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Do Safe Foods Exist?

I write a lot about intuitive eating and the psychology of food choices and habits. Lots of people in the intuitive eating world focus almost exclusively on why you eat, exploring the reasons behind food choices rather that the foods themselves. The idea is that if we remove all good-bad labels and judgment from food, and we’re in touch with our bodies, we’ll naturally make the healthiest choices. That’s a valid approach, if one were eating within the context of a natural and unpolluted food supply.

But that’s not the case. Our food supply is so troubled, we no longer have the luxury of being cavalier with our choices. An estimated 87 million people per year get food poisoning, and our food troubles go way beyond pathogens in our peanut butter. The stuff we eat is riddled with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, endocrine disruptors, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, synthetic colors, chemical flavorings and trans fats. Between scary reports about cancer-causing additives and life-threatening pathogens, eating seems like a frightening proposition. You’d think we’re better off starving.

What’s safe, clean and healthy? In general, of course, the best advice is to eat an organic diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, with some grains and limited animal protein. Some details follow:

Fruits and vegetables. They have more disease-fighting potential than any other category of foods and, since they’re at the bottom of the food chain, the lowest concentrations of environmental toxins. That doesn’t mean they’re exempt from pathogens; remember the E. coli and salmonella outbreaks traced to spinach? Thoroughly wash even organic produce before you eat it, in a high-quality produce wash. Or you can use a Clorox bath, recommended by Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D. (add a teaspoon of Clorox to a gallon of water, soak food for 15 to 25 minutes, and rinse thoroughly; read more about it in her books). Other than that, you can eat most organic plants with abandon.

Meat. If you eat meat, it’s imperative that you buy high-quality products. Get flesh foods from local producers whenever possible, and choose lean cuts of grass-fed meat; they’re lower in saturated fat and calories than grain-fed, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid with cancer-protective and anti-obesity effects. If you can’t find local meat, has a list of suppliers. There’s no scientific formulation borne out by research studies, but a 3-ounce serving of meat is plenty, and a few times a week is enough for most people.

Dairy. Milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products most likely to come from cows that have been treated with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone); this means they contain higher levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor one), which increases the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer. The label “rBST-free” is an unverified claim; organic dairy comes from animals that are certified to be free of rBST (you’ll also avoid antibiotics and pesticides). Grass-fed dairy has the best ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. And goat milk products contain less lactose than cow’s milk and an easier-to-digest protein molecule.

Next: Eggs, seafood, legumes, grains, and nuts

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