Pesticide exposure: separating facts from fears

An advocacy group called Friends of the Earth has been publicizing the results of a new study demonstrating that when people switch from a regular diet to one containing only organic foods, their exposure to pesticides is reduced.

The study recruited four families from different corners of the country.  Each family ate a non-organic diet for six days and an all-organic diet for six days. The researchers found that the organic diet “rapidly and dramatically reduced exposure to pesticides.” 

That’s not terribly surprising.  In fact, it’s so unsurprising, it’s a little hard to imagine why the researchers felt the need to do this study.

The far more important question (not answered in this study) is: Is this something we need to worry about?

Relatively major but absolutely minor

In reporting their findings, the Friends of the Earth present the difference in exposure in relative terms. “Levels of all detected chemicals dropped an average of 60.5 percent with a range of 37 percent to 95 percent depending on the compound.”

But they don’t give us any information about the absolute levels of exposure.  This is at least as important as the relative exposure. Celery has 40 times as much sodium as cucumber. It’s still a low sodium food.

Did those higher levels of exposure pose any sort of threat? Or were they (as I suspect) well below the threshold of concern?

Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish

Secondly, the coverage repeatedly talks about the “pesticide levels in the bodies” of the subjects. But the study didn’t test the subjects’ blood or tissues. They tested their urine, which is where the body discards things it doesn’t want or need.  Furthermore, what they found in the urine were compounds formed when the pesticides were broken down by the liver.

In other words, what they found was evidence that the body’s detoxification systems were working exactly as they are supposed to, breaking down and excreting potentially harmful compounds. The pesticides these families were being exposed to by eating a non-organic diet were apparently being eliminated from their bodies.

So I have to ask once again: Is this really something that we need to worry about?

One of these things is not like the other

The organization points out that one of the pesticides monitored in this study is frequently linked to farmworker poisonings.  That’s a great argument for farmers using more care when working with agricultural chemicals (and that goes for synthetic as well as organic chemicals). But it doesn’t really have anything to do with risks that families might be exposed to by eating conventional produce.  And yet, by juxtaposing these two facts in the press release, it implies that eating non-organic foods increases your risk of chemical poisoning.  There is absolutely no data to support this implication.

Good news is no news?

Meanwhile, the press reports don’t mention that a third of the compounds they were testing for were undetectable in the urine samples after the non-organic diet. You have to wonder whether they were, perversely, somewhat disappointed by this.  They certainly didn’t seem very eager to publicize the fact that some of the most common pesticides used in conventional agriculture apparently pose little risk to eaters.

So, what’s the upshot of all this?

The Friends of the Earth concludes that “these results show that eating organic works.”  Works how, exactly? Yes, eating organic  reduces your exposure to certain (but not all) pesticides. But does it reduce your risk of disease or harm? I don’t see any evidence of that here.

This is Important. Let’s Get it Right

Lest you think I am pro-pesticide, or anti-organic, let me assure you I’m not. I’m just against this sort of sloppy communication and manipulative “science.”

Conventional farmers don’t use pesticides because they’re lazy, ignorant, or uncaring. They use them, as sparingly as they can get away with, in order to maximize yields and lower the cost of food.  If they can figure out a way to use less, they are eager to do so.

Organic farmers use pesticides and herbicides, too, by the way. Some of these organic pesticides are highly toxic to beneficial insects and, if mishandled, can be harmful to humans, as well.  But organic farmers are also working to increase yield and reduce the cost of their products. And pest control is part of that.

Instead of pitting organic growers (and eaters) against conventional, why not work together to make progress on all of these important fronts? Let’s use the best technology, the best practices and, yes, the best chemistry, to create a safer, more abundant, and more sustainable food supply.

To that end, let’s assess the risks and impacts of chemical use (both synthetic and organic). Let’s weigh the costs and benefits of various options. But let’s debate the issues on their scientific merits instead of resorting to sensational, misleading, and manipulative “research” and rhetoric.

This is not an us vs. them situation. We’re all us.

Eating gluten free will cost you

More and more consumers are convinced that avoiding gluten will improve their health. And if avoiding gluten meant cutting out breads, pasta, crackers, baked goods and other traditionally wheat-based foods, there might be health and nutritional benefits.

Replacing sandwiches with salads, pasta with zoodles, pizza crust with cauliflower crusts, baked goods with fruit–all solid upgrades in terms of nutrients (not to mention calories).

But as the selection of gluten-free breads, pastas, crackers, and baked goods grows, giving up gluten may not necessarily improve your nutrition. In fact, a recent survey found that gluten-free foods tend to be significantly LESS nutritious than the foods they are designed to replace.

According to researchers who evaluated over 1000 commercially available foods, GF breads tended to be higher in both fat and sugar.  GF items were also higher in salt, and lower in both fiber and protein than their wheat-based counterparts. They also cost, on average, two and half times as much.

There is a healthier (and cheaper) way to go gluten-free. Instead of loading up your cart with highly-processed gluten-free products made with various alternative starches, seek out whole foods and minimally processed foods that are naturally gluten-free.  Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, are a better way to fill the gaps where wheat used to be.

Where does fat go when you lose it?

Pride goeth before a fail.

When I saw this headline earlier this morning, I clicked through (Mission accomplished, headline writers) and skimmed the article, which seemed to contradict the basic facts that we all learn in nutritional biochemistry. Having not yet had my coffee (yes, I’m making lame excuses), I impulsively posted it on Facebook with a “Shame on you, CNN” comment.

Fortunately, my followers are smarter than I am…and are not afraid to tell me so. So, let me try this again, appropriately humbled.

Let’s Play Biochemistry Gotcha!

Had I been one of those-who-should-know-better surveyed by the authors, I too would have fallen into the trap and said that fat is converted into energy (with water and CO2 as byproducts). But this is not quite accurate. Continue reading “Where does fat go when you lose it?” >

What’s the best diet for your genetics?

Personalized nutrition is getting a lot of attention these days. Companies will analyze your DNA and tell you what foods and supplements you should and shouldn’t eat based on your genetic profile. But a huge new study throws cold water on the idea of matching your diet to your genetics.  Participants with a “low-carb genotype” (who would hypothetically do better on a low-carb diet) were no more successful on a low-carb diet than on a low-fat diet. The same was true for those with a “low-fat genotype.”

The study also found that, overall, low-carb diets are no better or worse than low-fat diets at producing weight loss.  Those are the two headlines from this study. (Examine.com has produced an excellent detailed analysis of the study, if you want to take a deeper dive.)

But there is so much more here that warrants mentioning. Here’s what really got my attention:

None of the study participants were asked to count or limit their calories. Instead, both groups were told to limit their intake of added sugars, refined flour and junk food, and to eat lots of vegetables and whole foods. And that was enough to produce weight loss.  In other words, when you pay attention to the quality of your food choices, the calories often take care of themselves. And when you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet, low carb is no more effective than low fat.

[bctt tweet=”When you pay attention to the quality of your food choices, the calories often take care of themselves. ” username=”nutritiondiva”]

The other thing that’s notable about this study is that the participants received intensive coaching throughout the year. They were taught how to choose foods that kept them satisfied for fewer calories.   They were encouraged to avoid distracted eating and eat more mindfully. Making sustainable changes was a bigger priority than achieving fast weight loss.  (All of this will sound very familiar to participants of  the Weigh*less program, our 12-month coaching program for sustainable weight loss.)

[bctt tweet=”Making sustainable changes matters more than achieving fast weight loss.” username=”nutritiondiva”]

At the end of the study, the most successful participants reported having changed their relationship to food. And that’s ultimately what’s required for permanent weight loss. Not calorie or fat or carb counting.

Click here to learn more about the Weighless Program.

This super easy hack could save you major calories

Can it really be this simple?

Researchers at the University of Surrey fed two groups of study subjects an identical pasta dish. Although the amount of food was the same, it was presented to one group as a “snack” and to the other as a “meal.”  The snackers ate standing up, using plastic utensils. The meal-eaters sat down at a table set with ceramic dishes and silverware.

A little bit later, both groups were given some additional foods to sample. Those who had merely “snacked” on the pasta dish consumed far more calories than those who felt that they’d just eaten a meal.

Doesn’t that ring true?

When we call something a snack, we tend to discount it.  It doesn’t register in quite the same way in our mental tally of how much we’ve eaten. We may not even feel as full afterward.  (Which just goes to show how much of our sensation of ‘hunger’ is actually in our heads!)

Try this: Instead of just grabbing a snack, consciously make it a meal. Even if it’s just a few bites or you don’t have much time, be sure to signal to your brain and senses that you’re satisfying your need for food.  Sit down. Put it on a plate. Mentally re-label those snacks as mini-meals and see if they don’t feel a little more satisfying.

Need to lower blood pressure? Here’s a tastier option

Over a million Americans developed high blood pressure overnight–and, no, it wasn’t the latest headlines.

The American Heart Association just lowered the bar on what is considered to a healthy blood pressure reading. Instead of anything under 140/90, you now need to shimmy under 130/80 to get the all clear.  That means that a whole bunch of people who had normal blood pressure yesterday are hypertensive today.

Diet and lifestyle change is the standard prescription in this situation. The time-tested DASH diet, in particular, has a great track record for lowering blood pressure.  But if the thought of giving up red meat and cheese leaves you feeling a bit bereft, I have good news.

Recent studies have found that modified versions of the DASH diet that include red meat and full-fat dairy products are just as effective as the more austere original.  The details are outlined in this episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast: The DASH Diet Gets an Upgrade.

Sugar and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

Whenever I talk about cancer and diet, I try to debunk the myth that eating sugar makes cancer grow faster. I explain that all cells, including cancer cells, use glucose (sugar) to fuel their metabolism. Cancer cells often have an accelerated metabolism and utilize blood glucose at a faster rate than other cells. But it’s a gross over-simplification to say that consuming sugar will make cancer grow faster or that eliminating sugar will slow the growth of a tumor.

So imagine my surprise to see a recent headline in Newsweek about a new study published in the prestigious science journal Nature.

Despite the provocative headline, however, this study has absolutely nothing to do with how sugar from foods affects cancer cells. The research explores how some cancer cells differ from healthy cells in the way that they metabolize glucose. This is undoubtedly important to cancer researchers. But it does not add to, subtract from, or change in any way what we know about the interaction of diet and cancer.  

The link between sugar consumption and cancer risk is more indirect.  Excessive sugar consumption often leads to obesity, which increases cancer risk. But it’s the excess body fat that is the problem, not the source of the calories that caused it. 

[bctt tweet=”This is important to cancer researchers, but it doesn’t change what we know about diet and cancer.” username=”nutritiondiva”]

There are a lot of good reasons to limit our consumption of added sugars.  Limiting these empty calories can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. A diet that’s lower in added sugars is also likely to be higher in nutrients. Both can help to reduce your risk of cancer and/or improve your chances of beating it.

But the last thing a cancer patient (or survivor) needs is to stress about whether eating too much sugar may have caused their cancer or made it more aggressive. Neither is true.

See also:

Can the Right Diet Prevent Cancer?

Diet Recommendations for Cancer Survivors

 

Despite billions spent on dieting, obesity rate hits new high

Americans are spending more on dieting than ever before--more than $60 billion a year.  The percentage of obese adults is also at an all time high of 40%. 

Do you think there might be a connection between these two trends?  I do.

Clearly, dieting  is not the solution to the obesity problem. In fact, I think it's a big part of the problem.  

Problem #1:  Even the most "responsible" diets encourage you to lose weight far faster than your body can actually lose fat. As a result, you end up losing a little bit of fat and a lot of water and lean muscle tissue.

Problem #2: Diets teach you how to lose weight but they don't teach you how to weigh less.  (There's a big difference.)  As a result, most people will eventually regain all the weight they lose...or more.

Problem #3: When you regain the weight, you don't gain back the lean muscle that you lost while dieting. You replace it with fat, which makes it even harder to lose weight the next time.

It's time to try something different

Last summer, my colleague Brock Armstrong and I launched WeighlessTM, a program that shows people how to stop dieting and start weighing less. Weighless is not a diet or exercise program. It's a structured lifestyle change program that combines nutrition science, behavior modification, professional guidance, and community support.

The results have exceeded even our high hopes. It's been absolutely exhilarating to see people escape a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and find the path to sustainable weight loss.  I'm more convinced than ever before that diets are not the answer to our obesity epidemic. (They're a big part of the problem.)

If you think you might be ready to stop dieting and start weighing less, there are more details about the Weighless program here.