To wrap up our series about Alternative Medicine and our introduction to some of the most common and effective natural therapies, I'd like to go back to the basics. Let's go back to one of the most fundamental concepts of natural health. The understanding that WE ARE WHAT WE EAT.
This idiom has been so overused that at this point it has lost all meaning to most of us. However, the truth lies in its simplicity. In reality, what we put into our bodies is assimilated into our physiology at the most basic level; the foods we eat become the building blocks our bodies use to build new cells, tissues, muscles, etc. The food we eat literally becomes us and we become the food that we eat. If we eat junk, we become junk. If we eat well, we become well.
What does it mean to eat well?
First, we must agree to a basic understanding of what food actually is. In our society, we are conditioned to think that anything we eat is food. However, in reality, only a small percentage of what most of us in the western world eat, is actually real food. The majority of what we find on the shelves of most grocery stores, or in most fast-food restaurants, is not, in fact, actual food. It is processed, manufactured, food-like substances. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is filled with it.
So, what is real food? Most of us probably get a good idea of what real food is when we think about what our grandparents or great-grandparents ate. If you can grow or raise it, it probably fits the definition of real food. Another way to get a better idea of whether or not we are eating real food, is to read ingredient labels. I know, I know, it's boring, time consuming and frustrating. However, there is no better way to know what is in your food. What should you look for when reading ingredient labels? The specific names of foods you know and can understand; the names of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, etc. You get the picture. If you see words you cannot pronounce and do not understand, it is most likely an example of a processed, manufactured, food-like substance.
There are a few categories of ingredients that should definitely be avoided when you are reading ingredient labels. While this is, by no means, an exhaustive list, it is a very good place to start:
- Processed “white” grains / flours: These formerly healthy grains have been processed and bleached, removing their fiber and nutrients. Our body also processes them quickly, increasing blood sugar and leading to blood sugar imbalances. Additionally, the bleaching process leaves harmful byproducts behind in the flour.
- Partially hydrogenated oils: According to the FDA, banning these trans fats completely could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are commonly found in foods like pastries, donuts, biscuits, chips, and popcorn. These oils lower people's HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase our risk for chronic disease and inflammation.
- High fructose corn syrup: We metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes even more than regular sugar. Obesity rates in the United States and consumption of high fructose corn syrup have increased at the same time. In that period, Americans have consumed almost 20 times as much high fructose corn syrup. According to researchers at Tufts University, Americans consume more calories from high fructose corn syrup than from any other food. It increases triglycerides, throws our blood sugar out of balance, increases fat-storing hormones, and causes us to put on extra fat.
- Artificial sweeteners: Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners trick the body into thinking it’s having something sweet so people are more likely to keep eating sweets. These include, but are not limited to: aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin), and sucralose (Splenda). These artificial sweeteners have been linked to a number of different health concerns. Not only are they not a healthier alternative to sugar, they can be toxic!
- Food dyes: Food dyes have been linked to asthma, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children, and some are carcinogenic. You will find artificial dyes in many drinks, processed foods, and even condiments and medications.
- Flavor enhancers: MSG (monosodium glutamate) is an example of a flavor enhancer. Some people have sensitivities that lead to headaches and swelling. Some research suggests that it may alter brain chemistry, though more research is needed.
- Artificial preservatives: Artificial preservatives such as sulfites found in dried fruit and wines can lead to pain and inflammation. And, sodium nitrite and nitrate found in sausages and canned meats are linked to gastric cancer and metabolic syndrome. A 2007 Lancet study linked additives including sodium benzoate with increased hyperactivity. It is often used as a preservative added to soda.
- High sugar and high processed salt: Processed foods often have high amounts of sugar and salt. Check your labels for amounts of sugar and salt to make sure your levels aren’t adding up too quickly.
- If you are eating cheap, fake, processed food-like substances, what is your body getting out of that?
- If you are eating foods created with food dyes, flavor enhancers and artificial sweeteners and preservatives, what are those chemicals creating in your body?
- If you are eating foods laced with chemical pesticides and herbicides, what is that doing to your body?