Did you know that Everything You Eat Will Kill You?
Yes, that’s right. Everything you eat will kill you! Or at least that’s what the media and many health & wellness professionals will lead you to believe. When I say that everything you eat will kill you I AM NOT referring to the bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics and canned food linings, pesticides in/on our fruits and vegetables, food additives such as the Subway bread additive, azodicarbonamide, the same chemical found in yoga mats, nitrates in meats, arsenic in wines, hormones and antibiotics in our meats or genetically modified organisms GMOs. Those are an entirely different discussion for a different day.
What I AM referring to that will purportedly kill you are actually the foods themselves (without mention of additives, chemicals, pesticides or other alterations). These are foods that we eat on a regular basis, foods that are staples of our diets, and foods that we usually associate with BEING GOOD FOR US such as wine, tomatoes, tea, potatoes, onions, milk, lemons, eggs, corn, coffee, cheese, carrots, and bread!
If this seems ridiculous to you it’s because it is. To highlight the type of nutritional paranoia that the media exposes us to, two clever scientists, Jonathan Schoenfeld and John Ioannidis performed a study in which they chose 50 common ingredients from a cookbook (could be your mom’s) and scoured the scientific literature in search of evidence for or against the risk of cancer associated with the consumption of each ingredient. The researchers found that a whopping 72% of the common ingredients in everyday recipes were linked to an increased or decreased risk of cancer.
The Figure below (Figure 1) has been taken from Schoenfeld & Ioannidis’s article and lists many of the staples of our diets that we deem to be healthy. Each dot on the figure represents one research study and the relative risk of cancer. “1” represents a neutral risk for developing cancer, less than 1 represents a reduced risk of developing cancer, and greater than 1 suggests an increased risk of developing cancer.
Commonly Eaten Foods and Cancer Risk
It is extremely difficult to eat a diet that will not kill you, especially if we consider how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends we eat. When I was growing up the USDA recommended we model our diets after the Food Guide Pyramid (Figure 2). They have since revised their figure (ChooseMyPlate) but the overall recommendations remain similar. Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter of your plate should contain whole grains, and the remainder of your plate should contain protein. Milk and dairy products should also be consumed.
How Should I Eat?
Depending on whom you listen to, an entire food guide pyramid can be constructed out of foods that will supposedly harm you. It’s of little wonder why people are so confused as to what they should be eating!!
Some of the most common arguments presented by the “food paranoists” for each segment of the food guide pyramid are presented below. (Note: These descriptions are not meant to scare you out of eating any of these items, it just serves as a summary of how many confusing and frankly, off base, ideas are out there.)
Grain: Giving up gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barely, is super trendy (and frankly very disrespectful to individuals who actually have Celiac disease). People subscribing to the “Paleo diet”, the Paleolithic diet of our ancestors do not believe in eating grain either. We’ve only been eating grain for 10,000 years but we might as well give it up now (sarcasm). I am of the opinion that we developed farming, in part, because we were tired of starving and dying, but sure give up grain. Some people believe grains also contribute to the development of diseases such Alzheimer’s (see Wheat Belly book).
Fruits and Vegetables: Unless you are eating organically grown, pesticide free, natural fertilizer fed, GMO free fruits and vegetables you are poisoning yourself (according to some). You also shouldn’t eat potatoes, carrots, corn, peas, apples, grapes, and bananas because they contain too much sugar. You may think I am exaggerating here but I am continually asked the question from very concerned, health conscious individuals whether they should watch their fruit and vegetable intake to limit their sugar intake. Let me say this as simply as I can: it is IMPOSSIBLE to consume too much sugar by eating fruits and vegetables. It’s what you eat the fruits and vegetables with/on that can harm your health, not the fruits and vegetables themselves.
Dairy: Dairy is a great source of calcium, right? Yes, but it also contains saturated fat, promotes inflammation, doesn’t prevent osteoporosis rather promotes osteoporosis, and causes cancer. Many of us get our vitamin D through dairy consumption. If you can’t eat dairy you can still get your vitamin D from exposure to the sun. Oh wait, the sun’s UV radiation causes skin cancer so we better avoid that. Then drink fortified orange juice, oh wait you can’t do that because there is too much sugar. Fish? Nope, wrong again, you’ll get mercury poisoning. Can I take a pill? Better take the right one or it won’t be properly absorbed.
Meat: Red meat is associated with an increased risk of cancer, chicken is pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, and pork is too fatty/unclean. Your alternative is to eat fish but it is contaminated with toxic levels of mercury so I guess fish is off limits as well unless you can capture it yourself from an uncontaminated stream or lake (good luck).
Sugar: Sugar is Toxic. Sugar is the 21st Century’s scapegoat much the same as fat was the 20th Century scapegoat. It seems like everyone these days is jumping on the “I hate sugar because it’s evil” bandwagon. People are up in arms over the amount of sugar in pretty much anything that is remotely processed.
Water: The human body cannot survive longer than 5-7 days without water. Most of us have also had it drilled into our heads that we should be drinking 8 cups of water (64 ounces) on a daily basis and the Nalgene company has profited greatly from this recommendation. However, did you know that consuming too much water can kill you? In 2007, a Sacramento, California, woman died from drinking too much water (water intoxication) as part of a radio contest. Drinking an excessive amount of water in a relatively short period of time can dilute your blood’s sodium concentration (hyponatremia) to a level that is lethal. People running marathons and half-marathons are also at risk of hyponatremia.
What’s the Bottom Line?
There is WAY too much fear mongering in nutrition. Everything you eat will apparently kill you. I don’t know about you but I enjoy eating foods from every food group. Demonizing one food or nutrient and completely cutting it out of your diet only hurts you. You’re depriving yourself from a wonderful human experience, enjoying food! There is not one single food or nutrient that will significantly improve your health and there isn’t one single food or nutrient that will significantly harm your health.
It always surprises people when I tell them that I eat pizza, I like donuts, drink beer, eat Doritos, enjoy bacon, and really like cheesecake. I refuse to believe that any of these foods are “bad for me” in moderation. In addition, I’d like to point out that I also enjoy whole grains, carrots and dip, bananas, lean meat, and dairy. As I have pointed out in a previous blog post you have to set your own nutrition rules and balance out the supposed “bad foods” with the supposed “good foods”. Eat a balanced diet of foods from each food group, eat in moderation, and ignore all the noise about how everything you eat will kill you. Food is meant to be enjoyed, not feared, so ENJOY IT!
Todd M. Weber, PhD, MS, RD
Figure 1: Commonly Eaten Foods and Cancer Risk:
Figure 2: USDA Guidelines for Eating:
Figure 3: Food Guide Pyramid of Foods You Should Not Eat:
- Sugar: http://www.tipografica.com/whats-wrong-with-our-diet/
- Sugar: http://www.worldhealthstore.com.cn/Blog/how-and-why-we-need-anti-sugar.html
- Dairy: http://www.adirbakery.com
- Dairy: http://riversbridgesandwoods.blogspot.com/2012/07/busting-dairy-myth.html
- Bacon: http://www.portlandmercury.com/BlogtownPDX/archives/2009/01/29/can_we_be_done_with_bacon_ple
- Meat Free Zone: http://www.yogalifestyle.com/yogaResources/yogaResourcesFreeVegPosters.htm
- Eggs: http://www.adirbakery.com
- Fruits and Veggies: http://www.personal.psu.edu/kmb5823/blogs/la101h/2011/04/
- Fruits and Veggies: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/zero-carb-diet/#axzz2lyZqwqY2
- Fruits and Veggies: http://thereversevegan.blogspot.com/2010/12/sugar-fructose-part-4-fruits-are-not.html
- Fruit: http://lilmisskiddo.blogspot.com/2011_05_01_archive.html
- Grains: http://www.mojlekar.eu/index.php?str=news&od=90&selekcia=1
- Grains: http://my.firefighternation.com/profiles/blogs/healthy-eating-rules-for-the-firehouse
- Grains: http://daiasolgaia.com/?p=3917