me and Matthew debating “chemicals” and whole foods

I have more to say about Expo West, but today I’ll write you some of a text exchange I’m having right now with my good friend Matthew F., who loves science and despises religion. I’ll leave out the unrelated parts, like about what day we’re going to take our kids skiing this week:

MF: Did you see my email about the chemical composition of apples? I always hated apples and I knew they were made of chemicals! Now that I know they’re made of chemicals, I can safely remove them from my diet! Whew!

GSG: Just because there are “chemical” compounds in natural foods (hello, EVERYTHING is on the periodic chart) doesn’t mean that eating synthetic chemicals is a good idea.

MF: You said chemicals, not SYNTHETIC chemicals. Sh**! Where’s an apple?

GSG: If you want to eat chemicals that are isolated and bathed in petroleum products and preserved in formaldehyde, go for it! (Num num.) Me, I’m eating your apple.

MF: You make is sound like all synthetic chemicals are bad and I agree that some are, but some natural things are bad for you too. There is so much hype and misconceptions about good nutrition. We have to not be married to our preferences and our “doctors” who don’t use the scientific method.

GSG: I’m not married to any acupuncturists or anything but I think I have a strong tendency based on a lot of evidence to eat whole foods instead of refined ones. The scientific method has been applied pretty well in that arena. And the same logic follows that hundreds of synergistic and perfect combinations of elements in an apple that science doesn’t even understand yet are better for me than a man-made pill with a synthetic, isolated vitamin in it.

Have you replaced God with science? What if God made perfect foods and science can’t and never will? What if science is just imperfect humans mucking around trying to make sense of complexity? Science is good but often fatally flawed. Not all science is equal. Methods are more sophisticated now but motivations are more suspect. Precious little “objective” science is left since the “scientific method” was originally conceived in all its idealism.

MF: What about apple trees that are fed water with pesticides in it, or a green smoothie girl who has the bad kind of synthetic chemicals in the plants in her smoothies?

GSG: Chemicals are everywhere. But less of them is better.

MF: Those people get colon cancer while the bastard who eats hamburgers lives to be 82.

GSG: Not usually. According to science more chemicals = more cancer, in general. Says a huge and growing pile of evidence.

MF: Synthetic ones, you mean.

GSG: That’s usually what people are referring to when they say “chemicals.” If you don’t see the diff between an apple and a can of Sprite (they’re both sugar, right?) we have a problem. My kid’s pediatrician said there was no diff.

MF: What IS the diff between sugar found in Sprite and sugar found in an apple? We need it for energy and brain function–so where does sugar in Sprite come from?

GSG: It’s massively chemically altered, concentrated, removed from other elements that make it a nutritious food. Like fiber. Like hundreds of micronutrients. Like dozens of types of enzymes.

Expo West and “health food”

So Tif and I got back this week from Expo West in Anaheim, one of the biggest trade shows in the U.S. After three days, we were still seeing booths we hadn’t been to before. Everything and anything you can find in a health food store. A lot of stuff you’d find in the “organic” or “natural” section of a regular grocery store, or Costco, too.

This is my main reaction to the show. At the risk of sounding like a snob, most of what is flying under the banner of “natural” and “organic” is just expensive junk food. A lot of refined food, soy products, stuff with a healthy ingredient or two and a bunch of bad ingredients.

Tif works for me but isn’t a foodie or a health nut. So she’d tell me something tasted wonderful (oh, the samples are endless!) and then she’d ask, “Is this good for me?”

More often than not, I’d say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, the regular stuff is a 1 and this is a 2.”

One of the worst examples: an “all-natural” cake mix. The dude handing out samples of the cutest little cupcakes and brownies. I said no thanks, and he protested: “But everything in this is what you’d use to make it from scratch at home!” (He obviously doesn’t know me.)

I walked over and read the ingredients on the box. The first two were: wheat flour, cane sugar.

Tif said, “But it’s WHEAT flour!” That just means white flour–bran and germ stripped away, nothing but nutrition-free endosperm (and some chemical vitamins added). If it doesn’t say “whole-wheat flour,” it’s white flour. If the box doesn’t say “100% whole grain,” it’s not (and usually the first ingredient is, in fact, white flour–because it’s people who don’t know better who buy stuff with labels that say “includes whole grains.” You can legally put a pinch of whole wheat in the recipe and tout it as INCLUDING whole grains.)

This is what I call “feel good” health food. It’s not good for you. It just makes you feel better about your food dollars. At the end of the day, it’s still just a bunch of crap in boxes and cans and packages.

I have found just the very fewest of exceptions and I’ll be talking about them in the coming weeks. Seriously. Like 1 in 500 booths at that show are offering anything worth your time and money.

Just because white flour is organic doesn’t make it nutritious. Just because the sugar is organic doesn’t make it good for you. Just because it’s made of soy doesn’t make it non-fattening.

Power foods? Really?

I saw a People Magazine article last week about 10 “power foods.” They listed agave, along with the aggressively marketed, uber-expensive acai and goji berries. Now I’m not going to diss  acai and goji, which are certainly high in antioxidants.

But if you’re trying to adhere to a budget, do you really want to pay $10 to $60 a pound for these “power foods” from thousands of miles away from your home, when you can buy oranges and apples for $0.69/lb.? Their antioxidant levels may not be as high, but they’re wonderful foods grown close to home that won’t break the bank, and IF YOU EAT THEM REGULARLY they can be an important part of an aggressive anti-disease and pro-energy healthy diet.

Not too exotic, I know. And if you have lots of discretionary income, great. Eat interesting little berries from mountain ranges all the way across the world. (I do really like goji, though I justify the cost only now and then.)

But meantime, common sense suggests that if you stick to greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains grown near you, you’ll be JUST FINE.

As for agave being a power food, no way.

WHAT?! You offer agave in the group buy and it’s in your recipes, GreenSmoothieGirl! WHAT. ARE. YOU. SAYING!

My friends, it is much preferable than sugar. If you get a reputable brand that certifies it to be raw and organic, you should use it for treats that are alternatives to junk food.

But no concentrated sweetener is a power food–except maybe honey, because of its pollen content and anti-bacterial properties. (Still really high in calories. Use it sparingly.)

Anyway, I rolled my eyes at the People article, so mainstream and dumbed down. But I guess nobody wants to hear that boring old broccoli, or almonds, or raw sweet potatoes, are power foods. Yawn. We want something NEW!

People are always writing me, “What do you think of Dr. X’s heart-disease preventing supplement?” “What do you think of emu oil?”

I haven’t studied every new, well-marketed product out there. But keep in mind that for every drop of something-or-other you can squeeze out of the poor emu, or every new pill full of “natural” stuff, there’s a bunch of people sitting around a boardroom strategizing on how a study they pay for can “prove” that you simply must have it to heal 30 different maladies.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. Try it if it’s in your budget. But now and then I like to pull everybody who might be listening, back to the straight and narrow road. That is, simple, whole, unadulterated plant foods. Those we KNOW will heal us and prevent all the awful things we’d rather not die of. If you’re reading the Emu Oil ad online while eating your second Hostess Ding Dong of the day, an examination of priorities might be in order.

Just my $0.02.

God created the Earth. Who created HMO’s?

My friend Claudia sent this to me two years ago and I just stumbled on it again:

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth and populated the Earth with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, green and yellow and red vegetables of all kinds, so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.

Then using God’s great gifts, Satan created Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Krispy Creme Donuts. And Satan said, “You want chocolate with that?” And Man said, “Yes!” and Woman said, “and as long as you’re at it, add some sprinkles.” And they gained 10 pounds. And Satan smiled.

And God created the healthful yogurt that Woman might keep the figure that Man found so fair. And Satan brought forth white flour from the wheat, and sugar from the cane and combined them. And Woman went from size 6 to size 14.

So God said, “Try my fresh green salad.” And Satan presented Thousand-Island dressing, buttery croutons and garlic toast on the side. And Man and Woman unfastened their belts.

God then said, “I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil in which to cook them.” And Satan brought forth deep fried fish and chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter. And Man gained more weight and his cholesterol went through the roof.

God then created a light, fluffy white cake, named it “Angel Food Cake,” and said, “It is good.” Satan then created chocolate cake and named it “Devil’s Food.”

God then brought forth running shoes so that His children might lose those extra pounds. And Satan gave cable TV with a remote control so Man would not have to toil changing the channels. And Man and Woman laughed and cried before the flickering blue light and gained pounds.

Then God brought forth the potato, naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fried them. And Man gained pounds.

God then gave lean beef so that Man might consume fewer calories and still satisfy his appetite. And Satan created McDonald’s and its 99-cent double cheeseburger. Then said, “You want fries with that?” And Man replied, “Yes! And super size them!” And Satan said, “It is Good.” And Man went into cardiac arrest.

God sighed and created quadruple bypass surgery.

Then Satan created HMOs.

Young moms make tough decisions about their babies’ nutrition!

I received this email from a health care practitioner who is a young mother. As I replied to her, it occurred to me that maybe these comments would be helpful to other young mothers who read this blog. (Similar content is found elsewhere on the site and in my writing.) Please do not consider this medical advice. It is my opinion based on my research and having raised four babies of my own. I do not suggest things regarding raising children that I don’t follow. But always, always follow your instincts as a mother. I believe those promptings to be God-given and more powerful and trustworthy than anything an M.D. (or any health care practitioner) will tell you. (That said, do your homework and listen to experts. Be selective about which “experts” you trust.)

Also, a heartfelt apology to those who don’t receive personal answers to emails because I get so many—I so, so wish I had time to answer them all like I did in the beginning, please forgive me.

Dear GreenSmoothieGirl: My husband and I have recently started having green smoothies each day and we are feeling great. I have an almost 8 month old daughter, who currently nurses and eats avocado (almost 1 a day). We would like to start some other foods with her, but I’ve been  holding off as I don’t want to do those recommended by my  pediatrician and conventional books.

I read somewhere on your site that babies have difficulty  digesting cooked food for a  while. I would love to start her off on raw greens, spinach, kale, etc.  Do you think this is safe? I think the reason that most people give for the recommendation that all baby food be cooked is because  raw food could be contaminated with bacteria and cooking kills that. What do you think about this? She’s  eating the avocado raw and many books say raw bananas are fine, maybe because those are both contained within a skin? You also wrote about doing mostly veggies the first few years and then fruits, which I love! I think that makes so much sense. I guess my bottom line question is: are the raw veggies safe or should I cook the greens?

I’d  REALLY appreciate your feedback on this. I am a first time mother and a bit tentative about some of these decisions. My daughter’s health is literally the most important thing in the world to me.

Thanks so much for the help and inspiration you have given to me and my husband.

Much love, Heather

Answer: Heather, avocadoes are beautiful for babies (wonderful fats for brain development, easily digested, excellent enzyme profile, and higher in calories).   And yes, plant foods encased in skin are the safest of all. I would go to bananas next, not just because they’re in skin, but also because they’re enzyme rich, higher in calories than most fruits, and nutritionally powerful.   Then see if you can find raw goat’s milk.   Make it into kefir or  yogurt (see Ch. 8 of 12 Steps). Then try a simple green smoothie with few ingredients, teaching her to drink from a straw, or making it thicker and feeding it with a spoon.

But the longer you can nurse and avoid food, and the more of her calories she gets from your breast milk, the better–up to 18 months! (That said, don’t agonize about feeding her “regular” food—just make it wonderful whole foods!) If you do feed her cooked stuff, like brown rice or quinoa, do so in a meal WITH raw foods containing enzymes, like a green smoothie.

People are worried about contamination with bacteria, but the older your baby is, the less I would worry about this, especially as she gets older and especially if you have endowed your daughter with a healthy digestive tract by nursing her.   I personally worry more about denatured foods gumming up her little digestive tract (refined grain-based “cereals,” cooked veg/fruit baby foods, etc.) and forcing her body to produce lots of mucous to flush it out, than the fact that natural foods sometimes contain bacteria that, 99.9+% of the time, is not only common and safe, but also helps develop a healthy immune system.   Use organic produce for smaller babies/children as much as you can, and wash any conventional produce well with a good, natural fruit/veg soap.   Remember than conventional animal products (dairy/meat) have much higher pesticide and chemical concentrations than even conventionally grown produce. (John Robbins documented this well in The Food Revolution.)

Hello from 13,000 feet up in the Andes: Part 3

I just returned from a tour of a hospital in Cusco, Peru. If anyone who reads this site / blog thinks I am anti-doctor, I’m not. I am teaching a nutrition clinic to a pediatrics practice on Jan. 15 at home. But I just gained a newfound appreciation for medical care in America. I think we should use it less, especially drugs, especially antibiotics and steroids. But I’m so thankful we have access to some of the best medical care in the world. It was a shock to see Western medicine practiced in such a primitive way.

In the obstetrics unit, the mothers are packed 6 to a room. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world according to the World Health Organization, in the Andean countries: Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. That’s because the women are tiny, and cervical size is directly proportional to body size. In addition to poor medical care in general, many Peruvian women are only 4′ tall, so many are lost in childbirth because of short cervixes where doctors are unable to stop bleeding. The equipment in the OB wing of the Cusco hospital is ancient, the hospital far from sterile and some might even say dirty, there are no incubators, babies must sleep with their mothers, and we gringos were allowed to wander through with our guide, an obstetrics nurse who helps run the orphanage.

Peasant mothers don’t know when they will deliver because they haven’t received any medical care, so they come down out of the mountains and often end up at the hospital for weeks, waiting, all funded by the Peruvian government.

We gave hand-knitted hats and newborn kits to the new mothers, who let us photograph their beautiful babies. One woman’s baby had died, and her daughter was sleeping on the dirty floor next to her, surrounded by other expectant and recently delivered mamas.

Then, with no warning, we were ushered into the delivery room of a first-time mother giving birth. When I realized what we were seeing, I asked my daughter, only 14, and the other 14 y.o. girl with us, if they really wanted to watch a birth, and they did. I am frankly ecstatic that they saw that. What they saw may be more helpful in discouraging poor choices than the semester of Teen Living my daughter just took, where she carried around a fake baby with batteries that cried (very annoyingly) and peed. My daughter said afterward, ”I am never having children.” She’ll get over that, but it is well documented that women with education have babies later (improving the children ´s and family ´s quality of life), and women who have babies later have more education.

Not that seeing the birth wasn’t beautiful. It was. We got to see a human being take its first breath, utter its first cry, and I was deeply moved. This mother had no anaesthesia of any kind, but didn’t make a sound. One of the midwives was putting her entire body weight on the mother’s belly to shove the baby into the world. We watched an episiotomy. We watched the six women around the mother yell, ”Es varoncito!” It’s a baby boy!

The midwives and Eunice, our nurse friend who works on the unit, dragged Linda in to take photos. We gringos (the men were down the hall, declining to watch) were horrified and begged her to come out and not take photos of this very private event. So Linda came back out, but Eunice grabbed her camera and began snapping away. We realized later that Eunice wanted that young mother to have the photos, for us to send them to her. She was there alone, no husband or boyfriend, no parents or siblings or friend–and no camera. Some of the peasant women we photographed have never owned a photo of themselves or their children.

We walked through an emergency room with appalling conditions: patients lying on stretchers with IV’s surrounded by sick people, even some with basins in their laps to throw up in–the waiting room and treatment room were one and the same. Husbands and boyfriends and children sleeping in corners and hallways everywhere.

I’m glad clean and efficient medical care is available in my country when we need it. I couldn’t help but say under my breath a few times in the hospital, ”Please God let none of us get sick in this country.” I have been rather blessed that way. All but a few of the Americans in our expedition have been ill with altitude sickness, diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms. I’ve been totally healthy and even have been eating lettuce salads we were warned against, and using tap water to brush my teeth.

Emma threw up at the entrance to Machu Picchu (”I threw up on one of the 8 Wonders of the World,” she likes to say) but hiked all day and has been otherwise fine.