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Monday, December 12, 2011

Food for Thought

Obviously I am a strong believer in the importance of a healthy lifestyle. This means daily physical activity, a nutritious diet, and adequate sleep/stress management.

But sometimes, particularly when it comes to nutrition it is easy to feel overburdened by all the warnings and recommendations out there: It's not enough to eat an apple, it has to be an organic apple; Eating fish is good, but only if it is wild, rather than farmed; Eat homemade rather than prepared food, but never use the microwave and store everything in glass, rather than plastic containers.

What most of these recommendations have in common is that THEY ARE REALLY EXPENSIVE!! Organic foods are much more expensive than non-organics, wild fish is much more costly than farmed, and storing everything in glass (particularly when you have little kids!) is not always practical. If you get into some of the trendy new "super foods" (i.e. Maca, lucuma, goji berries, acai berries, etc.) the cost can be astronomical.

So I think it was fear that kept me from reading, "An Apple a Day", by Joe Schwarcz, for so long. I purchased the book a few years ago, but only picked it up a few weeks ago. I really didn't want to read (yet again), that unless I completely alter my (already pretty healthy) lifestyle by emptying out my children's education savings, my whole family's health was destined to go to hell-in-a-handbasket.

I could not have been more wrong about what this book is all about!

Schwarcz, a professor at McGill University, sets out to debunk many of the myths and misconceptions about food science and nutrition that are propagated by the media and by alarmists, and summarizes the evidence about the relationship between various chemicals, foods, additives and health or disease.

I highly recommend this book to ANYONE remotely interested in nutrition, food safety, or health...actually, I recommend it to ANYONE. Not only is it informative and easy to read, it is also - believe it or not - entertaining and hysterically funny. I actually laughed out loud while reading it on the subway on numerous occasions. Schwarcz is witty and light-hearted and includes many funny anecdotes about the history of food science and nutrition.

The book has 4 sections:
1. Naturally Occurring Substances in Our Food Supply (i.e. antioxidants, fats, fibre, vitamins, etc.)
2. Manipulating Our Food Supply (i.e. fortification, sweeteners, preservatives, colours, genetic modification, etc.)
3. Contaminants in Our Food Supply (i.e. pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)
4. Tough to Swallow (i.e. absurd claims with little basis)

I was already familiar with most of the information in section 1, however, I was comforted by his conclusion about soy protein, that there is little basis for concern about cancer risk, but that it is not a health panacea either.

I also didn't know that coffee contains substances that can increase cholesterol. These substances are not present in filtered coffee, but remain in the beverage when no filter is used (i.e. French press). So if cholesterol is an issue for you, stick with filtered coffee.

I learned many surprising things from the other sections:

* There is no evidence that MSG causes ANY health problems.
* Natural and artificial flavours added to packaged food are sometimes virtually identical in composition.
* Only one food dye (Red Dye #3) is associated with health problems AND there is no evidence any cause behavioural problems in kids (nevertheless food with dye is usually processed and nutritionally void and should still be avoided).
* No proof genetically modified food poses any major risks to health or environment.
* Eating organic produce is not necessary for health reasons.
* If you can only afford farmed salmon, it's better than not eating salmon at all.
* Toxins leaching out from plastic containers and non-stick pans should NOT be a major concern.

And some not so surprising (to me):

* There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners - EVEN ASPARTAME - cause any health problems.
* We SHOULD be concerned about antibiotic usage in meat.
* Saturated fat and carcinogenic compounds that form in meat from cooking are a bigger concern to our health than hormones from farming practices.
* Detox diets are hogwash, just eat a healthy diet ALL the time.

So what does this all mean?

According to Schwarcz:
* Eat lots of fruits and veggies, wash them well but don't fret about organic vs non-organic;
* Eat fish, but limit those high in mercury;
* Limit animal protein, particularly red meat;
* Eat whole grains;
* Eat up to 5 whole eggs per week;
* Try to avoid processed foods, trans fat and excess sodium;
* Avoid fried (and even barbecued) foods;
* Limit alcohol consumption; and
* Maintain an overall calorie intake that is appropriate to maintain a healthy body weight.

Whew! Sounds like everything I already do!

Seriously, get this book. It is worth a read, even just for the humour.