Blog # 56 Andrew Siegel, M.D.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful
form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.”
Ann Wigmore (nutritionist/health educator)
“Food is a drug—use it wisely.”
Ray Kybartas (author/personal trainer)
After an unseasonably mild winter in the northeastern United States, lovely spring has arrived. Trees and shrubs are sporting supple green buds and the aura is one of renewal, rebirth, new horizons and infinite possibilities.
Following winter stagnation, it is time for spring-cleaning, the annual ritual of purging our homes of clutter, the superfluous, and the old-and-broken. Applying this re-organization and re-engineering to the hodgepodge of junk in the kitchen, refrigerator and pantry is a noble idea in our quest for health and wellness.
In terms of our health, the most important rooms of our homes are our kitchens and workout areas (if we are so fortunate to have an area that we can dedicate to our fitness pursuits). Unfortunately for many of us, Big Food has commandeered our kitchens, and they are stocked with an abundance of processed foods that are nutrient-poor, calorie-dense, obesity engendering, disease promoting and often addictive because of the sugar, salt and fat concoctions developed by food scientists in the laboratory. These boxes, cartons, packages, bags, and cans overwhelm our kitchens and it is high time to wrestle control back from the food industry.
The most compelling tools we have to maintain our health are our forks. Food is essential medicine capable of healing many chronic diseases and as such it is important to have the same respect for what we eat as we do for any medication prescribed by our doctors. Think of the supermarket as a large pharmacy, an abundant source of medicinal foods made by nature, many of which are capable of nourishing our health and healing our diseases. Unfortunately, these healthy medicinal foods are hidden in a vast entanglement of hazardous, disease spawning, addictive drugs representing themselves as food. With a little savvy, it is not difficult to learn how to navigate the supermarket-pharmacy and distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent. Think of our pantry as a medicine cabinet and our refrigerator as a place to store perishable drugs. It it is important to learn to read food labels as if we were reading the label on a medication we might choose to give our child. Before we place a food item in our mouths, we need to ask ourselves the question: will this nourish my health or promote illness? We also must be very careful not to overdose on any foods as an O.D. of any food—healthy or otherwise—is not a smart strategy.
Two of three Americans are now overweight or obese, an epidemic that has surfaced over the last century, exponentially so over the last few decades. For much of humankind’s time on this planet, calories were scarce and physical activity in the acquisition of those calories was unavoidable. In contemporary times, physical activity is scarce and calories unavoidable. We are genetically hard-wired to eat when food is available to store calories for the lean times of famine, a not uncommon circumstance for much of our existence. We are not programmed to deny ourselves calories when they become accessible and our biological systems have not yet adapted to this relatively recent problem of too many calories, as the problem has only existed over the past century. When we factor in our genetic drives; the agri-business mass cultivation of corn, soybeans, wheat, feedlot livestock production; the industrial food complex engineering of abundant, cheap, seductive, readily-available calorie-dense, convenience and junk foods that override willpower by stimulating reward centers in the brain; and aggressive food marketing, we have the perfect storm for the obesity epidemic. Paradoxically, obesity co-exists with malnutrition because of a diet predominantly consisting of nutrient-lacking, high-caloric processed foods.
When desire coexists with opportunity (our eating environment), most humans will take the path of least resistance and consume. So, when that sweet Babka bread was sitting on the center island of the kitchen this morning, the most primitive elements of my brain recognized its availability and convenience (so much easier than the minor hassle of toasting a piece of whole wheat bread and smearing some organic peanut butter on it), and that became my breakfast, along with a mug of black coffee. If the Babka wasn’t there, it would not have been my breakfast.
Now is the time to replace the unwholesome food-like junk that litters our homes with real food and start on the journey to a healthier existence. Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, believes that if we want to change our eating habits and behaviors, it is simply easier to change our environment than our minds. (For more details, see my July 9, 2011 blog, which summarizes his book: https://healthdoc13.wordpress.com/2011/07/) Although our ultimate goal is to be able to eat smartly and sensibly no matter what food environment we are exposed to, by creating the right food “domain” at home, it will make this goal all the more easier to achieve.
The following are general principles for cleaning out and re-stocking your refrigerator and pantry in a way to ensure healthy and safe eating:
- In general, the healthiest foods are the freshest and most perishable; they have the shortest shelf lives and they promote humans not perishing prematurely. Conversely, the unhealthiest foods are the most imperishable; these dubious food-like substances have prolonged shelf lives—think processed foods like Twinkies—and certainly do not prolong human shelf life. The French do it right by shopping daily for healthy, fresh, perishable vegetables, fruits, breads, cheese, meat and fish. To access the freshest and most perishable foods, keep your grocery cart on the perimeter of the supermarket while avoiding the interior aisles.
- Stock up on whole foods, foods with one ingredient, as opposed to foods that consist of a mélange of ingredients mixed together and prepared. These real foods include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean animal protein including fish, chicken and eggs. Real foods are nutritionally dense and provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants. If we could see the precise ingredients and means that go into making many processed concoctions—particularly packaged foods—we would be much more reluctant to eat them. The final product simply hides all the component ingredients. Real food does not need a label to identify it since its identity is readily apparent. Of course some whole foods will come in cans, including beans, artichokes, tomatoes and sardines. Likewise, some healthy foods will contain more than a single ingredient and be packaged. A general rule of thumb to ensure the healthiness of any given product is to look for foods that contain no more than 5 identifiable, known, wholesome ingredients.
- When it comes to the all-popular nut butters including peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, etc., try to stock up on brands that contain just the nut, with no other unhealthy additives. Many peanut butters, for example, will contain sugar, salt, and partially hydrogenated oils.
- Focus on food quality as opposed to food quantity. Ideally, animal products are pasture-raised and free of antibiotics and hormones; plant products are organic, local and seasonal. With respect to pesticide load, the following fruits and vegetables—the “dirty dozen”—are the worst, so going organic if possible is advisable for these: peaches, apples, sweet peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, lettuce, grapes, spinach, potatoes and pears. Animal fat is a haven for pesticides and toxins. The quality of fat of animals that are raised on grass pastures is quite different than that of animals raised on confined feedlots, both with respect to the fatty acid content and the toxicity. Predatory fish and river fish including swordfish, tuna, Chilean sea bass, and halibut often contain mercury and other contaminants and should be consumed in moderation. Salmon, sardines, herring, shrimp, and scallops are considered to have low mercury and other toxins.
- Stock up on healthy vegetable fat sources (predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) include avocados, olives, olive oil, and other nut and seed oils including walnut, sesame, sunflower oils.
- Stock up on a variety of healthy protein sources including beans, legumes, whole soy products, nuts, seeds, eggs, seafood, and lean meats.
- Stock up on low-glycemic index carbohydrates—those that have a low propensity to rapidly raise blood sugar (vegetables, fruits, whole grains)—as opposed to high-glycemic index carbs (sweets, soda, juices, candy, white bread, white rice).
- At times, processing is a necessity to make foods accessible to us, so it becomes very important to be able to intelligently read and understand the food label, with the same attention and scrutiny that you would give to a drug label because after all, food is medicine—medicine that can heal or medicine that can promote disease. Remember: labeled food should have only a few ingredients. Any more than a few, don’t stock in your pantry. If you can’t recognize or pronounce the ingredients, don’t stock in your pantry.
- Don’t stock foods that make health claims. Real food does not need claims since the food speaks for itself. Big Food uses many misleading descriptors including: “fortified”, “lite”, “multigrain”, “all natural” and “organic”—they sound great for our health, but really are just words without substance. The term “all-natural” resonates nicely but is meaningless—many things are all natural including syphilis and melanoma. “Multigrain” conjures up images of a medley of farm-fresh healthy grains, but in reality translates to being made from more than one grain, all of which may be highly processed. “Organic” is a powerful term that evokes thoughts of food grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. However, there are many definitions for the word “organic,” and understand that when I walk my English spaniel to do his “business,” he leaves a large, steaming pile of organic material on the ground!
- Beware of other hanky-panky and deceptive labeling practices: The predominant ingredient is listed first and others in descending order, and it is desirable that the predominant ingredient be a healthy one. Many processed foods are predominantly sugar. Big Food’s deception is to use different forms of sugar (molasses, cane juice, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) to “unbundle” and thus remove the sugar as the predominant ingredient. For example, instead of sugar being listed first, they might list brown sugar second and organic cane juice third, removing sugar from the top of the order. Many breakfast cereals are predominantly sugar, but if sugar were listed as the primary ingredient, many consumers would choose to leave the product on the supermarket shelf. Additionally, there is often a sleight of hand applied to the number or the size of servings delineated on the package, with a realistic-sized serving being much larger and higher in calories than stated.
- Do not be hoodwinked by items that promote fruit on their labels. Fruit-flavored yogurt, for example, often contains large amounts of corn-syrup solids; a much better choice is to use plain, vanilla or lemon yogurt and supplement with fresh fruit. Likewise, the popular “fruit” roll-up kids snack in no way resembles real fruit—it is just a concoction of sugars, dyes, additives, and unpronounceable, unknown ingredients.
- Don’t stock high-glycemic beverages that are naked liquid calories including sodas, sweetened iced tea and lemonade, fruit juices, and sports beverages. Do stock water, seltzer, non-fat or low-fat dairy or non-dairy alternatives including soy and almond milk.
- Don’t stock foods containing metabolic poisons including high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and enriched wheat flour.
- Don’t stock foods laced with preservatives, additives, coloring, dyes or those that contain artificial sweeteners.
- Beware of the sodium content of the food that you stock up on; even the seemingly healthiest of foods can be loaded with salt, with one serving far exceeding the recommended daily allowance.
Bottom line: Resonate with nature and literally think “outside the box,” can, package, bottle, etc., by stocking your pantry and fridge with whole, natural foods and not their refined by-products. Whole and real foods do not require a label because what you see is what you get. Leave the chemistry experiments to the food science lab and not for our consumption. Processing is a necessity to make some foods accessible to us, so read food and nutritional labels as carefully as you would read the ingredients in a medication, because when it comes down to it, food is medicine. The best diet is the “anti-processed-atarian” diet. Re-engineer your food environment by discarding the unnatural-chemical-junk-slop and stocking up on the wholesome, natural and healthy foods that are capable of nurturing and healing. Your body will thank you.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food
Now available on Amazon Kindle