Think You’re Eating Healthy? This Will Make You Think Again
Hidden Toxins in Healthy Foods May Slowly Be Poisoning Your Body
When did food become the biggest health challenge of our lives? How did we get to a place where the very thing that has the power to heal all ailments and disease is now the thing that is causing it?
In the United States, we have access to more food than ever before in history. We have superfoods imported from Asia. We have tropical foods imported from South America and other far away islands. We have seasonal foods all year round thanks to indoor greenhouses.
Yet food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise. According to Dr. Jonathan Hemler, pediatric allergy and immunology specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, as reported by NBC news,
“We have noticed that the prevalence of food allergy has tripled in the last 20 to 30 years.”
That is a frightening number and even more frightening because doctors are saying they don’t know why. NBC goes on to report,
Theories explaining the increase in adult food allergies range from vitamin D deficiency to alterations in gut bacteria due to the combination of a more clean environment and Western diet. Researchers also say that eating too much processed food might also increase one’s risk to develop food allergies.
It’s not just food allergies that are increasing either. Auto immune diseases, cancers, depression, and autism are on the rise as well. Many of these diseases are being linked to the foods we eat. A recent study at Yale was conducted to see if refined salt had an effect on auto immune disease. They found that mice fed a diet high in refined salt had higher levels of inflammation and were more likely to develop a severe form of a disease associated with multiple sclerosis in humans. Professor David Hafler from Yale University says,
Today, Western diets all have high salt content and that has led to an increase in hypertension and perhaps autoimmune disease as well.
Most of us now know that all the processed and packaged foods that are so prevalent in American culture are not part of a healthy diet. Many people are becoming more health conscious of the food they eat and are taking steps to clean up their diets.
What Exactly is a Healthy Diet?
I have spent years researching, learning, and experimenting with improving my eating habits and looking for the optimal diet for my best health. I am the person who brings her own lunch to work and buys 90% of her food at the local farmer’s market which includes organic, grass fed beef, pastured chicken, and wild caught local fish.
I believe a healthy diet is ever evolving. Doctors and scientists are constantly uncovering new information about the human body and nutrition. Not only that, but our bodies are constantly changing with our age, our environment, and our stress levels, both physically and emotionally. This means that just because certain foods are working for you right now, does not mean they will work for you in a year, or even a month.
I have written about the mind body connection and how our bodies have an amazing ability to signal us when things are wrong or in need of repair. This connection is deepened when we feed our bodies whole, unprocessed foods.
This can be challenging in our distracted, on the go style of living. We are primed to ignore signs and signals our bodies are sending. We don’t have time to slow down enough to recognize the subtle cues we might be receiving on a daily basis. We lose touch with the intricacies of the mind body connection. The processed, packaged, convenient foods we are accustomed to grabbing are dulling these signals and even creating false signals and cravings for things like sugar, salt and fats.
It takes work and diligence to avoid the processed foods and instead choose whole, organic foods that grow from the earth or hang from a tree. But once you begin feeding your body clean, whole food it becomes easier to continue. The taste buds sharpen and soon the processed, over sweetened and salted foods lose their appeal. The body gets no satisfaction from them. The temptation dulls and you begin to crave high quality colorful fruits and vegetables.
This has been my experience for the many years I have been working on optimizing my diet. Slowly, I began to eliminate refined sugars and carbs. I focus on nutrient dense, fresh, seasonal and local foods. I choose organic whenever possible and avoid anything in a package. I even make my own energy bars to fuel my workouts. I began to reap the rewards of my efforts. My energy increased and my athletic performance improved.
When Healthy Becomes Unhealthy
But a few years ago I began to develop some skin problems. I noticed redness in my face and some acne that I had never experienced before. The doctor diagnosed it as rosacea. She prescribed antibiotics. I try to avoid taking antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary so I have spent years seeking out natural alternative treatments with little sustainable success.
In addition to the rosacea, I also developed some chronic ankle and shin pain. It was manageable pain that I would wake up with each morning. Some nights the pain would disturb my sleep and wake me up but generally it would disappear upon rising. At one point it worsened enough that it affected my running and training so I saw a physical therapist. After about 2 months of PT, it went away. I was back to running and I was armed with a set of exercises that kept the pain at bay. Then in about 6 months, the pain slowly surfaced again. It was gradual. I would ramp up the frequency of my exercises but eventually they stopped working all together. The pain was there each morning again.
The most disturbing of my symptoms was brain disfunction. I began to notice memory problems. I was forgetting names often, and movies and tv shows I watched would disappear from my mind just hours after seeing them. I would lose words and my train of thought mid conversation without recovery. I would experience brain fog that felt like my brain was shutting down and not not fully returning when it came back online.
When I complained to friends, most of them commiserated that it happens to them too and doesn’t it suck to get older.
Yet, I had the nagging feeling that this can’t be normal.
The Power of Food
Because I believe that our bodies naturally want to heal themselves and that food is a powerful tool to assist in this process, I decided to do an elimination diet. I knew that things like soy, gluten, dairy, and sugar are often root causes to chronic inflammation in the body and can produce a whole host of seemingly unrelated symptoms like the ones I was experiencing. And even though I reduced those things in my diet, I had not eliminated them entirely.
In the first five days of the diet, my ankle pain disappeared entirely. Then mysteriously on the 6th day, it came back. I didn’t know what I had introduced that may have caused it to come back, so I began to work with a nutritionist to assist me. After a series of blood, stool and urine testing, we discovered some possible causes of my brain fog and skin issues. I was deficient in some key B Vitamins that are responsible for brain function, memory performance, and skin health. My mitochondria were not getting the fats I was feeding it and they were instead showing up in my urine.
The most concerning result of these lab tests was the mercury that showed up in my blood. Very high levels of mercury. The thing about mercury is that it binds to your tissues and organs so seeing it in a blood panel only reveals a recent exposure. It doesn’t tell you the full body burden. Interestingly, I had eaten sushi and smoked salmon in the days prior to the blood test. I had also experienced brain fog and memory loss the days I ate the seafood.
From here, I went to a functional medicine doctor who administered a DMPS Challenge Test, in which a chelating agent is given through IV that draws the heavy metals out of the body. Then a 6 hour urine test is collected and tested to measure the heavy metals that are released. The results of this test revealed very high levels of mercury and elevated levels of lead and tin as well. (I have since learned there are some questions over the interpretations of these tests and a Mercury Tri Test is more reliable.)
So here I am being vigilant about my eating habits, educating myself on the right things to put inside of my body, reducing and eliminating fast food, processed foods and packaged foods, and somehow I am still poisoning myself with toxic heavy metals. It’s important for me to mention though, that likely a big contributor to the mercury in me is the amalgam fillings I had in my mouth. Three were removed prior to the time of testing and the final 4 have since been removed. Amalgam fillings, safe mercury removal and the practices of conventional dentistry are a whole other very important topic but not one that I am going to dive into in this article. For now, I am choosing to keep the focus on food, but I want to make clear that I am not placing sole blame on food for any of my symptoms.
Toxins are Everywhere
According to the article Mercury Toxicity, from Precision Nutrition writer Ryan Andrews, mercury can come not just from seafood but many other food sources. This is due to mercury’s ability to accumulate in the soil foods are grown in.
“Burning fossil fuels and mining (mercury is used to extract gold) emit inorganic mercury vapor into the atmosphere. This mercury floats around and eventually settles into waterways, where it’s organified to methylmercury by microorganisms.”
The article reports the following list as sources of mercury coming from food:
- Livestock who are fed contaminated fishmeal
- Plants grown in mercury-contaminated soil
- Foods stored in pottery with mercury-based paint
- Duck eggs
- Chemicals used on food crops (e.g., pesticides)
- Protein powder (see here)
- Fish oil (check with the company to make sure they test for toxins).
Mercury isn’t the only toxin we have to watch out for either. There are a number of other heavy metals, pesticides, and fungicides that are getting into the ground soil and contaminating our food sources. And choosing organic doesn’t eliminate exposure to pesticides. Christie Wilcox writes in Scientific American,
“natural pesticides don’t fare any better than synthetic…Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential — or serious — health risks, including those used commonly in organic farming.”
There is so much controversy over pesticide use and whether organic food is healthier or worth the extra cost, it’s hard to know what to believe. The sad truth is the food industry is a huge business and it is driven by profit, not what is best for our health. There are lobbyists, food corporations and government agencies who are happy to fund studies that will tell us their practices are not harmful and the levels of toxin exposures in foods are too low to cause any harm.
But what they fail to acknowledge is that there is a cumulative effect of all these toxins that we are being bombarded with day in and day out. When you begin to add up all the parts per million doses that are “safe” in any one food product, by the end of the day if you have consumed several of those foods, suddenly you are over the “safe” dosage. Add in the pollutants we are breathing in, toxins that are in our cleaning products as well in our water and skin products, the body is now experiencing a huge overload that is flooding the detox pathways and causing a backup in the system. Our natural ability to detox is now compromised.
Don’t Ignore the Signs
In the meantime, people continue to get sick. Symptoms of chronic fatigue, joint pain, memory loss, brain fog, anxiety, depression, skin rashes, sinus allergies and more are chalked up to signs of aging or assumed to be the fault of the individual not taking care of herself.
But there are a lot of health conscious people, like myself, who are choosing plant based, organic diets, keeping fit, and getting regular sleep, yet are still experiencing some of these chronic symptoms. Most of these people will ignore the signs. Or worse, they will push through the discomfort, quietly chastising themselves for not being more energetic, happy or motivated. This can go on for years, but the danger of allowing these toxins to build up is that eventually they will catch up with us and bring us down.
If you have a hidden food sensitivity, food allergy, heavy metal toxins or a build up of pesticides like glyphosate (a.k.a., Roundup), and they are not dealt with now, you could end up developing a whole host of diseases including Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s to name a few.
I don’t share this information to create panic. Rather, the hope is to create awareness and instill the importance of deepening your own mind body connection. If you are experiencing any chronic conditions, whether pain issues, skin issues, respiratory or even mood swings and fatigue, they could be signs that food is making you sick or that you have a toxic overload. Be kind and honest with yourself and pay attention to small signals.
Here’s a few strategies I have found helpful in determining which foods are working for me and which may be a problem:
- Food Journaling: This can be a tedious task but it is the most effective way to understand how food is affecting you. Be detailed! Even if you think it’s not related to food, note down your mood, energy levels, ability to focus, and any other symptoms you are experiencing. The act of journaling will help you get more in tune with your body and create awareness of how food may be effecting you.
- Pay Attention to Your Poop: Parasites and bacteria are more common than you think. Not only that but the color, texture and frequency of your bowel movements can tell you a lot about the health of your body. Here is a great info-graph to learn from. Log your bowel movements in your food journal.
- Drink More Water: And make sure it’s clean. I was drinking the water from my refrigerator door, which is basically tap water because I can’t tell you the last time I changed the filter. This is likely the cause of a parasite that showed up in my stool. According to Wendy Myers, detox specialist, drinking spring water is the best water for your health. She writes a comprehensive article that lists all the types of water and which ones are the best options for your health. Water is essential for detoxing and for keeping your body running efficiently.
- Practice Mindful Eating: This is another difficult practice to keep up with but the effects are worth the effort, even if done sporadically. We have all fallen into bad habits of eating on the go and eating distracted. This has led to becoming completely unaware of the food we put in our mouths, how it makes us feel, and the signs our bodies give to let us know when to stop eating. The practice of paying attention to your food helps the body digest it more effectively and more efficiently.
- Simplify Your Diet: This can mean doing an elimination diet, a mono diet, or doing your own version of cutting out certain foods that you suspect may be bothering you. Even with food journaling, it can be difficult to determine what foods are problematic as symptoms don’t necessarily show up immediately. Sometimes it can be days after eating something before a symptom shows up. Simplifying your foods and then reintroducing one item at a time with several days in between is the best way to detect a problem.
- Seek help: Find a doctor or nutritionist who aligns with your goals and philosophy in health. This can be the most challenging part of the process. I had my primary care doctor very bluntly tell me that she is skeptical of all alternative health professionals and doesn’t put much stock in what they say. I agree that just because someone claims to be an expert or has some initials after their name, that we shouldn’t take their word as truth. Doctors today have very little time to get to know their patients. We are lucky to get 30 minutes of their time before they are diagnosing, prescribing, and kicking us out the door. We have to demand more and continue searching until we are heard.
Being healthy shouldn’t be this complicated. Eating shouldn’t be this toxic. But unless you buy your own farm on untouched land and grow your own food, this is the reality of the food industry. The best way to combat the food lobbyists and big corporations is with your wallet.
- Buy local whenever possible.
- Shop at the farmer’s market if they are available to you.
- Be discerning in your food purchases.
Let’s give our food the power it is supposed to have. The power to heal our bodies from the inside out.