Interview: Dan Fenyvesi

dan 225x150 Interview: Dan Fenyvesi

Dan Fenyvesi is a Registered Dietitian and Fulbright Scholar who has spent years living in Latin America including Nicaragua, Mexico, and Peru. His experience subsisting on a traditional “peasant” diet of beans, corn, and vegetables led to substantial sustainable weight loss and a burst of healthfulness that informs much of his work. Fenyvesi is a professor of nutrition at Montgomery College and has worked as a consultant and instructor for several of the top weight loss companies in the country. He is working on a book and a documentary based on his experiences in Nicaragua. You can see the trailer on his website His book, Food Sobriety, is due out in May of this year. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman shot this interview in his living room in Rockville, Maryland…

EarthTalk: You were recently in Nicaragua. Could you tell us why and what you accomplished there?

Dan Fenyvesi: Yes, in 2014 I got a Fulbright Scholar grant and I spent the year there on staff at the main public university in Managua teaching nutritionists there obesity management.

E: What has happened to the Nicaraguan diet over the last decade or so? And how is it changing and why?

Fenyvesi: Well, it’s been in a process of change for a long, long time, but that change has been really since the end of the ‘90s and part of the reason is the economy has come up quite a bit and trade has increased.

E: So it’s all part of globalization process.

Fenyvesi: Yes.

E: As this goes along, what happens to people’s diets?

Fenyvesi: You could say that most of the twentieth century they had a diet that was still based off what we call the three sisters diet, so corn, beans, vegetables, although rice came in and kind of displaced some corn in the ‘50s, ‘60s. But it was a plant based diet and it was pretty much locally produced, right. And what has happened over the last couple decades is you’ve gotten a lot more imported foods, a lot more processed foods. Some foods are produced locally but were never part of the diet, sugar and vegetable oil being the two biggest ones, have increased dramatically.

E: So the magic of sugar and fat.

Fenyvesi: Yes, the magic of sugar and fat, absolutely.

E: Come to Nicargua: Coca Cola, all kinds of other products branded and marketed.

Fenyvesi: Yes.

E: So what are the environmental implications of this change?

Fenyvesi: Pretty vast. On one level it’s just, folks aren’t eating what they’re producing locally, so the carbon footprint of a lot of imported foods and processed foods. And on another level the switch towards more animal products means it’s going be a lot more resources to produce, right, more land, petroleum, pesticides, and that kind of thing.

E: Right, well I know beef has about ten times the footprint of a vegetable diet.

Fenyvesi: Sure. Yep.

E: And of course a lot more packaging, too.

Fenyvesi: And a lot more packaging as well. There were quite a few areas where I was doing research, where I’d look out kind of on the vast expanse and people would say this was all forest when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s here. And now we’re raising cattle for beef here. For export. The nicest cuts get exported and then the really cheap cuts stay local.

E: So of course deforestation, and again that accelerates climate change.

Fenyvesi: Yes.

E: Destroys biodiversity.

Fenyvesi: All of that, yes.

E: What about the health impacts on individuals?

Fenyvesi: The health impacts are big. What we can say is obesity and chronic disease are going on the J curve, they’re picking up very, very rapidly and the health infrastructure there doesn’t know how to deal with it. They really haven’t had much for diabetes, for high blood pressure, they don’t have experience with these kinds of diseases, and they don’t have the money to deal with them. So they don’t have the money for medications or even monitoring blood sugar, or any of that kind of thing.

E: Even dental care probably.

Fenyvesi: Oh, yeah. And it’s interesting, I talked to the oldest generation of people that are still alive, people 65, 70. They said they were the very first generation to get cavities. That when they got cavities their parents had no idea what a cavity was. Why were they complaining that they had pain in their mouth, that kind of thing.

E: Right, in the U.S. we had decades and decades of slower change and built up the medical infrastructure to deal with it.

Fenyvesi: Exactly.

E: So it’s one of many side effects of globalization. So are the health and environmental changes related then, and if so how?

Fenyvesi: They’re related. With the health changes it’s especially challenging that, when you’re dealing with a country that comes from a lot of scarcity, throughout most of the twentieth century malnutrition, calorie malnutrition was a pretty big issue. And then all of a sudden things flip, where people are getting yes cavities, diabetes, heart disease, but at the same time they’re eating a lot of rich, delicious food. They have less the diseases of insufficiency, right, and they have more weight on them. So it’s really hard to convince them that this is going to be a huge, huge problem as time progresses. So on the health front that can be really challenging. Diabetes and high blood pressure and heart disease. These are very slow killers, so it’s not as dramatic as infectious diseases of the past. I think on an environmental level sometimes that case is a little bit easier to make, because people can relate to the beautiful forest they used to have or the plentiful clean water supplies they used to have.

E: So they can see the destruction of the environment but don’t quite see how they’re hurting themselves in the same way.

Fenyvesi: I think that’s fair to say, yes.

E: And is there a cultural side, like the cache of Western products?

Fenyvesi: Absolutely, and this really was one of the biggest learning experiences for me over the years, is the connection between food choices and status. So, you do see that on some level in the States. Whereas, if I go out to have a beer with a friend and I order a Bud Light instead of a local micro-brewer, there are certain assumptions made, right. One is a lower-socioeconomic choice, one is a higher socioeconomic choice. In Latin America and the developing world, absolutely everything that has any packaging or has any sort of processed sheen or imported sheen to it is much higher status.

E: Right. So consumption and status are always related, but how they’re related changes over time.

Fenyvesi: It does. And the thing that I would talk to my nutrition students in Managua about was, listen I understand that, maybe they would see me bring in my nice Mac computer. And they’d have the idea, oh, well, that’s a $1000 computer, that is better than this less expensive Chinese PC that they have. And there is a value difference, right, my computer crashes less, it works faster, there is something real going on here with the status. But when you’re eating beans and corn and vegetables versus a modern packaged diet, that difference in status, you’re actually talking about an inverse relation of quality. And that’s very confusing, I think, for people in the developing world. If it’s modern, if it comes from the West it must be better, because that’s true with computers, it’s true with cars, it’s true with clothing, it’s true with everything, so how could it not be true with food.

E: Right, okay. It’s assumptions that we might have had in the 1950s.

Fenyvesi: Exactly, yes.

E: Can you say American status and food choices and health have been changing in the past few years compared to, like, Nicaragua?

Fenyvesi: Sure. Well, a good example would be the beverage choices. In Nicaragua I’ve talked to folks, I absolutely asked every single person I met, what do you drink and why. And, despite the fact that coconut water is everywhere there, it’s almost free, I mean free for the price of five minutes with a machete or you can pay someone. No one ever preferred the taste of coconut water. Everybody wants Coca Cola and any sort of package. I would tell them actually, you know in North America and the West now, drinking soda is actually starting to become associated with a lower socioeconomic status. People start to judge you in the same kind of way like smoking a cigarette. So, we’re seeing now in the West, as we get more educated, as we have seen a generation or two suffer from chronic diseases and obesity, we associate healthier choices with higher status in general, although there’s a lot of confusion over that.

E: It’s changing.

Fenyvesi: Yes, and you can also get very overweight and sick on healthy, organic food that’s very calorie rich, if you eat a lot of olive oil and feta cheese and almonds.

E: All things that I love.

Fenyvesi: Sure.

E: Okay, so worldwide though Nicaragua is just one country, but is it fair to say it’s pretty much happening in developing countries everywhere. 

Fenyvesi: Yes, from what I’ve seen, I know Mexico pretty well and Peru pretty well, a little bit Costa Rico. These changes are happening across the board. So, as countries are engaging in global trade and getting a little bit wealthier, they want some of these Western, more modern kind of status symbols and lifestyles and food is a very big part of that.

E: Right, food is central.

Fenyvesi: Yes.

E: We all eat it every day.

Fenyvesi: Yes.

E: Okay, thank you very much and good luck.