Our food supply has changed dramatically in modern times. In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Loren Cordain, father of the modern Paleo diet, and fellow researchers discuss how today’s Americans eat differently from our ancestors. “Although dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol make up 72.1 percent of the total daily energy consumed by all people in the United States,” notes Cordain, “these types of foods would have contributed little to the typical pre-agricultural human diet.” In addition to the increased consumption of grains, sugars, and processed foods, the last century has seen a huge increase in factory-farmed livestock, genetically engineered food, and the use of food additives and chemicals.
Unlike the 1920s and 1930s, when large supermarkets stocked under 1,000 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, today’s supermarkets stock an average of 39,500 products! The Center for Food Safety estimates that 75 percent of the food in supermarkets is derived from genetically engineered organisms such as corn, soy, and sugar. What’s more, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that nearly 1,000 new chemicals have been added to our food supply without review by the FDA since the “generally regarded as safe” loophole was created in 1958. This loophole allows food manufacturers to deem if their product is safe without submitting any proof.
What is Clean Eating?
Food is more than calories. It is communication. Food contains substances that alter gene expression and cellular function. This can provide health-positive effects, such as the cancer-preventative properties of plant-derived flavonoids, or health-negative effects, such as the carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting properties of the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in factory-farmed salmon or Bisphenol-A (BPA) in canned foods. While it is unlikely that a single exposure to a chemical will have a significant effect, low-level exposure to multiple toxins over a period of time can have a profound impact on health.
My personal diet philosophy is summed up in the words of Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Within the first two words is a subtle, but powerful subtext. Are you eating real food? Clean eating is eating food as close to its natural state as possible, choosing whole foods like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruits—and minimizing processed and chemically laden foods. An almond is an almond; you know it by seeing it.
How to Get Clean
Reading labels is more challenging in today’s food climate. In the last 5 to 10 years there has been a movement towards seemingly clean labeling. In reality, however, food companies are simply hiding unwanted chemicals and additives by giving them seemingly normal names. For instance, investigative food journalist, Joanna Blythman, notes that the ingredient rosemary extract is clean labeling jargon for butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT).
Another big challenge of eating clean is time and convenience. Packaged and processed food takes the work out of eating. You can buy prepared salads at the supermarket. However, according to Blythman, it is likely that chemical preservatives are added to extend the shelf life.
If you truly want to eat clean, start simple. Eat more whole foods. Drink more water and fewer flavored and sweetened beverages. Read labels. Even herbal teas can have natural flavors which is code for MSG. Avoid health claims, such as low sugar, low fat, natural, low carb, whenever possible. Learn more from helpful organizations such as the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) and Center for Science in the Public Interest (https://cspinet.org).
It’s also wise to start slowly. Add two hours of food prep time a week. Make it a family activity and give everyone a chore, from rinsing berries to cutting up vegetables to making broth. I have seen clients lose five pounds by simply eliminating one processed food from their repertoire, such as diet soda.