All of you are well aware that Krispy Kremes and Big Gulps are more akin to biological warfare than nutrition and should be avoided like the plague. However, this post is about four very common foods that are often touted as being healthy and that you may still be consuming on a regular basis unaware of the possible harm they are causing to your metabolism and health.
I believe the Paleo diet is a great template for optimal nutrition. Yet in this post I discard my bias towards Paleo rationale and instead take a more holistic approach.
No matter what your dietary choices are - Fruitarian, Low Carb High Fat or Raw Food Vegan - do yourself a favor and try to eliminate or at least minimize your consumption of the following four foods that everyone should avoid.
Bread can be amazing. I'll admit it. A fresh, crusty baguette from a small town boulangerie in regional France may be worth breaking your gluten-free diet for as a one-off culinary experience (I plead guilty, Your Paleo Honour).
But for the most part, wheat is simply not worth eating when you are striving for optimal health. The modern, domesticated, high-yielding dwarf wheat we find these days is far more problematic, blood-sugar-spiking and immunological than the ancient wheat our forebears consumed at the birth of agriculture. And I'm not saying that wheat was particularly healthy back then, but it seems to be far worse these days.
Gluten is a unique molecule that cannot be fully digested by humans (Fasano, 2011). This is not to say that it brings immediate harm to all those who consume it. But it can seriously interfere with the digestion of susceptible people: particularly those with gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, low immune function, gut permeability or irritable bowel syndrome.
Gluten sensitivity is difficult to test for and so it flies under the radar of conventional medicine - with most cases going undiagnosed in a population that is increasingly intolerant to our modern refined wheat.
Even if wheat doesn't seem to affect you in any overt way, the potential for some harm - however small - paired with the fact that it not a very nutritious food and basically a source of cheap, insulin-spiking carbohydrate, makes a very compelling case to avoid it completely.
2. Industrial vegetable and seed oils such as canola, sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed and soybean oil.
These vegetable oils are anything but "heart healthy". In fact, several studies have shown that while replacing saturated fats with vegetable oils may reduce total cholesterol, the absolute risk of heart disease and total mortality typically increases on such a regimen. This is probably due to the pro-inflammatory nature of linoleic acid, which is the main omega-6 fatty acid in processed vegetable and seed oils.
Without delving into the cholesterol-heart disease myth let's just focus on the fact that these vegetable oils are unnatural and nasty. Often they require chemical solvents to extract the oil from a plant that isn’t particularly oily - like cottonseed or corn.
It is much better to get your fats from unprocessed or minimally processed animal and plant foods that are naturally fatty - such as (organ) meats, eggs, oily seafood, coconuts, avocados, nuts, olives, etc.
These are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available, in stark contrast to the empty calories contained in industrial vegetable and seed oils that sadly constitute a majority of fat calories consumed in the Standard American Diet.
Many vegetable oils, especially corn, soybean and cottonseed oil, are simply cheap agricultural bi-products that Mr Market concocted up to make a quick buck.
To add insult to injury these junk oils are sold in cheap plastic containers and marketed as being "heart healthy" alternatives to real food fats that humans have consumed for eons. I mean whose idea was it to eat oil extracted from cotton? How ridiculous!
Industrial oils should be seen as what they are: waste products sold with savvy marketing as health products, with disastrous consequences to our collective health. Steer clear!
3. Unfermented Soy
Regrettably, being a lactose intolerant child I grew up on soy milk with only the best of intentions from Mum who thought she was doing me a favour.
Besides the possibility that my soy-steeped youth may have saved me from my genetic predisposition to a gorilla-esque manscape (Dad and brother are 90th percentile hairy) there are not many redeeming qualities of unfermented soy.
Soy is a particularly estrogenic compound. Estrogen is a steroid hormone that promotes the development of female characteristics. Because unfermented soy interferes with the delicate balance of hormones in your body it can be problematic for both males and females. To add insult to injury, soy is also goitrogenic - meaning that it can suppress thyroid function - leading to potential hypothyroid symptoms such as weight-gain, hair-loss, coldness, etc. Hardly the characteristics of a superfood! (As an aside - there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’. The term is a marketing ploy like De Beers ‘Diamonds are forever’ campaign back in the 1930s to create a need that doesn’t exist)
An old Japanese wives' tale is that when a woman suspected her husband of cheating she would feed him as much unfermented soy (e.g. tofu, edamame) as possible as this was a tried and true method of reducing male libido and fertility. No wonder Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world!
Furthermore, soy is a global mega-crop and hugely profitable in industrial agriculture. Along with corn it is the largest genetically modified crop in the world. 91% of soy produced in the US is GM (Mercola, 2011).
Given the economics underlying soy it is no wonder soybean oil has snuck its way into the Western Diet, with up to 7% of total calories derived from this crappy oil for the average American, who remains largely unaware of the fact. SAD indeed!
Please note that I'm saving my scorn for soy to the predominantly unfermented types - soy milk, edamame, soy protein isolate, soybean oil, etc.
Fermented soy such as natto, miso and (gluten-free) soy sauce does not share the estrogenic and goitrogenic properties of unfermented soy. In fact, fermented soy products - like most other fermented foods - have many proposed health benefits and can be included in a healthy eating regime.
The jury is still out on raw milk. Raw milk from healthy pastured cows free from hormones and antibiotics is probably quite a healthy food if you tolerate lactose and can find it. However, our litigious Nanny-state society deems it to be "unsafe" unless it's used for baths or pets.
Instead we take cows, artificially inseminate them, feed them corn, incarcerate them, dose them with antibiotics and hormones and force them to lactate year-round for their entire productive lives.
Then we take their milk and heat the bejesus out of it to kill any potential bugs [pasteurization], remove most of the fat and thus nutrition [skim milk]. Then we super-blend it so that any remaining fat molecules are distributed evenly [homogenization].
Depending on which country you live in we then fortify it with Vitamin D, package it in cheap plastic and advertise it as an essential source of calcium to pour on your "healthy whole grain" cereal in the mornings.
After all this bastardization what is the average consumer left with? An insulin-spiking, low-nutrition beverage, potentially laced with hormones, antibiotics, toxins from plastic and with the aftertaste of animal cruelty. Yum!
I don't buy into the dogma that dairy products were not consumed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors and therefore should not be consumed on a Paleo diet. This would be to argue that we should only eat foods that existed pre-agriculture, which is both impossible and ridiculous.
I think some fermented dairy from healthy sources is a potentially nutritious and beneficial food and if tolerated can safely be incorporated in a Paleo lifestyle. The 'Paleo Police' may disagree, which is totally fine with me.
However, as with soy, fermented dairy (preferably from raw milk) such as kefir or hard cheese is a vastly different food to pasteurized, homogenized milk. And I maintain that industrial milk, in this sense, should be completely avoided on the Paleo diet.
If you want to drink raw milk and you can find it then that's your prerogative. Otherwise, black coffee it is!
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Fasano, 2011: http://www.tenderfoodie.com/blog/2011/12/19/interview-w-dr-alessio-fasano-part-1-should-anyone-eat-glute.html
Mercola, 2011: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/03/14/is-the-hidden-soy-in-your-foods-contributing-to-illness.aspx