Here's what you need to know...
- Fat is not the abomination we used to believe it was, but vegetable oils do more harm than good.
- Conventional dairy contains estrogens increasing the likelihood of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer. It also contains far less omega-3s, CLA, and fat-soluble vitamins than organic dairy.
- Gluten isn't just a problem for those with celiac disease; a large part of the population is gluten sensitive. It binds to vitamin D and is linked to autoimmune disorders and more.
- Fat-free, reduced-fat, and sugar-free foods are deceiving. Healthiness is dependent on nutrition, and these products are nutritionally void. Just eat the real stuff.
While catchy titles like "Evil foods lurking in your pantry!" may sell magazines, with the exception of trans-fats, there really aren't any foods that are inherently evil.
People – and especially the media – view nutrition as if it's composed of these stark black and white rules: X food is "deadly," Y food is "clean." But that couldn't be further from the truth.
Some foods are definitely healthier than others, but what has to be considered is the context and dose-dependent nature of foods and their associated nutrients.
Even decidedly healthful foods like broccoli or even water can be "deadly" when consumed in excess.
Broccoli, like all vegetables in the brassica family, contains goitrogens and in high amounts can interfere with iodine and its incorporation into thyroid hormone. Water, when consumed to excess, can suppress electrolytes and lead to hyponatremia, even death.
Anything consumed in excess can be problematic, regardless of how healthy they say it is. And many foods people think of as healthful, and therefor intentionally consume in large amounts, aren't as great as originally thought.
The following four foods are ones that many believe to be sterling examples of health. To make matters worse, these four foods are often consumed in large amounts to what I believe is a detriment to your health.
1 – Polyunsaturated Vegetable Oils
While researchers finally recognize that saturated fat is not the cause of heart disease, they still glorify polyunsaturated vegetable oils for their supposed ability to decrease cardiovascular disease risk.
Sure, research has shown that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat does decrease LDL-C, but it also simultaneously decreases HDL-C. Remind me again how this is a good thing? I don't know too many people who need their HDL-C lowered.
Not to mention, there's a strong theory that poor omega-6 to omega-3 ratio has contributed significantly to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other diseases.
Many researchers believe this to be true, yet espouse people to increase their polyunsaturated fat intake from vegetable oils, which are tremendously high in omega-6 and low in omega-3.
It's thought that humans evolved eating diets that provided about a 4:1 to 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. That ratio is now thought to be about 16-30:1 in favor of omega-6's! Tell me again why I want to consume more omega-6 fatty acids?
Excessive Omega-6 Fatty Acid Consumption
In mouse models, it's been shown that a poor omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (anywhere from 28-77:1) caused progressively increasing obesity over three to four generations. Mice fed an isocaloric diet with a significantly improved ratio of 9.5:1 did not develop obesity.
While we're not mice, it still raises the possibility that excessive omega-6 fatty acids can have negative effects in humans.
Industrial seed oils like corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, and sunflower are not foods we should look to increase in our diets. These oils were never a significant contributor to the human diet until the past 50 years, so why should they be now? Because they're cheap, that's why, but I digress.
The strange part is these plants are not potent fat sources, especially corn. To concentrate the oil and make it usable, it has to be exposed to high heat, degummed, refined, bleached, deodorized, and other nasty stuff to produce a clear oil with a long shelf life.
These oils are now devoid of the polyphenols that provide antioxidant protection for the easily oxidized polyunsaturated fats.
Linoleic acid is the main omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid and it's a very bio-active little bastard. It's a precursor to eicosanoids, which influence the development of fat tissue, inflammation, and immunity.
We're already consuming far more linoleic acid than ever, which is accumulating in our fat tissue, even showing up in increasing amounts in breast milk.
However, unlike most other fatty acids, linoleic acid accumulates disproportionately in body fat. In fact, the percentage of linoleic acid in subcutaneous fat has increased from 8% to about 16% since 1960. Inflammation anyone?
The average American already gets 7-8% of their calories from omega-6 fats, and since there's a large body of evidence linking excess omega-6 fat consumption with several cancers, and to a lesser degree an increase in heart disease, how is it a good idea to increase that intake?
Fact is, when omega-6 fats are kept below 4% of calories, as they were in the US before the 20th century, there seems to be a dramatic effect on the incidence and progression of cancer.
We do need omega-6 fatty acids – they're essential – but trying to consume more to "lower the risk" of cardiovascular disease is stupid. These fats have their place, but it's from nuts and animal sources – foods that we've consumed throughout our history – not from highly processed vegetable oils with a questionable track record.
2 – Conventional Dairy
Dairy is a perfect example of context. On the one hand, consuming dairy from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows is a good thing. On the other hand, consuming dairy from conventionally raised, corn-fed cows? Not so much.
While some would argue that we shouldn't consume dairy at all, the fact is that humans began to consume dairy about 10,000 years ago and many cultures have subsisted on tremendous amounts of dairy, without any of the problems often associated with it.
The difference is that traditional dairy was from cows that ate grass, got exercise, fresh air, and sunshine. Their quality of life, and therefore quality of milk, was excellent.
Industrialized Cows Make Milk You Shouldn't Drink
Fast forward to today and things have changed. Milk demand has increased greatly in the last hundred years, and so the industry responded.
Cows moved off family farms and onto concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); huge factory farms where they're fed tons of corn, stand in their own excrement, and are given antibiotics to prevent the illnesses resulting from that corn consumption and the unsanitary living conditions.
Let's not forget they're given copious amounts of growth hormones to speed their growth and further increase their milk production. Appetizing, I know.
Traditionally, cows were allowed a seasonal reproductive cycle and were milked for only six weeks after giving birth. Today's conventional dairy farmers inseminate cows only a few months after giving birth, which can compromise the immune system and decrease milk quality.
What's worse, it will also cause a huge increase in estrogens in the milk you're eventually drinking. These estrogens can fuel the growth of several tumors and are linked to prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer.
Cows allowed to graze on grass and have seasonal reproductive cycles have significantly less estrogens in their milk, levels that have never caused problems.
Corn-fed dairy also contains far less omega-3, CLA, and fat-soluble vitamins. This is simply not a healthful food, especially when healthier options are quite readily available.
Is a little conventional dairy going to be a problem? Probably not. Is three servings a day of factory farm Frankendairy a good idea? Doubtful.
Below is a table to give you a little perspective on the changes in the lives of milking cows caused by the move off the family farm and onto the CAFO's.
|Life of a cow (1850)||Life of a cow (2005)|
|Grazed on pastures||Raised in confined feedlot with grains|
|Produced 56 pounds of milk/day||Produced 67 pounds of milk/day|
|Milked for 6 days after birth||Milked for 10 months after birth (and during subsequent pregnancies)|
|336 pounds of milk per year||20,000 pounds of milk per year|
|Life span of 20 years before dying of natural causes||Life span of 3-4 years before being sent to the slaughterhouse. "Spent" dairy cows are used for the cheapest forms of beef.|
3 – Wheat and Gluten
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, barley, and a few other less common grains. It's a sticky protein, and it's literally what makes bread dough sticky; extra gluten is often added to bread to improve its texture even more.
This is why gluten-free or lower-gluten breads tend to crumble apart much easier than traditional bread varieties. While many grains contain gluten, wheat is by far the greatest source.
Those with celiac disease can't tolerate gluten. Celiac is an autoimmune disease that leads to a deterioration of the lining of the small intestine and it's caused by gluten consumption. The villi of the small intestine – the site where nutrients are absorbed – are damaged and nutrient absorption is significantly impaired.
While gluten is a definite no-no to people with celiac disease, even people who don't have the disease can be susceptible to gluten-related problems.
The Case for Gluten Sensitivity
It's a given that many people with celiac disease are deficient in Vitamin D. However, when celiac-free volunteers were fed wheat, they used their Vitamin D stores up at an increased rate.
About 12% of the American population can be diagnosed as gluten sensitive, with a smaller portion having full-blown celiac disease.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these cases are undiagnosed. This is scary because gluten sensitivity is correlated with autoimmune disorders, cancer, neurological problems, and more.
Even though the percentage of diagnosed individuals is small, it's estimated that about 40% of the American population is genetically predisposed to developing celiac disease, though clearly not everyone who is susceptible will actually develop the disease.
While many health experts have used this information to declare all grains to be evil and best avoided, this is where a little perspective and context should come into play: Humans have consumed grains in some form or another for at least 100,000 years!
I'm certainly not advocating that everyone completely avoid all wheat and gluten, but to simply be mindful of its consumption.
This is why I prefer sprouted grain breads and bread products: the sprouting process will greatly decrease anti-nutrient content, though it won't do a thing to gluten.
Fortunately, these products are made with more than just wheat (including beans, lentils and some gluten-free millet), decreasing the overall gluten content of the bread.
4 – Fat-Free, Sugar-Free, Reduced-Fat Anything
So many people believe that if they make a dessert out of fat-free, sugar-free pudding, then it is "healthier." Is it?
It may contain less calories, but what the hell is it made from? Have you ever read the ingredients of some of that stuff? One common ingredient in "sugar-free" foods is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a glucose polymer, and while it's technically not a sugar – it's still a sugar!
So while your Jell-O may be "sugar-free," it simply contains a bunch of maltodextrin. A rose by any other name...
Healthy ought to mean nutrient-dense. Maltodextrin, sugar, and fat substitutes don't fit the bill. So if you're going to have dessert, have some damn dessert! If you're going to eat ice cream, eat real ice cream. Make it worth your while.
Can there be a time and a place for these foods? Of course. Should you consume them on a consistent basis? I wouldn't advise it. Maybe that's just me, but I simply prefer real food.
Minimal Damage Diet
The foods you consistently consume are what determine your health status, so if you consistently make good choices with some industrial vegetable oil, conventional dairy, unsprouted wheat, or reduced fat cheese sprinkled in, you'll be fine.
I'm not saying that these foods need to be avoided at all costs, but minimizing their intake is a good thing.
While there are no good and bad foods per se, there are good and bad diets, and a little common sense goes a very long way.
Related: Increase omega-3 and reduce inflammation
Related: The Not So Ugly Truth About Gluten?
Related: 10 Mistakes Women Make With Diets
- Ravnskov U, et al. The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease. J Clin Epidemiol. 1998 Jun;51(6):443-60.
- Ailhaud G, et al. Temporal changes in dietary fats: role of n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in excessive adipose tissue development and relationship to obesity. Prog Lipid Res. 2006 May;45(3):203-36.
- Witting LA, Lee L. Recommended dietary allowance for vitamin E: relation to dietary, erythrocyte and adipose tissue linoleate. Am J Clin Nutr. 1975 Jun;28(6):577-83.
- Berry EM, et al. The relationship of dietary fat to plasma lipid levels as studied by factor analysis of adipose tissue fatty acid composition in a free-living population of middle-aged American men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1986 Aug;44(2):220-31.
- Baylin A, et al. Adipose tissue biomarkers of fatty acid intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Oct;76(4):750-7.
- Hanbauer I, et al. The Decrease of n-3 Fatty Acid Energy Percentage in an Equicaloric Diet Fed to B6C3Fe Mice for Three Generations Elicits Obesity. Cardiovasc Psychiatry Neurol. 2009;2009:867041. Epub 2009 Sep 16.
- Ngo TH, et al. Effect of isocaloric low-fat diet on human LAPC-4 prostate cancer xenografts in severe combined immunodeficient mice and the insulin-like growth factor axis. Clin Cancer Res. 2003 Jul;9(7):2734-43.
- Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers. Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(6):1028-37.
- Ryan Andrews. All About Milk. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-milk. (June 22, 2009)
- Zanchi C, et al. Bone metabolism in celiac disease. J Pediatr. 2008 Aug;153(2):262-5.
- Batchelor AJ, Compston JE. Reduced plasma half-life of radio-labelled 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 in subjects receiving a high-fibre diet. Br J Nutr. 1983 Mar;49(2):213-6.