentials of circadian chronotherapy study design. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2004; 22: 2971-2. 8. Zhang R, Lahens NF, Ballance HI, Hughes ME and Hogenesch JB. A circadian gene expression atlas in mammals: Implications for biology and medicine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014; 111: 16219-24. 9. Figueiro MG, Plitnick B, Lok A, et al. Tailored lighting intervention improves measures of sleep, depression and agitation in persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia living in long-term care facilities. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2014; 9: 1527-37.


Watch Mariana’s talk from TEDMED 2014