Step One: Go Organic
It’s hard to eat healthy. Strike that: it’s hard to know HOW to eat healthy.
First, people are advised to eat a diet that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables. Okay, done. But as we understand more about pesticides and other chemicals used in produce to make it look model-fresh and enhance its shelf life, we hear warnings against eating the “Dirty Dozen”—fruits and vegetables that contain particularly high amounts of toxins.
Forgo white rice; eat brown instead, the experts say. But studies, most recently reiterated in Consumer Reports, found measurable levels of arsenic in almost 60 rice varieties tested. Brown rice, often touted for having more protein and fiber than its lighter counterpart, actually had a higher amount of arsenic.
Eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids to decrease the risk of heart disease, we’re told. But a study also says that these same fatty acids can increase the risk of prostate cancer.
Add to that the debate over what type of diet to follow, whether gluten-free, Paleo, low carb or high fat, and it’s no wonder that many of us are confused.
If you’re going to make one move toward a healthy diet—whichever eating plan you choose, the first step is this: eat organic foods.
Reluctant to Go Organic?
My patients sometimes complain that organic food is more expensive, and sometimes that’s true. But the benefit of avoiding numerous contaminants that can lead to chronic health problems is worth the cost.
Let’s consider how some of these contaminants enter the food supply in the first place.
Picture an apple farm in Washington State or a rice plantation in South Carolina.
Now imagine that miles away from either location, garbage is placed at the street corner and picked up by a garbage truck to be taken to a municipal incinerator. Everything that has been thrown into the trash, whether it is hearing aid batteries or plastics, is in the incinerator as well.
Once burned, the remaining ash is often shipped off and used as a mineral source in a variety of commercial products—one of those commercial products is fertilizer. This is how heavy metals from those hearing aid batteries or old flashlight batteries find their way into fertilizers.
These fertilizers are used to replenish minerals in the soil and improve crop yield. Unfortunately, heavy metals are accidental byproducts that get taken up by the plants. Then, whether through the plants or through agricultural runoff, these contaminants enter our food supply.
Rechargeable batteries contain cadmium, a known carcinogen, and chronic exposure to it can cause severe kidney problems, bone softening, lung damage and anemia.
Foods such as shellfish, liver and kidney meats contain high levels of cadmium.
Sometimes toxins, such as various metals, are naturally found in the earth. But some industrial uses of the metals, such as arsenic for insecticides or wood treatment, increase our exposure. Through soil and water, plants like rice and apples get exposed.
Consider that in addition to the toxins these foods are exposed to accidentally, food producers add even more. With additional fertilizers and preservatives coating more chemicals onto foods, it’s no wonder that non-organic foods can ultimately be a source of illness.
Going organic doesn’t mean the foods are inherently more nutritious, but it means that they are inherently less harmful because of a decreased exposure to toxins.
The USDA defines organic food in part this way:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
While organic foods are not guaranteed to contain absolutely no pesticides, their levels are definitely lower. One study found that non-organic foods contained levels of pesticide residue that were four times as high as in organic food. Levels of cadmium were twice as high in non-organic foods. Another study showed that organic foods contained higher levels of some antioxidants, which can help protect cells from damage.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to health, identified foods that have higher levels of pesticides than others, and recommends that at least for these, to buy organic. The so-called “Dirty Dozen” include:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas (imported)
Two food groups, hot peppers and leafy greens such as kale and collard greens, are part of the “Dirty Dozen Plus” because they can contain unusually hazardous pesticides.
Along with the Dirty Dozen, The Environmental Working Group also lists the “Clean Fifteen,” foods less likely to contain pesticide residue:
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
Although dietary advice may seem to change every day, this one is a no-brainer. Keep eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables because they provide a multitude of nutrients, but try to eat more of the foods that inherently contain fewer toxins. One of the best ways to accomplish both of these goals is to go organic.
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