I have been rethinking my diet lately and I got pretty frustrated. What happened to the fresh yummy fruit of my childhood that sprinkled you with juice at the first bite!? What happened to relationships with farmers my mom so kindly cultivated visiting our open-air market in the city? She had a fish guy for the best salmon, a butcher who would set aside the freshest piece of lamb for her “plov” and farmer named Masha who would sell her in-season apples and pears. One of my favorite childhood memories of the farmer’s market in Moscow was the local babushki, or grandmas, who would bring their homemade dairy (cheese, sour cream, ricotta and milk) and I would run up to each of them and try their goods to choose the best. My relationship with food seemed closer, more intimate, and undoubtedly healthier. I savor that memory as I did every bite of that fresh rich cheese. It was a relationship and that of trust.
I long to come back to the time where farming seemed to be more of an art form and tradition passed from generation to generation, something a family took pride in and treated their produce with love. We ate whatever was in season because it was natural to the local climate and there were no readily available imports from Chile or Mexico. The food also went bad quickly because it was not covered in wax or pesticides like it is today. You bought it, you ate it, end of story. Definitely no apple lasted in the fridge for months without turning into a mushy mess. Today seems a different story. Everything seems to revolve about maximizing profits for the big companies and health risks associated with the use of chemicals and additives in our food is often discussed but never truly corrected. Yes these ingredients may cause cancer, neurological damage and wreck havoc on your hormones – but what the heck – there is abundance of food in local supermarkets and your “freshly baked” bread will not get moldy or stale for weeks! Money must be made and people must eat. What they eat is a whole different story.
So I digress. I decided to eat cleaner and learn more about what goes into my body. I will share my finds over the next few weeks with you but for now I wanted to list a few foods that are big no-no’s due to their harmful effect on our health:
Any processed meat should be called into question due to trans fats, high sodium content and a ton of preservatives. If that wasn’t enough, some processed meats also contain nitrates and nitrites, or, simply put, chemical additives that are used to enhance taste, improve color and increase shelf life. Nitrates and Nitrites have been linked to cancer so read your labels carefully and opt out of bacon, ham or salami that contain them.
Non-Organic Chicken & Eggs
According to a rather disturbing article in The New York Times, things get pretty messy on non-organic farms where chicken feed could include active ingredients of Benadryl, Tylenol and even Prozac! All those are supposed to keep chickens calm and, thus, their meat soft and egg production high. Because the birds are kept in unsanitary conditions there are also high incidents of conventional chicken containing salmonella. The most disturbing though is the use of banned class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. These broad spectrum antibiotics, routinely prescribed to treat bacterial infections, have long been banned in poultry production because long-term consumption breeds antibiotic-resistant diseases that harm humans. It is terrifying. Unfortunately, there is no way around it – whenever you can try to buy organic chicken and eggs. According to the rules of organic certification, organic chickens are fed only certified organic feed, which is grown without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. They may not receive hormones or antibiotics at any time and are kept in cleaner conditions allowing them to roam outdoors.
It turns out American cheese jumped the gun calling itself “cheese” for, instead, it is a factory concoction of a blend of milk fats, solids, whey protein, emulsifiers, and food coloring. As you can see it is easy to guess that this cheese lookalike is high in trans fat, sodium, carcinogenic fake color and low in nutrition. Skip!
Continuing down the dairy aisle we find our next wonder – margarine. Years ago when all cholesterol was considered bad, margarine was the star due to its lower cholesterol and saturated fat content. Compared to butter, it looked good. Dietary cholesterol since then has been redeemed and the focus shifted to margarine’s artery-clogging trans fats aplenty. Consumption of high trans fat foods is linked to increased incidences of heart disease and obesity. No, thanks!
Soda is bad for you. Period. The average can contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Excess sugar spikes insulin as your body struggles to absorb sugar from the bloodstream and use it for energy. Since the quantity of sugar is so high, the insulin response is dramatic. As you continue to drink soda over time, the dramatic insulin spikes will take their toll and increase your risk of developing diabetes and cancer. Diet soda is not a better alternative. Yes, there is no sugar in it but there are plenty of artificial sweeteners making up for its absence. Ironically, there is mounting evidence suggesting that use of artificial sweeteners (0 calories!) is just as bad for your waistline as using regular, high-calorie sugar. For instance, research from the University of Texas has found that mice fed the artificial sweetener had higher blood sugar levels and risks of developing diabetes than mice on a regular diet. What is also curious is that some artificial sweeteners are not that terrible in themselves but in the way they present themselves in your drink and interact with your metabolism. Most of them have a more intensely sweet taste than plain sugar and what it does is dull your taste buds to naturally sweet foods like fruits making you crave high-sugar foods instead. Read, candy, read pounds around your waist. Whether you drink regular or diet soda, there is another ingredient you should note. A recent scientific study linked caramel coloring found in high quantities in sodas to cancer. Boom the C-word again!
Conventionally Grown Produce
According to data assembled by the Environmental Working Group, pesticides used to grow conventional, or non-organic, produce are linked to brain damaging effects, disruptions in nervous system, cancer and hormonal imbalance. Unfortunately, washing your fruits and vegetable thoroughly does little to help as the chemicals tend to penetrate skin-deep in most cases. Obviously getting everything organic can be a pricy proposition but it is good to know which types of produce get affected the most. EWG most recent report listed the following as the most contaminated foods: apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers, kale, and collard greens.
BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics that are often used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles. Epoxy resins are used to coat the inside of metal products, such as cans and bottle tops you would see in canned tomatoes. Why is BPA bad for you? Bisphenol-A is a synthetic estrogen that can disrupt normal functioning of reproductive system and result in diseases stemming from it. Solution: read your labels as more and more containers are now listed as BPA-free. As to water bottles, I just discovered a beautiful glass bottle container to carry my filtered water – Ello BPA-Free Glass Bottle. I got mine in hot pink and it is adorable and just the right size!
Fish High in Mercury
Especially dangerous for pregnant women, high mercury content fish is not something you should joke about. The reports, produced by the Biodiversity Research Institute and an international coalition of environmental campaign groups called the Zero Mercury Working Group, attest that mercury contamination of seafood is on the rise and that “smaller traces of the toxic metal may be enough to cause restricted brain development or other health problems for humans who eat them.” Consumption of fish with higher mercury levels on a regular basis can be especially damaging to the health of children and the developing fetus in pregnancy. Fish has great nutritional value and is high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids so discontinuing eating it is not the answer. Instead of avoiding fish and shellfish altogether, learn the kinds that are low in mercury content: