What exactly does it mean to eat healthy? This is the million dollar question that everyone wants to know. Eating healthy seems so simple, but with so much conflicting information out there, it is damn near impossible to know exactly whose word to trust. Making things more confusing is the fact that the experts can’t even come to a consensus on healthy eating habits.
While it would be impossible to try and unpack an issue this complex in a single blog post, I want to examine one particular aspect of this dynamic in hopes of bringing a hint of clarity and simplicity in our quest for making healthier choices.
More specifically, I want to examine what I consider the 5 most common food allergens: soy, wheat, dairy, corn, gluten and their impact on our health.
Over the past 50 years, these 5 substances have infiltrated our food systems and have become commonplace in virtually all of our grocery products. Just look in your kitchen cupboard, and I guarantee you that 99% of the products in there contain at least one or more of these substances. At first glance, these substances do not appear dangerous to our health. In fact, many people would argue that much of these ingredients are essential to maintain a complete diet (i.e. dairy for calcium, grains for fiber). And I see their line of thinking! Look no further than the original FDA food pyramid, and these ingredients are found in a good portion of their recommended food choices. On top of that, savvy marketing strategies, such as ambiguity in nutritional discourse (i.e. food labels, “greenwashing") and the influence of big business have given food manufacturers carte blanche to add these substances in all of our food. But why are they so bad? If they are FDA approved, they couldn’t be harmful to us, right? Well, back in the day (say 50-60 years ago), they weren’t as bad. In 1960, if you were eating corn or soy, you most likely were eating it in its natural state. However, with the advent of genetic engineering and the expanse of food giants like Monsanto, these substances are now highly processed and made extremely cheap, no longer resembling their natural state. As a result, we have reached epidemic status in terms of increases in health-related problems. Below, I tried to break down each of these substances and uncover why they are so bad for us.
To begin with, the majority of soy produced in the US is genetically modified, and this results in an increased risk in certain cancers. Processed soybeans contain isoflavones, i.e. phytoestrogens, and recent research has found that phytoestrogens can contribute to the growth of tumors in the breast and uterus. Another problem with soy is that it increases toxic load. Soybeans are among the most heavily sprayed crops, resulting in their high pesticide content increasing the body’s toxic load. In addition, the processing of soy crops produces a high aluminum content, which can damage kidneys and the CNS. Other research has linked the consumption of soy to instances of hypothyroidism, ADD and cardiovascular stress (Poliquin, 2012). If you must consume soy, choose for an organic variety when possible.
Out of all of the allergens on this list, dairy is the most disputed in terms of effects to our health. Both due to the lack of conclusive research concerning dairy’s bad rap along with the perceived health benefits make dairy highly polarizing. But the main reason dairy is on this list is because the majority of the population has problems digesting it. As it stands, humans are the only animal that drinks the milk of another species. Speaking from semantics, the biological purpose of a cow’s milk is to feed a growing baby calf, and humans aren’t calves and don’t need to grow. Back before agriculture, humans only drank mother’s milk as infants and didn’t drink milk as an adult. Consequently they did not experience some of the GI stress and gut irritation that is so common today. People that have problems digesting dairy is usually the result of two main culprits: 1) lactose intolerance, which occurs when people stop making lactase, the digestive enzyme located along the small intestinal wall that breaks lactose into glucose and galactose for easy digestion, and 2) dairy protein (casein) intolerance, which can manifest itself in different ways. According to research, about 75% of the world’s population has some type of dairy intolerance. If you choose to consume dairy, raw, organic and high-fat is going to be your best option.
Wow, there are so many issues when it comes to corn I don’t know where to begin. Well, for starters, many people consider corn to be a vegetable... it's not, it is a grain, and actually a very unhealthy grain. According to Sisson (2014), corn is one of the most sugary, starchy, empty grains there is. And that is just in its natural form! Since the corporatizing of the modern food industry, the majority of corn in the US is genetically modified to become more resistant to pesticides, and this process has virtually stripped its nutritional value. Because it is made so cheap, corn is the #1 ingredient in most processed and fried foods. In addition, corn contains high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which can lead to inflammation and auto-immune diseases (Sisson, 2014). Particularly in cooking oils, such as corn and vegetable oil, where they are highly processed and no longer resemble their natural state. And the worst offender is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is much sweeter than sugar and much worse for your health. Also because it is so cheap to make, HFCS is in virtually all sweetened drinks (i.e. Gatorade, sodas, sweetened iced teas, etc.). If possible steer clear of this stuff at all costs. Or at least buy it organic locally or from a farmer’s market so that you have some idea where it came from.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about the impact of corn on our health and the environment, watch the documentary King Corn.
As it pertains to our health, wheat and gluten bring about another flashpoint for debate. Many people subscribe to the notion that only those with celiac disease should refrain from gluten, but research is showing that it is probably a good idea for everyone to abstain from it. In fact, while only 1-2% of the population is affected by celiac disease, the percentage of those diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or intolerance has jumped to over 35%. From a nutritional standpoint, the argument has always been that wheat and grains contain vitamins and minerals that cannot be had from any other source. However, recent research has shown there is nothing that is had from foods containing gluten that can’t be had easily from gluten-free foods. There are much better sources of protein, fiber, vitamin B, iron, etc., than wheat and gluten-containing foods (Poliquin, 2012). Personally, I am a big fan of gluten and grain-free diets because they drastically improve body composition. Particularly as it relates to blood sugar regulation, the insulin spike that comes with grain-based diets makes lean gains more difficult to achieve. By simply removing all grains and oats and replacing them with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, energy levels become more stable and body fat usually drops. However, if you must consume wheat/gluten, opt for the sprouted variety that are available at most food stores, and always go organic!
BOTTOM LINE…. While there is no way to completely avoid these substances, by simply being aware, you make better food choices. A good rule of thumb is to eat food in its natural state. That means only buying fresh produce, freshly cut meats, and no packaged foods. Essentially if the ingredients listed on a package are more than one, you probably want to put it back. And ALWAYS check food labels.
Catassi, C., Kryszak, D., et al. Natural History of Celiac Disease Autoimmunity in a USA Cohort Followed Since 1974. Annals of Medicine. 2010. 42(7), 50-38
Fasano, A., Berti, I., et al. Prevalence of Celiac Disease in At-Risk ad No-At-Risk Groups in the U.S. archives of Internal Medicine. 2003. 163(3), 286-292.
Poliquin - Healthy. Lean. Strong. (2012). Retrieved November 30, 2014 from
Poliquin - Healthy. Lean. Strong. (2013). Retrieved November 28, 2014 from
Sisson, Mark. Corn Is Not a Vegetable. (2014). Retrieved November 30, 2014 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/corn-is-not-a-vegetable/#axzz3KVu2WQCU