A number of so-called health foods serve mostly to give your body ‘busy work.’ They force your body to strive to counteract their detrimental effects and to keep it from what it was designed to do—easily and efficiently regenerate itself.
The following six food groups are often heralded for their health properties, but you may be better off avoiding them. Eliminating the offenders and replacing them with their more healthful counterparts will reward you with significantly improved energy levels, the ability to shed excess pounds and overall vitality.
The across-the-board recommendation to eat more whole grains is unwise because so many of us struggle with either insulin or leptin resistance. Even ‘healthy’ whole grains are carbohydrates. And carbs, even those from whole grains, cause a rise in blood sugar that then triggers the release of insulin in the body.
The role of insulin is to help drive sugar from your bloodstream into your cells, where it can be used for energy. But your cells have a limited capacity to use and store sugar. So when you regularly eat excessive sugar and carbohydrates, the excess sugar gradually builds up in your blood.
When this happens, your body produces even more insulin to lower the sugar in your blood because it knows that excess blood sugar is harmful and, if it goes high enough, will even kill you. When your body produces more and more insulin because you are constantly eating sugar and/or grains, the insulin receptors on your cells become increasingly tolerant to insulin. This causes your body to produce even more insulin to lower your blood sugar. This vicious cycle continues over many years and is the primary reason for insulin resistance or, more accurately, decreased sensitivity of your insulin receptors to insulin.
The same process occurs with leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone made by fat tissue that helps your brain regulate your food intake and body weight.
Insulin-resistance and disease
The improper signaling of insulin and leptin cues LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol that accumulates inside arteries) to become smaller and denser,1 making it more apt to squeeze into the cracks between cells in the arteries, where it then oxidizes and contributes to inflammation.
Numerous studies have linked insulin resistance with specific types of cancer. In fact, a 2009 review of studies that included over 500,000 people found an increased risk of cancer, and of dying of cancer, for every extra unit of glucose in the blood.2
If you have signs of insulin or leptin resistance, eating grains—yes, even organic freshly stone-ground whole grains—can actually lead to obesity and chronic disease.
The link between grains and weight is this: insulin is essentially a storage hormone, evolved to put aside excess carbohydrate calories in the form of fat in case of future famine. So as your body requires more and more insulin to process grain carbohydrates, it receives more and more signals to store fat.
Insulin resistance also signals your body not to burn any stored fat. This makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for you to use your own stored body fat for energy. So when you are insulin-/leptin-resistant, the grain carbohydrates in your diet not only make you fat, they make you stay fat. It’s important to note that you can have insulin or leptin resistance even if you’re not overweight.
Foods like the 100 percent whole-wheat bread and pasta you’ve heard you should eat present an additional issue: gluten.
The problem with gluten
Gluten is the primary protein found in wheat, spelt, barley and rye. Besides bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea, gluten sensitivity can cause strong fatigue after a meal, brain fog, dizziness, premenstrual problems, joint pain, mood swings, attention problems and migraine headaches.
Wheat, even the organic variety, contains proteins such as gliadin and gluten. When these two break down into smaller proteins during the digestive process, they can find their way into your bloodstream through microscopic holes in your digestive tract. If you are sensitive to these proteins—and up to 75 percent of the population has undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities—your body will attack the cells that these proteins have attached to, treating those cells as a foreign invader.
These attacks cause toxic reactions that, in turn, provoke the inflammatory response, with the potential to set off, or exacerbate, many other health problems throughout your body. If you are overweight or insulin- or leptin-resistant, I recommend that you stop eating all forms of wheat.
Usually, when people remove allergenic foods like gluten, their craving for sweets diminishes, their mood improves, their weight drops and their overall health soars.
Once you are at a healthy weight and free of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, then you can play with reintroducing grains periodically and see how well you tolerate them, but continue to avoid sugar and processed foods.
Are you resistant to insulin or leptin?
The most accurate way to know is to measure your blood insulin level. The lower the level, the better.
A level below three indicates you don’t have insulin resistance. As a less expensive—and more effortless—alternative to blood testing, you can assess your own symptoms.
You may well have an element of insulin or leptin resistance if you have any one of the following conditions:
• Overweight—10 percent over your ideal body weight
• Type 2 diabetes or fasting blood sugar greater than 100
• High blood pressure
• Less-than-ideal cholesterol ratios
• Heart attack, angina, stroke or transient ischemic attacks.
Insulin and leptin resistance are not the sole cause of these conditions, but they play a major role in nearly all cases.
2) Natural sweeteners
A popular phrase on food packages and beverage bottles these days is ‘naturally sweetened,’ implying that the foods contained within are healthier than those sweetened with regular refined sugar.
Regular table sugar is actually composed of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, in equal amounts. Compelling research shows that higher levels of fructose, especially if processed, are far more dangerous than glucose.
Several studies have shown that fructose has an appetite-stimulating effect that glucose doesn’t have.3 It reduces leptin (an appetite-suppressing hormone) and has no effect on ghrelin (the hunger hormone typically suppressed after eating). Glucose has the opposite effect—it increases leptin and reduces ghrelin. As a result, fructose appears to signal your body to eat more and to need increasing amounts of calories to feel full.
Every cell in your body can use glucose (and also dextrose, another name for glucose), but only your liver can metabolize fructose. When your body has excess fructose, it must store the sugar as fat. And the type of fat it results in is visceral fat, which is packed in and around the abdominal organs, and a major risk factor for heart disease.
In many ways, excessive fructose consumption has similar repercussions to excessive alcohol consumption: both result in harmful levels of fats being stored in your liver.
And if you struggle with insulin or leptin resistance, it can be a serious problem because of its tendency to increase appetite and visceral fat.
Touted as a health food, agave syrup has more fructose than any commercial sweetener, ranging from 70 to 97 percent, depending on the brand. One of the unhealthiest sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, in comparison averages 55 percent fructose.
What’s worse, most agave ‘nectar’ or ‘syrup’ is nothing more than lab-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value.
Honey is also high in fructose, averaging around 53 percent, but contrary to agave, it is completely natural in its raw form.
It has many health benefits when used in moderation (one or two teaspoons per day—each teaspoon contains 4 g of fructose) as long as you don’t have any signs of insulin or leptin resistance. But you’re not likely to find high-quality raw honey in your local grocery store. You need to buy it from a local bee-keeper, a health-food store or online.
As a standard recommendation, keep your TOTAL fructose consumption—primarily from fruit—below 25 g per day. If you drink beverages other than water and eat
processed food, it would be wise to limit your fructose from fruit to 15 g or less, as you’re virtually guaranteed to consume ‘hidden’ fructose in these types of products.
Fifteen grams of fructose represents two bananas, 50 g of raisins or two Medjool dates. Remember, the average 330-mL can of soda contains 40 g of sugar, at least half of which is fructose; one can of soda alone would exceed your daily allotment.
The vegetarian and health-food world has heralded tofu as a healthy alternative to meat, and soy milk as a substitute for cow’s milk. But there are four main reasons why you should avoid eating unfermented soy:
• Nearly all conventional soybeans grown in the United States—91 percent—are genetically modified. And the primary genetic modification that soybeans undergo is to make them immune to the toxic pesticide Roundup, so soy crops are doused in the stuff.
• Unfermented soy contains goitrogens, substances that hinder thyroid function, which may lead to a host of health problems, including digestive problems, food allergies, overweight, anxiety and mood swings, insomnia, infertility
• Unfermented soy contains the plant form of estrogen, known as ‘phytoestrogen,’ which has been linked to breast cancer,4 kidney stones5 and impaired memory in the elderly.6
• Unfermented soy contains phytates, which prevent the absorption of minerals in the body and create a deficiency.
Don’t believe the hype
One New Yorker I know called Donna, who’s in her mid-50s, had consumed soy protein drinks daily because she believed they were good for her.
After 20 years of this ‘healthy’ routine, Donna’s thyroid became seriously damaged and she wound up gaining
Once she learned that the soy protein could be causing the problem, she stopped the protein drink and found a doctor who put her on a natural thyroid replacement supplement.
She felt much better and was finally able to lose the weight.
When soy is healthy
Japanese people live longer and have lower rates of cancer than Americans because they primarily consume fermented soy.
The fermentation process effectively addresses many of the problems with unfermented soy; it reduces the phytate and ‘anti-nutrient’ levels of soybeans, making their beneficial properties more available to the digestive system.
In addition, fermentation dramatically reduces levels of phytoestrogens7 and increases the beans’ protein content.8
Fermented soy is also an excellent source of vitamin K,9 which plays an essential role in preventing osteoporosis,10 cardiovascular disease11 and dementia.12
Vitamin K also protects you from prostate,13 lung14 and liver cancer,15 and it works synergistically with vitamin D to keep you and your bones healthy.
Fermented soy products include:
• Tempeh, a fermented soybean cake with a firm texture and nutty, mushroom-like flavor
• Miso, a fermented soybean paste with a salty, buttery texture (commonly used in miso soup)
• Natto, fermented soybeans with a sticky texture and a strong, cheese-like flavor
• Soy sauce, which is traditionally made by fermenting soybeans, salt and enzymes. Be wary, though, because many varieties on the market today are made artificially using a chemical process, and contain high levels of wheat and, therefore, gluten. To choose a healthy soy sauce, look for an organic, gluten-free tamari. It doesn’t include wheat and is fermented using traditional methods.
Make sure to choose organic fermented soy products. Anything bearing the USDA Organic Seal or UK Soil Association logo is prohibited from using genetically modified products.
4) Vegetable oils
Vegetable oils—such as corn, soy, canola, sunflower and safflower oils—are supposed to improve your heart health, but the evidence shows they actually increase your risk of heart disease and cancer.
Even if you aren’t purchasing these oils from the grocery store,if you purchase any processed foods, you are getting these oils—processed foods are typically loaded with them. And worse, the highly processed industrialization of most food oils makes them even more toxic.
All oils derived from vegetable seeds are major sources of omega-6 fats, which are proinflammatory and contribute to insulin and leptin resistance, altering your mood and impairing learning and cell repair. And most Westerners are eating far too many of them and not nearly enough of their healthier counterparts, omega-3 fats.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and they are essential for good health. PUFAs are chemically very unstable and highly susceptible to being altered and denatured by what’s around them. When you eat too many PUFAs, they are increasingly incorporated into your cell membranes. Because these fats are unstable, your cells become fragile and prone to oxidation, meaning the building blocks of your body become damaged. This leads to all sorts of health problems, such as chronic inflammation and atherosclerosis. For this reason, reducing your intake of omega-6 fats and balancing your omega-3:omega-6 ratios is vitally important for creating the internal conditions in your body to heal itself effortlessly.
Omega-3 fats are present in fish and krill oils, in walnuts, in grass-fed beef and dairy, and in some seeds like flax, chia and hemp. These fatty acids improve your cells’ response to insulin, neurotransmitters and other messengers, and they reduce your risk of heart disease,16 cancer,17 stroke,18 Alzheimer’s,19 arthritis20 and autoimmune diseases.21 The main way omega-3 fats work to improve your health is by reducing inflammation throughout the body, especially your blood vessels. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats likely ranges from 1:1 to 1:5, but the typical Western diet is between 1:20 and 1:50.
The simplest way to bring your PUFA consumption back to healthy levels is to avoid all processed vegetable oils.
A much-demonized fat
But saturated fats are not the root of all evil—and are not to blame for the modern disease epidemics facing Westerners. On the contrary, they are incredibly healthy, nourishing, all-natural fats that humans have been thriving on for generations. Many decades of subsequently published research have soundly debunked the myth.22
Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50 percent of cell membranes. They are what give cells their necessary stiffness and integrity. They play a vital role in bone health. They lower Lp(a), a substance in your blood that indicates your proneness to heart disease. They protect your liver from alcohol and other toxins, such as acetaminophen and other drugs, and they enhance your immune system.
Saturated fat is also an important component of a diet that promotes lean body mass.
5) Large and farmed fish
Fish used to be one of the healthiest foods you could eat. But thanks to industrial pollution, most seafood is
now contaminated with heavy metals like mercury, and chemicals like dioxin and PCBs.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that also damages your kidneys and lungs. More than 75 percent of your exposure to this toxin will be from eating fish. Contaminated Pacific tuna alone accounts for 40 percent of the exposure.23
Most of it comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, which eventually winds up in the ocean. Because fish are higher up the food chain, they tend to bioaccumulate and concentrate these types of toxins to much higher levels than are present in the water.
Larger fish like tuna and swordfish, which live longer and can weigh several hundred pounds, tend to have far more mercury. Smaller fish, like sardines, are lower on the food chain and tend to have far lower levels of mercury.
Even the conservative US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises women to avoid fish particularly high in mercury, like tuna, when pregnant.24 Their recommendation needs to be extended to all who wish to remain healthy.
Farm-raised fish have similar levels of mercury and other contaminants. Plus they are typically fed loads of soy, and the vast majority of soy is genetically modified and laden with pesticides. Some farmed fish are genetically modified themselves.
Fatty fish are an excellent source of the vitally important omega-3 fats, but unless you have lab results in your hand that verify the purity of your salmon, I strongly suggest you get your omega-3 fats from krill oil, the safest and most cost-effective choice.
Like omega-6, omega-3 fats like fish oil are prone to oxidation either on the shelf or inside your body, and it can contribute to the chronic inflammation you are seeking to squelch by taking omega-3s in the first place.
Krill oil, which is made from tiny shrimp-like creatures, is superior to fish oil because it contains phospholipids, antioxidants (more than 47 times the levels found in fish oil) and omega-3s bonded together in a way that keeps them safe from oxidation and makes them easily absorbed in your body. So, with krill oil, you can ensure that you’re getting these incredibly healthy fats (EPA and DHA) without having to worry about oxidation.
Additionally, your risk of getting mercury contamination is extremely low; as krill are so small, they don’t have the chance to accumulate toxins before being harvested, and they grow in the relatively pristine waters of the Antarctic.
There is a very large stock of renewable krill for both natural predators and humans, and krill harvesting is one of the best-regulated industries today. There is even a precautionary catch limit set to ensure that krill will not be over-harvested.
6) Conventional yogurt
Prepared in a traditional way—in which living cultures ferment raw milk from pasture-raised cows—yogurt is an excellent source of probiotics, saturated fat, vitamin D, calcium and multiple beneficial enzymes. But when it’s prepared as it is by the modern dairy industry, yogurt is reduced to a creamy junk food that provides little benefit beyond ‘mouthfeel’—the food-industry term for how a food feels on the tongue.
The primary problem with all conventional yogurt—whether low-fat, non-fat, flavored, plain, Greek or regular— is that it’s made with conventional milk from cows raised on confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs). These cows are denied access to their natural diet—grass—and instead given corn and soybeans to eat. The vast majority of corn and soybeans grown and fed to animals in the US are genetically engineered, plus corn is high in omega-6 fats, meaning that yogurt made from milk from corn-fed cows is also high in omega-6 fats.
Because cows evolved to eat grass, not corn and soy, their digestion is impaired and they’re more likely to get sick. Plus their crowded living conditions mean they are often standing in a pool of their own manure. As a result, the cows are fed antibiotics to keep them ‘well’ and producing milk. These antibiotics are then passed along in the milk to you.
Organic milk has significantly higher levels of the antioxidants important for eye health—lutein and zeaxanthin—than does conventional milk.25 Organic milk from pastured cows has also consistently been found to have higher levels of naturally occurring beta-carotene (vitamin A) and tocopherols (vitamin E).26 Milk from pastured (but not grain-fed) cows is also a good source of omega-3 fats.
One particularly troubling substance administered to conventional dairy cows is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered hormone designed to increase milk production. Numerous studies have shown that milk from cows treated with rBGH has higher levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).27 When you drink milk or eat yogurt from rBGH cows, that IGF-1 makes it into your bloodstream. IGF-1 has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer,28 colon cancer29 and prostate cancer.30
Most conventional yogurts are either low-fat or non-fat, which strips away much of the nutrition offered by saturated fat.
To give the creamy texture we’ve come to demand, modern yogurt has added chemicals like dimethylpolysiloxane, a chemical defoaming agent.31 (It is banned from use in organic products.) It’s also laden with commercial thickeners and stabilizers, including carrageenan, xanthan gum, modified cornstarch, food starch, pectin and gelatin, artificial colors and artificial flavors.
Carrageenan is particularly problematic, as it is known to trigger gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and bloating.32 And flavored yogurts can contain up to 27 g (over six teaspoons) of sugar per serving, making them as sweet as, or often sweeter than, a candy bar.
I rarely recommend eating pasteurized dairy products, as raw milk is such a superior form of nutrition. But if you have a yogurt habit, please—stick to plain, whole-milk, organic yogurt. If you prefer it sweeter, use stevia or lo han, or a teaspoon or two of raw local honey to sweeten it up.