The old saying “you are what you eat” really takes on a whole new meaning when you look a little more closely at the health of today’s Americans. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that about 60%, or 3 in every 5, American adults are currently using some type prescription medication. Even when adjusting for the aging population, it was discovered that a likely leading factor of this continuous dependency on medication was obesity. Of the 10 most commonly prescribed drugs, 8 of them were used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
And the thing is, people know they’re not healthy – losing weight and getting healthier are typically some of the most common New Year’s Resolutions. Last year, the goal to “get healthy” was the top ranked search on Google with over 62 million searches. Unfortunately, most people really don’t know what it means to be healthy – or how to get there.
Let food be thy medicine Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, once said. So, I believe there is no better place to start getting heathy than in the food you eat. And while there are some foods you should try to be consuming every single day, you’d be better off going the rest of your life keeping others far, far away.
1. White Bread
One of the most common food staples in American kitchens – you probably have a loaf in your pantry right now! Don’t feel bad, had my husband not been diagnosed with Celiac Disease there’s a high chance I would have some in mine, too! But, in all honesty, white bread doesn’t really belong in your pantry, or your body. The thing is: white bread isn’t really good for you. In order for the grain to be processed into white flour, it must be refined, and this process strips almost all iron, fiber, B-vitamins, and other nutrients that naturally occur within the grain. After the process is over, what you’re left with is pretty much sugar. Because there are no natural fibers or nutrients to help your body digest the grain; once ingested, the carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose – spiking your blood sugar.
In the mid-20th century, as refined flour made its way to the top of American shopping lists, nutritional deficiencies spread like wildfire. Chronic deficiency led to an increase in diseases like pellagra and beriberi throughout the country. Instead of examining methods to leave the grains whole and intact, the FDA mandated the enrichment of white flour with specific B-vitamins, iron, and folic acid (NOT to be confused with folate, especially for those with MTHFR). Even today, white flour contains significantly fewer nutrients than does whole-grain flour – like fiber, folate, and riboflavin.
Research is also indicating that white flour may be one of the heaviest hitters regarding America’s skyrocketing rates of Type 2 Diabetes. As people consume high levels of carbohydrates, yet fiber intake remains low – we see this growing trend of insulin resistance and diabetes diagnoses. It also doesn’t help that many breads contain highly questionable ingredients like DATEM, high fructose corn syrup, and potassium bromate. DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides) is added to help bind the bread together and, while approved by the FDA, concerning health risks in studies, including adrenal fatigue and heart scarring, have been identified. Potassium bromate, added to make the dough ‘stretchier’, was identified as a possible human carcinogen in 1999 (and is banned in countries around the world including the European Union, UK, and Canada), but is still added to a majority of breads available in the US.
2. Artificial Food Dyes
Color catches eyes – especially the eyes of children. Brightly colored foods line the shelves in grocery stores, begging to be picked up and carried back to your house. But, have you ever wondered how they create such vibrant, yet edible, creations? From candy and cereals, to the more surprising, salsa and even pickles; our kitchens are more than likely loaded with artificial food dyes. Today, people are consuming five times the amount of food dyes ingested in in 1955, and the medical community is only beginning to understand the health risks caused by these petroleum-based colors.
The most common food dyes: Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which account for 90% of the dyes used in today’s food, contain benzidine, an inorganic compound which poses incredible risk to humans. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, “benzidine and dyes metabolized into benzidine” are known and recognized human carcinogens. And, it’s not like these colors are necessary for the product to sell. Take Fanta soda, for example, in the UK the drink is colored with pumpkin and carrot extracts. Hop over the sea to the US though, and we’re using Red 40 and Yellow 6 to achieve this same color. McDonald’s, known as one of the unhealthiest places to eat, colors their strawberry sundaes with only strawberries in Britain – in America, Red 40 is deemed necessary to achieve the desired color. It really is just an unnecessary risk. Toxicology studies have shown that “all of the nine currently US-approved dyes raise health concerns” ranging from cancer to hypersensitivity reactions, and mutation of the genes.
Even the FDA has recognized that food dyes possess risk. On January 30, 1990, after studies showed that the use of Red No. 30 in the diets of rats led to cancer, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. While the ban didn’t impact the use of the dye in food or drugs, the FDA assured that they were “in the process of extending the ban to cover those.” Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and Red No. 30 remains in our peanut butter, cherries, and other products.
At this point, it really is no surprise when someone points out how dangerous, and unhealthy drinking soda really is. No one really drinks it as a health drink, it’s more out of the addiction to it. That’s right – soda isn’t tasty enough on its own to keep you coming back for more, instead it just hooks your brain and tricks you into thinking you actually need it. Most sodas contain two very addictive substances: caffeine and sugar. I’ve talked heavily about sugar’s traumatizing impacts to the pancreas, heart, and brain (even comparing it to cocaine), so I won’t go into too much detail about it. But, it is important to note that only one can of soda contains 39g of sugar, 15g more than the recommended daily sugar intake for women by the American Heart Association. And, just because diet sodas are sugar free doesn’t make them any safer. Aspartame, a commonly used artificial sweetener in sodas, has been linked to many different health concerns, including neurological effects and seizures, weight gain, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders[12,13].
Drinking only one can of soda per day is associated with a significantly increased risk of health problems, like diabetes, heart attack, gout, and obesity. One study discovered that diet soda, containing artificial sweeteners, actually has the ability to alter your gut microbiome. Consuming these products changes the bacteria in your gut, and many of the species that are altered have been scientifically identified as having a relation to Type 2 Diabetes. Over time, artificial sweetener ingestion “enhances the risk of glucose intolerance.” And, terrifyingly, a regular consumer of diet soda is also three times more likely to suffer a stroke or develop dementia. Truthfully, not much is known about these drinks and the way they affect the brain. In 2011, researchers from The BMJ examined the potential behavioral effects in adolescents who consumed the sugary drinks, and discovered that “there was a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence.”
4. Canned Food
Who doesn’t love canned food? With the food inside already cooked to a safety, and a long shelf life, these incredible products really are so versatile.
When food goes through the canning process, it is often prepped and cooked, sealed inside the can, and heated in order to kill any harmful bacteria – making it shelf stable for at least a year, but often much, much longer. And, while the food itself often retains many of its nutrients due to the preservation, serious health concerns are being raised about canned goods.
One of the highest health concerns when eating canned food has nothing to do with something being wrong with the food, but rather something being wrong with the can, itself. In recent years, you may have heard some talk about Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical used in the packaging of many products – including cans. Potential dangers lurk deep within this chemical, and have been recognized time and time again. In fact, in 2012, the FDA amended its regulations to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and baby formula packaging. This ban, however, did nothing to the BPA still being widely used in canned goods. A study conducted in 2011 attempted to understand just how wide the use really was, by testing both canned and frozen products for the chemical. Of the canned goods, 91% tested positive for BPA, but the frozen foods did not. High concentrations were found in solid foods, over liquids, and fruits and tuna seemed to have the lowest. And, while no safe limit has ever been defined, scientists began wondering how much of the chemical we are really being exposed to. In a study which examined the urine of almost 8,000 people, those who had consumed canned soup in the past 24 hours had over 200% higher concentrations of BPA.
So, what is this chemical doing to our health? Researchers are beginning to report that “Growing evidence from research on laboratory animals, wildlife, and humans supports the view that BPA produces an endocrine disrupting effect and adversely affects male reproductive function. The most dangerous time for a male to be exposed to BPA? During his mother’s pregnancy. Studies are showing that, in utero, BPA exposure has shown to produce several defects in the embryo “such as feminization of male fetuses, atrophy of the testes and epididymides, increased prostate size, and alteration of adult sperm parameters (e.g.,sperm count, motility, and density). BPA also affects embryo thyroid development.” The reason this substance has such an impact on the reproductive system is because it is classified as an environmental estrogen. Because of this, it also affects females in devastating ways, including physical mutations, and functional changes, of the ovaries, uterus, vagina, and oviducts. Other issues that BPA seems to play a causative role in are female and male infertility, precocious (early) puberty, breast and prostate cancers, and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)[23, 24, 25].
A few decades ago, butter was shunned and painted as a bad guy because of its high levels of fat and, mistaken link to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Nutritionists, and doctors recommended everyone switch to the healthy version of butter: margarine. Oddly similar in taste and texture, margarine is far from the same thing as butter. Created from vegetable oils, most often canola or soybean, significant processing must be done. Unlike olive oil, which can be pressed, or butter, which can be separated naturally, a refining process using solvents and high heat is used to create vegetable oils. Not to mention (but I will), the fact that canola and soy remain one of the most common crops to be genetically modified.
Over 50 years ago, American doctors began recognizing the difference in fats between butter and margarine. Saturated fat, the kind found in butter, was labeled as a “bad fat”, and thought to contribute to high levels of cholesterol, and clogged arteries (which is being disproven today), while trans fat, found in margarine, was praised as being heart healthy and a better choice. But, as heart disease, diabetes, and cholesterol levels continued to spike among Americans, despite the encouragement for the use of margarine and other trans fats, scientists began realizing a fatal mistake. According to Harvard University, “there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intentioned guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats.” A study published in 2009 found that consuming trans fats caused inflammation and calcification of the arteries which can lead to heart disease.
Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which are the primary source of processed trans fats, were actually revoked of their GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status by the FDA. While these oils can still be found in stick margarines today, removing them completely from the diet of Americans is the official goal. This is because of the strong correlation being discovered between trans fat consumption and heart attack.
The thing is, with the exception of the canned food, all of these food-like products really aren’t food at all. Nutritionally devoid, and full of unnecessary risk, they really have no place in your kitchen or body. Canned foods, as convenient as they are, simply are not worth the risk – especially when fresh and frozen options are just as accessible in today’s society. Take a stand for your health, and stop supporting these companies as they work to kill you.
Until next time,
1. JAMA Network Trends in Prescription Drug Use Among Adults in the United States from 1999-2012
2. NBC News 2017 New Year’s Resolutions: The Most Popular and How to Stick to Them
3. American Journal of Public Health Effectiveness of Food Fortification in the United States: The Case of Pellagra
4. Government Publishing Office Code of Federal Regulations
5. Oxford Academic Increased Consumption of Refined Carbohydrates and the Epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes in the United States: An Ecologic Assessment
6. INCHEM Safety Evaluation of Certain Food Additives and Contaminants
7. INCHEM Potassium Bromate
8. NCBI Diet and Nutrition: The Artificial Food Dye Blues
9. American Cancer Society Known and Probably Human Carcinogens
10. NCBI Toxicology of Food Dyes
11. The New York Times F.D.A. Limits Red Dye No. 3
12. NCBI Possible Neurologic Effects of Aspartame, a Widely Used Food Additive
13. American Diabetes Association Diet Soda Intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA)
14. Harvard School of Public Health Soft Drinks and Disease
15. Nature Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota
16. Stroke Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia
17. BMJ The ‘Twinkie Defense’: The Relationship Between Carbonated Non-Diet Soft Drinks and Violence Perpetration Among Boston High School Students
18. FDA Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application
19. NCBI Concentration of Bisphenol A in Highly Consumed Canned Foods on the U.S. Market
20. Science Direct The Consumption of Canned Foods and Beverages and Urinary Bisphenol A Concentration in NHANES 2003-2008
21. NCBI Adverse Effects of Bisphenol A on Male Reproductive Function
22. NCBI [Effects of Bisphenol A on the Female Reproductive Organs and their Mechanisms]
23. Oxford Academic Endocrine Disruptors and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Elevated Serum Levels of Bisphenol A in Women with PCOS
24. Nature Bisphenol-A Affects Male Fertility via Fertility-Related Proteins in Spermatoza
25. NCBI Bisphenol-A and Female Infertility: A Possible Role of Gene-Environment Interactions
26. PLOS One Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality
27. BMJ Saturated Fat does not Clog the Arteries: Coronary Heart Disease is a Chronic Inflammatory Condition, the Risk of Which Can be Effectively Reduced from Healthy Lifestyle Interventions
28. Harvard Medical School Butter vs. Margarine
29. NCBI The Negative Effects of Hydrogenated Trans Fats and What to do about Them
30. FDA FDA Cuts Trans Fat in Processed Foods