The food selections we make have an important impact on health. The phrase that “you are what you eat” continues to be an accurate statement. The idea that food affects one’s health and state of mind originated in 1800s with the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the epicurean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The health status of cultures consuming a diet similar to their ancestors continues to exceed industrialized regions. In the 1930s, Dr. Weston Price observed the prevalence of disease and structural changes in societies with a diet of predominantly highly refined foods. Victor Lindlahr declared in 1940 that food controls health. He further stated that “ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs.” As these conclusions persisted, it became well-accepted that dietary changes can prevent, delay or treat chronic diseases. Nutrition can influence genetic expression and switch genes on and off, directly correlating to the literal meaning of “you are what you eat”. The following sections introduce the most harmful aspects of the modern diet and their influences on health.
It is estimated that North Americans consume on average over 140-150 lbs. (64-68 kg) of refined sugar a year. Some eat closer to 200 lbs. (91 kg) and others much less (less than 50 lbs. /23 kg). This shocking amount has grown exponentially since 1905 when the average was only 5 lbs. (2 kg). The prevalent trend of diabetes and obesity should therefore not come as a surprise.
Sweetened drinks, especially pop, energy drinks and specialty coffees can account for a large component of your sugar source (please refer to the individual sections for more information). Sugar, among its many forms, is a main ingredient in pre-packaged food. Apart from its sweetening role it is also used as a preservative. Sugar at concentrations of 55-65% (i.e. jam) can prevent the growth of bacteria. Table sugar produced from sugar cane or beets no longer has the benefit of the original plant. The fiber, vitamins, minerals and enzymes used for digestion are extracted during the manufacturing process. The concentrated sugar, refined of its natural ingredients results in insulin spikes, hypoglycemia and insulin resistance with continual consumption. Uncontrolled blood sugar and insulin levels are two major factors in many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, arthritis and immune dysfunction (please refer to Blood Sugar for more information). Additionally, daily sugar consumption can lead to decreased energy, anxiety, fatigue, bloating, migraines, high blood pressure and eczema, etc.
Corn sweeteners account for an estimated 40-80 lbs. (18-36 kg) of the 150 lbs. (68 kg) of consumed sugar. The common use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) began in the 1970’s with the high taxes (tariffs) placed on importing sugar into North America. Consequently, the rate of obese or overweight children and teens has increased by 100%. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal used in the manufacturing process of HFCS and theoretically should be removed from the final product. Research has determined that a portion of the highly processed sweetener has been contaminated. In 2003, 79% of the total mercury used in production could not be accounted for (equivalent to 30 out of 38 tons/3,000 kg out of 3,800 kg). Samples from 55 foods found detectable levels of mercury in 31% of items.
The U.S. Environment Protection Agency recommends a maximum ingestion of 5.5 μg/day of mercury for the average American woman of childbearing age. If a can of cola has 39 g of HFCS then it could contain as much as 22.23 μg of mercury. This well exceeds the accepted safe amount. Mercury is very toxic to the brain, immune system, kidneys and lungs (please refer to Heavy Metals for more information). The heavy metal is not quite what you bargained for when you purchased your soda. Remember to read labels and pay attention to the sugar content.
Flour is a staple in most North American diets. The average Canadian consumes 43.7 kg (96 lbs.) of wheat flour per year. Modern flour is very different than 200 years ago. Traditionally, the inedible shell was removed from the grain and the remainder was consumed: the bran (the outside of the grain; a good source of fiber), the germ (a little pocket on the inside of the grain; a good source of nutrients and anti-oxidants) and the endosperm (most of the inside of the grain: made up of starch). Today the refined flour is merely the endosperm. Although, enriched flour contains synthetic vitamins but no minerals or fiber.
Refined flour does not appeal to microorganisms and does not spoil. It has a long shelf life and can be shipped without refrigeration. Similar to sugar, once stripped of many nutritional components, the quick metabolism of flour by the body also leads to spikes in blood sugar and insulin. This consequently, results in many of the same health concerns.
North American wheat is not equivalent to wheat grown in more temperate European climates. The two strains here, Marquis and Durham semolina, have been adapted to withstand Prairie weather and yield maximum crop. European bread is often more tolerable to the digestive system. Gluten is usually the culprit of many digestive difficulties.
Gluten is the protein found in wheat. Today, 1 in 133 people are diagnosed with celiac disease in Canada. This is a genetic disease that results in destruction of the lining of the gut when exposed to gluten. In addition to celiac, 1 in 3 Canadians cannot tolerate large amounts of gluten without having symptoms of gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Rotating grains or simply switching to another grain like spelt or rye may alleviate wheat sensitivities (not an option for celiac sufferers).
Salt is highly valued as a commodity worldwide and was historically used as a preservative. Concentrations greater than 10% will inhibit the growth of most microorganisms. Salt (sodium chloride) is another major ingredient of processed foods. North Americans consume 12-27g of sodium a day. The total daily intake is often comprised of 50% from processed foods and condiments, 45% from additional salt during consumption and only 5% occurring naturally in food.
Along with the mineral electrolytes, calcium, potassium, magnesium and chloride, salt is a necessary part of the diet. A proper balance should be maintained to prevent health complications. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of electrolytes, whereas processed foods contain sodium chloride and are void of potassium and magnesium. Salt is the common culprit of elevated blood pressure and fluid retention. Unbalanced electrolytes (high salts with low magnesium, potassium and calcium) have also been shown to aggravate migraines, PMS and contribute to cancer.
Fat is commonly added to premade or processed foods. Prior to 1910, butterfat, beef tallow and lard were the primary fats found in foods. The ability to make oil byproducts, (i.e. soybean oil) into a solid state (i.e. butter or lard) forever changed food. As a result of the cost saving advantages, hydrogenated oils are now the main sources of fat in processed foods. These include margarine, peanut butter and bakery products.
The negative health effects of hydrogenated oils are mainly due to trans-fatty acids. While fat is essential to life, many consume more bad fats than good fats (i.e. omega-3 fatty acids). Trans-fatty acids do occur naturally in animal products, meat and dairy, though they make up only 2-5% of the total fat. Adversely, in processed food trans-fat can account for 50-60% of the total fat. Unlike a healthy fat, when trans-fat incorporates into our body tissue they decrease HDL (High Density Lipoprotein, aka the “good cholesterol”), make blood sticky, increase the likelihood of a clot and elevate lipoprotein A (a marker for heart disease). Trans-fatty acid also affects insulin, blood sugar, weight and the risk of diabetes. Breast milk containing high amounts of trans-fatty acids has also been shown to lower visual acuity in babies.
Heating vegetable oils, including olive oil, to high temperatures can form trans-fatty acids and destroy all health benefits. Use oil-less cooking methods or an oil that is more resistant to damage (i.e. coconut oil) or add your olive oil after cooking for flavor to prevent adding trans fats to your meals.
In 2008, the average Canadian drank 57.7 L of milk. Milk was once a good nutritional source of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. The raw milk still contained its natural enzymes for digestion. Cows roamed and grazed on natural organic grass fields. The dairy industry today is very different. The majority of milk produced in North America is pasteurized and homogenized. Vitamins and enzymes are destroyed as the milk is heated to kill microorganisms.
Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid to a high temperature to sterilize it. With milk, heating alters the molecular configuration of casein (milk protein) into a gastrointestinal irritant, preventing our ability to absorb calcium. An increase in heart disease has actually been associated with the introduction of pasteurized milk. Cultures where milk is fermented instead of pasteurized have essentially no heart disease.
The invention of homogenization has been referred to as the “worst thing that dairymen did to milk” (Homogenized Milk: Rocket Fuel for Cancer by Robert Cohen, Executive Director of the Dairy Education Board). Milk is pushed through a fine filter at pressures of 4,000 pounds per square inch. The fat globules are made at least 10 times smaller and become evenly dispersed throughout the milk, allowing them to bypass digestion. Proteins and enzymes are not metabolized and enter the bloodstream. These surviving substances attack arterial walls, forcing the body to protect itself with cholesterol and leading to heart disease. Cardiologists discovered that an enzyme from milk, bovine xanthene oxidase, negatively affects victims of heart attacks. Children are even showing signs of hardened arteries.
Homogenization disrupts digestive processes stimulating the body to produce histamine and mucous in response to foreign proteins. Certain milk proteins are also similar to human proteins and therefore can trigger autoimmune reactions (via a process called cross reactivity).
Remnants of antibiotics in milk also contribute to dairy’s ill effects. There are at least 52 known antibiotics used to treat infections in cows and only 30 approved by the FDA. Residues of antibiotics can remain in the cow’s milk for at least 4 to 7 milkings following antibiotic cessation. This milk should technically be disposed of, although this is not always the case. The milk from a single cow on antibiotics can contaminate an entire truck load of milk. The drug residues in milk contribute to antibiotic resistance and allergic reactions. Dairy products are also a concentrated source of pesticides and herbicides. When cows are fed heavily sprayed grains, the toxins become stored in fat and subsequently contaminate the milk (please refer to Pesticides for more information).
There are over 25 proteins in milk that can cause allergic reactions. The milk protein casein is one of the main causal factors for allergic reactions among dairy containing food. In general, milk increases mucus production and contributes to sinusitis, arthritis, allergies, ear infections, headaches, congestion, eczema, fatigue, asthma, colic and bed wetting in children. Dairy has also been implicated as a cause of Type I diabetes in children.
The milk sugar, lactose, presents another reason to question milks’ health benefits. Over 7 million Canadians (20%) cannot digest the milk sugar lactose and the intolerance is a worldwide phenomenon. The ability to produce the necessary enzyme lactase for lactose digestion is typically lost after being weaned off breast milk. Without this enzyme, milk consumers can experience severe cramps, diarrhea, bloating and gas. Worldwide, there are differences in lactose intolerance that are dependent on the region’s history of dairy farming. North West Europe and Scandinavia have only a 3-8% prevalence of lactose intolerance and are therefore more able to digest the milk sugar. South Eastern Asia is 100% intolerant to lactose. Throughout Europe, the amount rises to 70% the closer you live to Southern Italy and Turkey. Africa (except for cattle raising nomads), Asia and South America have a prevalence of 50%. Finally, 90% of Native Americans are lactose intolerant. Basically, two thirds of the world’s population is unable to digest lactose.
The ability of processed foods to survive in vending machines while still looking palatable is largely due to colorings and additives. The FDA has approved over 2800 food additives and it is estimated that the average person consumes 13-15 g per day. Some additives are natural and have health promoting properties and others have known side effects. For example, vitamin E or C can be used in preservation but the colouring agent tartrazine commonly causes reactions especially in children (i.e. asthma and hives). Tartrazine and benzoate (other food additives) increase histamine producing mast cells and the likelihood of developing allergies, asthma and eczema. Sulfites, another common preservative found in pickled foods, dried fruit, wine and wine vinegars, can lead to severe reactions of asthma, hives and life threatening anaphylactic shock. MSG is added to many soups, dressings, frozen foods and snack foods to add flavor yet it can often cause palpitations, headaches, abdominal pain and urinary urgency. Making your own food is the safest way to ensure that you avoid additives. Always remember to read labels.
In summary, the modern diet is somewhat lacking in regards to nutritional and beneficial substances. Making changes to the diet is not easy and impossible to do overnight. There are many considerations that affect healthy eating which should be addressed: cooking for one or a family, time, finances, product availability, organic foods (please refer to Pesticides for more information), recipe knowledge, desire to cook, food preferences, food allergies and finally, religious or cultural beliefs. The challenges can seem daunting at first, but with determination everyone can persevere. Begin slowly and eventually the small steps will make the difference (please refer to Changing Habits for more information).
Not only do we have challenges with nutritional aspects of our food, we can also have individual reactions to healthy food. Many nutrient rich foods cannot be freely consumed without consequences. There are several forms of allergies and intolerances. Moreover, there is a difference between an allergy and sensitivity to food. Allergies are often narrowly defined as an inappropriate immune response to an allergen, which can range from a mild to severe reaction. This refers to an anaphylactic response to nuts, eggs, seafood, strawberries etc. and common triggers seen on standard allergy tests. Food sensitivities/intolerance, on the other hand, encompasses a broader definition and rarely appear on typical tests. Most of the population suffers from food intolerances which denote an inappropriate functional response to an allergen causing symptoms of fatigue, headaches, joint pain, abdominal discomfort, digestive complaints or recurring infections. The modern diet is a gateway for toxins, harmful substances, highly refined food, malnutrition, allergies and food intolerances. It is no surprising that diet maintains an influential role in health and growing disease trends.
To help determine which food items are important to eliminate we have included a list of common allergy tests employed by numerous practitioners. We have also listed a variety of effective therapies Nature Medicine has used to reverse symptoms and improve health (please refer to the specific chapter for more information on the therapy).
Common Testing for Allergies
Therapies offered to help with Food allergies and sensitivities:
- Eliminate Allergy Technique
- Cleansing Diet
- Nutritional Supplements
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