The businessman, author, and founding member of the healthy eating movement shares with us the challenges people face and possible solutions for healthy living.
Panama currently has two important food-related issues. One of them is the increase in overweight cases in the country, which translates into chronic non-communicable diseases such as obesity, often accompanied by hypertension, diabetes, heart failure and even cancer, and on the other hand, consumer sentiment towards food products. A 2023 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) showed that 73% of adults in Panama are overweight. In the face of this apparent health concern, La Estrella de Panamá discusses nutrition with Rafael “Yayi” Carles, businessman, author, founding member of the healthy eating movement, and food policy strategist , this topic is important not only for the adult stage, but throughout the entire life cycle. Carles said his lifestyle changed in 1997 when he started working for the newly formed Free Competition and Consumer Affairs Commission (Cliclac), which opened countless doors for him. But, in 2005, he founded the Life Blends Project, and since then, “I’ve entered the world of healthy eating as an entrepreneur, nutrition consultant, and public health consultant.” Today, Carls shares with us the important issues facing people sex, challenges, and possible solutions for a healthier life.
How did you first get involved in nutrition?
My college thesis was on the molecular chemistry of vitamins and enzymes, so I have extensive experience in biochemistry. My first job was in the Analytical Chemistry Laboratory of the Toxicology Department of the School of Medicine of the University of Panama, where I operated laboratory instruments that monitored blood and urine samples to detect vitamin and enzyme funds in social security patients. While there, I also served as a laboratory assistant to a professor in the School of Dentistry’s organic chemistry course. It was 1980, when two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling was publishing his book Vitamin C and the Common Cold. Also during the same period, Frances Moore Lappé published her book Diet for a Small Planet and Michael Jacobson published his “Food for People, Not for Profit”. From that point on, nutrition started to become a part of me and I also wondered if there was any science behind it all. I started reading and studying and quickly discovered that there was a lot of scientific support for these topics. Unfortunately, after a few months I found a good job in the petrochemical industry and I moved to Agua Dulce, Cocle, where my career took a big turn. Because while biochemistry continued to intrigue me, I put the nutritional part of myself into hibernation mode for the next nearly two decades. It’s only a matter of time before I get back to studying nutrition and the chemical side of this science one day.
When did you come out of “hibernation”?
After leaving the chemical industry in 1997, I accepted an invitation from President Pérez Balladares to serve on the newly created Free Competition and Consumer Affairs Commission (Cliclac). There I learned about the laws, regulations and standards of various industries, including the food industry. There is no doubt that my previous knowledge of chemistry will be crucial in my new responsibilities. By interacting with businessmen, industrialists, academics and officials from different professions on basic basket issues, I was able to help create a new information framework for food and related products. For example, the implementation of the validity period concept was one of the many innovations introduced in the first year.
What nutrition practices have you implemented in your career?
My four years as Cliclac Commissioner have opened countless doors for me. One of them is journalism, which I must admit has changed my life. That’s when I started writing and had my column. In 2002, I published my first book, which allowed me to join a teaching group that I utilized. Then in 2005, I founded the Life Blends Project, and that’s when I entered the world of healthy eating as an entrepreneur, nutrition consultant, and public health consultant. From this perspective, I began to promote healthy consumption habits within industry associations. My first bill was to promote healthy foods in cafeterias and school kiosks. My first law was Law No. 75 of 2017, which established the parameters of healthy practices in schools. In 2020, during the pandemic, I helped create the Healthy Eating Movement, of which I am currently a member, specializing in food policy strategies.
What aspects of your experience do you find most important?
The most important thing is that I come from this industry and know this industry well. I am increasingly concerned about the damage to health caused when companies produce products that pollute and make people sick. As a member of various organizations, guilds and boards, I am embarrassed by the growing lack of excuses and credibility in this industry. Pointing them out directly and looking them in the eye is something that few people have the ability and courage to do.
Can you tell us more about the activities you are currently involved in?
In addition to writing three weekly columns on my blogs lifeblends.net, La Estrella de Panamá and En Segundos, I still hold a management position at Life Blends. I have several client accounts for whom I provide advice on support with organizational strategy and communications. That said, I’m officially retired, but still far from it. I currently have two book projects underway, one to write my memoir and the other to publish some of my most powerful articles in recent years. I also established the Healthy Eating Movement Foundation to promote specific awareness and education on nutrition and food issues.
Can you give examples of these activities?
I recently presented a proposal to each of the presidential candidates to ensure the nation’s food and nutrition security, in which I recommended building a garden in each of the country’s 3,000 schools. It would cost $3 million, less than 10% of the discretionary allocation of the President of the Republic, but could transform the lives of 90% of the country’s population. I am also following up on a bill I wrote two years ago to Rep. Maín Correa to eliminate trans fats and reduce sodium in the diet. Likewise, as a member of the Health Promotion Council, I am seeking to increase the soda tax and impose new taxes on ultra-processed and junk food. Finally, in consultation with a number of representatives who have been in contact with me, we will introduce a draft bill next year to promote healthy food menus in restaurants.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing nutritional science today?
I have always believed that the most challenging problem in nutrition is determining what people actually eat. We all know the relationship between food and chronic disease risk. It is our responsibility to begin asking research questions and designing studies to answer concerns about diet and health. That’s the intellectual challenge. The practical challenge is the need for completely independent financing. Resources for nutrition research are limited, and ministerial budget cuts have made this need even more urgent. Without independent funding, the nutrition research agenda tends toward projects that the food industry can use for marketing. Therefore, great challenges are to find mechanisms to define health-promoting dietary patterns, find ways to provide healthy diets to people who lack resources, and identify effective dietary approaches to prevent non-communicable diseases.
What else do you think is urgent right now when it comes to nutrition?
Nutrition is a discipline in urgent need of trained scientists to solve complex biological, social, and political problems related to food production and distribution. These are difficult topics to tackle and they need all the help they can get. That’s why I plan to bring a project to Panama called Children Eat the Future, where math, Spanish and science lessons are taught around nutrition as well as agricultural and culinary knowledge. The project, which has already achieved excellent results in Spain, has as its main task the creation of a financing mechanism, including the training of teachers and the preparation of books and materials. Likewise, through the Foundation, I am liaising with municipalities to integrate the creation of community gardens into local budgets and use devolution funds which, if managed correctly, can have very beneficial results for the well-being of residents in each community. The day everyone knows how to grow and harvest a leaf of lettuce or spinach, that’s the day they will recognize the miracle of life and know how to recognize the value of us farmers.