I’m no stranger to junk food. After enduring years of healthy eating (brown-bag lunches with an oversized, barely washed carrot from my father’s vegetable garden peeking out of the top), I spent about a decade of rebellion indulging in a plethora of processed foods. But the (organic) apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Despite the occasional foray into junk food, I always feel better when following these healthy eating habits.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group releases their list of the 12 “dirty dozen,” fruits and vegetables that contain the highest concentrations of pesticides. This is important because pesticides have been linked to cancer, among other health problems.
Luckily, eating organic for just five days can flush most pesticides out of your body. And if you simply take these 12 fruits and vegetables and eat them organic—or not at all—you can reduce your overall pesticide exposure by 80 percent. Look for the USDA Certified Organic label, which verifies that the plant is grown without pesticides, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, bio-engineered, synthetic growth hormones, GMOs or irradiated ingredients. (You can read more about natural labeling in my Guide to Going Green.)
Sometimes it’s hard to remember the list, so when in doubt I go for things I can peel by hand. Case in point: Today, an orange is better than an apple, which can contain as many as 48 different pesticide residues.
People often ask me, “What’s so bad about GMO foods?” I’m not an expert by any means, but here’s my answer: Genetically engineered foods (also known as genetically modified organisms or GMO foods; it’s basically two ways of saying the same thing) begin as plants that have had their DNA changed in a laboratory. That would be fine—I’m no science-phobe—except for the fact that most of these changes involve pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.
A report from the Organic Center found that farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the first 13 years of commercial GMO crop production—from 1996 to 2008—than ever before in history. The two most common are herbicide tolerance to protect the plants when the farmer sprays chemicals to kill weeds, and a soil bacteria gene that gives plants the ability to produce their own insecticides.
Today, most of the foods on our supermarket shelves today have been genetically engineered: corn (85 percent), soy (91 percent), sugar beets (95 percent) and cotton (88 percent). But you wouldn’t know it from the label: In the United States (unlike 49 other countries) genetically engineered ingredients are not required to be disclosed on food labels—unless the product has been certified as “GMO-free,” or USDA Certified Organic, which is naturally free of GMOs.
The dairy industry markets it as “nature’s perfect food,” but a 2012 Harvard University study showed that milk produced by factory farms contained dangerously high levels of an estrogen compound linked to testicular, prostate and breast cancers.
This is just one in a series of studies showing the dangers of a 20-year conventional farming practice that gives Bovine Growth Hormone, also known as rBGH or rBST, to dairy cows so that they can be milked constantly, even when they are pregnant.
Because dairy cows are hormonally induced to produce milk about 300 days a year, the possibility of their getting illnesses such as mastitis increases dramatically. As a precaution, conventional milk producers also give these cows prophylactic doses of antibiotics.
What’s the answer? Buy USDA Certified Organic milk! It’s better for your body and supports farmers who are doing the right thing by avoiding hormones and antibiotics.
Speaking of… As much as 80% of America’s antibiotics are now given to factory farmed animals. The result? Human illnesses caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria now affect more than two million Americans each year, killing more than 23,000 people.
But wait, there’s more: Dioxins in meat have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and damage to the brain and nervous systems; they accumulate in our bodies and are passed on to our children.
There’s also the environmental factor: Livestock produce methane, which is a major greenhouse gas that some experts say contributes more to global warming than cars. In 2009, livestock and poultry production tipped the scales, claiming responsibility for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute. “You can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat” is a PETA-popular phrase.
Full disclosure: I’m not vegan, nor am I a full-time vegetarian. But I do believe that simply reducing your meat consumption can really make a difference in your health and the health of the planet. If you do eat meat, make sure to trim the fat before cooking and look for free range, USDA Certified Organic options that typically come from more responsibly managed farms.
In 2012, the FDA announced a nation-wide ban on BPA—a chemical used to harden plastics, especially polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins—in bottles and sippy cups. The following year, the United Nations and the World Health Organization called hormone-disrupting phthalates like BPA a “global threat” and California placed the chemical on its Proposition 65 list, officially recognizing it as a reproductive hazard because of links to miscarriages and birth defects.
Because BPA is found in food packaging plastic and lines most food cans, a great way to limit your intake is to eat more fresh food. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, just three days of eating food that’s not canned or packaged in plastic can reduce your BPA levels by 60 percent.
Speaking of cans… Could that stuff we drink to stay skinny actually be making us fat? A Kaiser Permanente study found that drinking two or more diet sodas each day made a person five times more likely to gain weight. And after a 10-year study, researchers at the University of Texas found people who drink diet soda were 70% more likely to be overweight.
Drinking two or more diet sodas each day made a person five times more likely to gain weight, theoretically because artificial sweeteners inhibit the brain cells that make you feel full. Not to mention the fact that the calorie-free sweetener aspartame converts to formaldehyde in your body, according to the FDA. I’ll stick with water, thanks.
We’re starting to wake up to the impact of high fructose corn syrup on our nation’s health: Studies have shown that consumption of high fructose corn syrup leads to obesity, a condition that now affects more than 30% of American adults and is associated with heart disease, diabetes, strokes and other serious health problems.
A recent UC Davis study showed that just two weeks of eating high fructose corn syrup increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. The problem is, most people don’t stop at two weeks. In fact, research shoes that sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and sugar are addicting: Just like cocaine, they release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin as they hit your system, triggering the pleasure center of your brain. And just like illicit drugs, you need more and more of the stuff to feel good.
Even though Americans consumed less HFCS in 2011 than at any point since 1997, on average we’re still eating more than 43 pounds of the stuff each year. That’s because high fructose corn syrup can be found in soda, juices, baked items, condiments, salad dressing, crackers, bars, cereal, processed meats, and sauces—on pretty much every shelf in the supermarket.
Read your labels—if they contain HFCS, put the product back on the supermarket shelf; as much as possible, avoid processed foods, juices and sodas when you’re eating out.
Stories about radioactive tuna from the 2011 Fukushima meltdown that showed up 6,000 miles away on California’s shores sounded too crazy to be true. The FDA said the radiation was nothing to worry about in the United States, since you’d have to eat pounds of the stuff before being affected. But according to the Government Accountability Study, the FDA only inspects .1% of the fish we import for consumption.
Most big fish—including tuna—contain mercury, a neurotoxic byproduct of coal production. The scary thing about mercury—besides the fact that it is damage the brain and central nervous system—is that bioaccumulates, which means it stays in the body and can be passed on to our kids through pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Now we’ve got problems with salmon, too: Typically treated with pink dye for a “fresh” color, farmed salmon are infecting wild salmon populations with viruses, according to the Organic Consumers Association.
It’s facts like these that have caused me to re-think what was once a fairly regular sushi habit. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide to find safer seafood easier.
Researchers have found links between artificial food dyes—which trigger the release of histamines, part of the body’s immune system—and allergies. Yet in 2012, an FDA advisory committee determined that the science was too weak to support a ban on artificial food dyes or a warning label on foods that contain them.
Apparently, that’s not the case in Europe, where regulations require such a warning label, forcing European companies to substitute natural colors for dyes. For example, Nestle pasted out artificial colors from their entire confectionery line in the U.K., but not the U.S.
This isn’t just about candy! Food dyes are in everything, from cereal to lunchmeat. To avoid them, read ingredient labels carefully, keeping a watchful eye for Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, especially.
Do you assess your seasoning by how well it pours? Stop! So-called “table salt” is rock or ocean salt that’s mined, heat blasted, chemically treated and fortified with iodine until it’s devoid of all essential minerals and nutrients. To cook better meals for taste and health, look for organic, artisan salts, like this kosher Himalayan Pink Salt or Celtic Sea Salt. These salts are packed with trace elements and minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and iron. But just as important, when used in moderation they just make food taste better. And who doesn’t want that?
What’s your trick to eating healthy? I’d love to hear about it, in comments. Thanks!