SPECIAL REPORT: Food for Thoughtto Protect Health in the New Decade

by Melissa Diane Smith

(Opinion) There are many positive signs that there is a growing movement of people trying to get healthy: More people are eating gluten free, more are buying organic foods, more are paying out of their own pockets for complimentary and alternative medical treatments, and more are growing their own food in their own gardens.

But amidst those encouraging trends, there are several key health and nutrition concepts that most people, including many who eat gluten free, are missing or have never even heard. Part of my mission for this site is to inform you about health information you don’t hear elsewhere. So, to provide food for thought for the new decade, here is my list of the top concepts people need to understand to protect their health in the next decade and beyond:

1. Gluten free doesn’t always mean healthy.

In fact, a packaged food labeled gluten-free more often than not is NOT healthy. That’s because it’s usually made with refined gluten-free flours (white rice flour, tapioca starch and potato starch), sugar and other sweeteners, and refined oils. In other words, it’s a gluten-free version of junk food and the ingredients it’s made with set off a cascade of events to occur in the body that promote degenerative disease.

A few decades ago, people used to think “fat-free” was healthy. But fat-free products were made with more refined flours and sugars and people ended up gaining weight. Then people used to think “low-carb” was healthy. But many low-carb products were made by reducing the carbs in white flour and concentrating the gluten, and people ended up getting digestive distress and immune reactions from them. Today many people think “gluten-free” is always healthy. But most of these products are made with refined gluten-free flours and sugars and people end up gaining weight and developing more blood sugar problems from eating them.

Yes, it’s important to avoid gluten to improve and protect your health. But eat naturally gluten-free whole foods as much as possible. Don’t emphasize packaged gluten-free products. If you do, you’ll be trading one disease (gluten intolerance) for a brand new one (diabetes, heart disease, or other diseases you don’t want).

2. Corn, a food most Americans unknowingly eat in excess, is a key factor in our weight, health and environmental problems.

Corn has infiltrated the American food supply in a major, yet mostly unknown way, and it is a food that quickly fattens up cattle and does the same to us when we eat it in excess. And that’s what most Americans do. If you read the label of virtually any mass-processed, commercial food, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one without corn of some type in its list of ingredients (except for commercial meat, which, of course, isn’t labeled as such but is fattened up on corn nonetheless). In everything from margarine to soda to candy to tomato sauces to meat, corn is in there. Because it is a high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic (blood-sugar-spiking) food, it not only packs on the pounds but also contributes to overeating and the development of blood-sugar- and insulin-related health problems such as type 2 diabetes.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the way corn is commercially produced these days is disastrous for the health of our planet. It requires more nitrogen fertilizer and more pesticide than any other crop. Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas and pesticides are made from oil. So, growing outrageous amounts of corn, which is what farmers do because it is a crop that is highly subsidized by the U.S. government, pollutes our rivers and soil and guzzles our limited fossil fuel resources.

Very simply, we shouldn’t be eating commercial corn to protect our health and the planet’s health, and to reduce our use of fuel (and carbon emissions). The sooner more of us understand that and act on that by avoiding foods with commercially produced corn in their ingredients, the sooner the food industry and lawmakers will get the message that we’ve had enough of our country’s ill-conceived policies and practices with corn.

3. Changing our diet is far more effective than exercise for losing weight.

Every year at this time of year people make a resolution to lose weight and they always start off on the wrong track by joining a gym or hiring a personal trainer and committing to vigorous exercise. But as I reported here in September, exercise doesn’t help people lose weight. In fact, it often leads to weight gain. Sure, exercise burns calories, but it also can stimulate hunger and cause us to become more tired, which prompts us to eat more calories – in effect, canceling any weight-loss benefits we thought we might receive.

It’s time people got the message and realized they need to try a new strategy to slim down. Changing what we eat is the solution. As I mention on the home page of this website, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you’re tired of pushing yourself to do exercise you dislike (and it’s not helping you lose weight anyway), stop doing it and put your attention on changing what you eat. So many people have never heard this message and that’s why the United States and other countries are not winning the battle of the bulge. If you don’t know the first thing about how to eat to promote healthy weight loss, take the money you were spending on a gym membership and use it toward nutrition counseling or coaching, one of the best investments in health and weight control you could ever make.

4. Adverse drug reactions and medical errors are a leading cause of death in the United States and we need to protect ourselves against them.

Most of us today are more scared of dying or becoming harmed or injured from a terrorist attack or even an accident than prescription drugs or medical errors. But we shouldn’t be. We think that just because a doctor prescribes a medication for us, it must be safe and it certainly couldn’t kill us.

But studies and statistics show a completely different story – one that is hardly ever reported. According to one Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study, 106,000 hospitalized patients die annually because of adverse drug reactions and more than 2 million other hospitalized patients have serious but nonfatal drug reactions. As my coauthors and I explained in Syndrome X, that’s comparable to a jumbo jet crashing and killing its passengers every day of the year. Another JAMA study reported that medical errors kill 225,000 people per year in the United States (including the 106,000 deaths per year from non-error, adverse effects of medications), making medical errors the third leading cause of death in this country. And according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control in 2009, in more than a quarter of states in the United States, more people were killed by drugs than by auto accidents. Plus, celebrities have been repeatedly dying in recent years because of prescription medications – just think of Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole-Smith, and Michael Jackson. Yet no one seems overly concerned or even aware of this. Many Americans see their doctor, get a prescription for a drug, and blindly go along with whatever is written for them, never bothering to ask the doctor or the pharmacist about the drug or even look up the warnings and possible side effects on the Internet before taking it.

We’ve got to wake up and realize that prescription drugs and medical errors are major killers in our society. The sooner more of us grasp this concept, become less accepting and more leery of prescription medications, and more aware of exactly what doctors and hospital workers are doing medically speaking, the more we’ll take a big step toward protecting our health and our very lives.

5. The food we buy and eat today will determine the future of our food.

We tend to think the food we eat was grown or raised on family farms like it was in the good old days. But things have changed. Although most of us have known nothing about it, farming in large part has been replaced by food corporations producing food in laboratories and factories. Over the past few decades, a relative few amount of powerful food corporations have taken control of most of the food that is produced in this country. They produce food in industrialized ways that are so ill-conceived and so harmful that they put our health, the planet, and old-fashioned farmers all in danger.

Earlier in the article (in point #2), I explained many of the problems of commercially produced corn. But I didn’t even mention that about three-quarters of the corn produced in the United States today is genetically modified (GM). Most of the genetic modification done on corn has been to make it resistant to a certain type of pesticide. (In other words, the pesticide kills all other plants growing in the field except the corn that has been created in a laboratory like Frankenstein’s monster and is not like any other corn we’ve ever had before. Sounds pretty scary, right?) What’s more, one big corporation owns the pesticide and the seed, and it gained a patent on not just one type of genetically modified seed, but many types. So, if a patented GM seed accidentally blows into a field where non-GMO corn is planted and GMO corn starts growing in the field, the corporation sues the farmer of that field for patent infringement, and farmers financially can’t fight lawsuits like a big corporation can. Even though we think corn is cheap, we pay very high prices – in our health, in our environment, and in farmers’ and workers’ rights – for the way it is now produced. And corn production is just one example.

Many people think that if corporations with unconscionable practices have taken over most of our food already, there is nothing we can do about it. But nothing could be further from the truth. We have a lot more power to change our food system than we think. For example, Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology estimates that if just 5% of U.S. consumers avoid foods that contain GM corn and soy (that means avoiding all corn and soy that is not labeled certified organic or non-GMO), the purchasing power and trend setting ability of those people can turn GMOs into a marketing liability and start a tidal wave that will eventually get GMOs off the market. Buying organic and non-GMO foods are two ways to exercise your buying power to change our current unhealthy food system. Two other ways are to buy more locally grown foods and more grass-fed meats in natural food stores and farmer’s markets.

If you’re already eating a gluten-free diet (and most people reading this are), you have taken a big step toward better health. But it’s important to grasp these overlooked concepts and go further against the grain – in other words, further from the mainstream – to protect your health, our country’s health, and our planet’s health in the new decade.

Copyright © 2010 Melissa Diane Smith

Selected References:

Challem J, Berkson B, Smith MD. Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000 – link to Syndrome X book page.

In 16 states, more die by drugs than in cars. The Boston Globe as reported by The Associated Press, October 1, 2009 – link to article.

Kenner, Robert (director) & Kenner, Robert, & Pearlstein, Elise (writers). Food, Inc. [documentary motion picture]. USA: Docudrama, 2008.

Koons, Deborah (director & writer). The Future of Food [documentary motion picture]. USA: Docudrama, 2004.

Smith, Melissa Diane. Going Against the Grain: How Reducing and Avoiding Grains Can Revitalize Your Health. New York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2002 – link to Going Against the Grain book page.

Starfield, Barbara. Is US health really the best in the world? Journal of the American Medical Association, 2000;284(4):483-5.

Woolf, Aaron (director) & Ellis, Curt, and Cheney, Ian (writers). King Corn [documentary motion picture]. USA: Docudrama, 2007.

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