Human beings are designed to eat. Our bodies and brains demand a steady stream of energy along with the building, maintenance, and repair supplies that come along with food from sugars, fats, protein, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins. That doesn’t mean we can just eat whatever we find in front of us though. We all know there are foods that are better for us than others, like fresh fruits and vegetables over something prepackaged and microwaved. But there are certain things you should avoid even more.
1. Sugar – Simple table sugar is highly processed, stripped of nutrients, devoid of fiber, and super concentrated. Our bodies naturally love sugars as these little molecules drive metabolism and provide energy, but table sugar isn’t like the fruits we evolved to crave. Sucrose, a mix of fructose and glucose, hits our system harder and faster than the sugars found in fruits and vegetables, overwhelming the processes we have set in place to use them. Too much sugar causes cravings, strains the liver, increases inflammatory responses, bumps up fat storage, increases cholesterol levels, and causes immune system problems. Most of us get more sugar than we could ever need with our soft drinks, candies, and processed foods. Cut them back or, better yet, out entirely.
The Answer – Stick to whole foods for your sugar intake and avoid processed foods that rely on sugar or corn syrup to make us crave them more than we should. Fruits that include plenty of water content and fiber help you fill up and crave less, berries and melons especially. Use honey, date sugar, stevia, coconut sugar, or pure organic maple syrup when you really need a dose of sweetness, but these should be used wisely and in moderation as well.
2. Artificial Sweeteners – Most artificial sweeteners actually increase cravings for sugary foods, boost fat stores, and contribute to weight gain, some even more than sugar. Aspartame breaks down into methanol, which damages DNA and proteins vital to healthy cellular functions. Sucralose is chlorinated sucrose and it accumulates in the kidneys and liver, enlarging them while shrinking the thymus gland. Artificial sweeteners may even change the way we taste our food, desensitizing us to the complex and subtle flavors we could be enjoying and making healthier foods seem blander than they really are. Many artificial sweeteners have also been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
The Answer – Don’t use them at all. They don’t help people lose weight or eat less. Stick to natural sweeteners as much as possible.
3. Canned Tomatoes – Most canned foods are lined with bisphenol-a, or BPA, to protect food and extend shelf life. Unfortunately, it has also been linked to infertility, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and both breast and prostate cancer. A small amount of BPA finds its way into just about any canned foods, but acidic foods, like tomatoes, leach even more out of the protective lining. Cans aren’t our only source of BPA exposure either. It is found in other plastic packaging and even our receipts. BPA free products are available, but most of these simply switched from bisphenol-a to bisphenol-s, which may be just as toxic.
The Answer – Use fresh or dried foods more often and wash them thoroughly before eating them. A few cans of less acidic foods may be okay in moderation, especially if you also take care not to handle receipts. Ignore the labels that claim to be BPA free and choose bottled tomatoes or jars of tomato sauces instead of cans.
4. Processed Meats – Eating any processed meat increases the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer according to a recent study. Processed meats, like hotdogs and deli meat, are more likely to come from factory farms where conditions are not the best. They also are more likely to contain growth hormones, antibiotics, artificial ingredients, and a lot of preservatives. One such preservative, sodium nitrate, is known to damage DNA in ways that can lead to cancer. Cooking then creates more carcinogens, especially if we char these meats.
The Answer – Cut back on or eliminate animal protein from your diet. If you decide to eat meat, avoid the processed meats and look for lean, organic, free-range, and grass fed varieties. Always look for ways to limit your consumption of processed foods in general and introduce more vegetables into your diet.
5. Vegetable Oils – Vegetable oils are a fairly recent addition to our diet if you look at our evolutionary history, only becoming available in the early 1900s as new processes changed the way we make food. These oils are not made by simply pressing or separating, as is the case with olive oil, coconut oil, and even butter, but require heat and chemicals like hexane, a petroleum solvent, to extract the oils. These are then cleaned, recolored, deodorized, and altered to make them palatable. Most of our vegetable oils also come from genetically modified crops that are heavily treated with pesticides. The processing increases the oxidization of the oil, meaning it begins to go rancid and any health benefits are negated.
The Answer – Stick with cold-pressed, virgin oils from superfoods like olive, avocado, and coconut. Coconut oil is excellent for cooking while olive oil is better for cooler or cold applications.
6. Margarine – This unnatural substance was first created to replace the perceived unhealthy saturated fats found in butter. We’ve since learned that saturated fats aren’t as terrible as we once thought and trans fats, like margarine, are quite possibly the worst. We took questionable vegetable oils and then made them to resemble the molecules found in saturated fats by forcing hydrogen into them. These hydrogenated vegetable oils thus carry all the problems we mentioned earlier about regular vegetable oil and then some. Trans fats contribute to a host of health problems, especially revolving around cholesterol and heart disease. They are also even more likely to be oxidized and contain emulsifiers, chemical solvents, and preservatives.
The Answer – Choose coconut oil and cacao for your saturated fat needs and avoid trans fats at all cost. Even butter is better than margarine.
7. Microwave Popcorn – Microwave popcorn is convenient, quick, easy, and generally a tasty snack. It is also filled with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This chemical lines the bags to keep the oils from escaping. It is also used in non-stick coatings and stain-resistant carpets. PFOA mimics hormones and has been linked to infertility, thyroid disorders, immune problems, high cholesterol, and cancer. It isn’t the only problem with microwaved popcorn though, which also contains diacetyl, a chemical butter flavoring that causes lung damage.
The Answer – The good news is that popcorn, when cooked correctly, is a low calorie, healthy snack that is also GMO free. It comes from a different seed type than the GMO corn that is everywhere now. Make it the old fashioned way with coconut oil in a skillet with plenty of movement or with an air popper. You can even make it in the microwave, if you must, using a brown paper bag. Simply pour half a cup of popcorn kernels in, fold down the top a few times, and put them in for a minute and a half. Toss them with dried herbs and a little olive oil for a better seasoning than a ton of butter and salt. I like coconut oil, lime, thyme, and a little Himalayan sea salt on mine.
8. Salt – Salt is an essential nutrient and we cannot live without it, but there are better, more flavorful, versions than that highly processed stuff you find in most people’s pantries, countertops, and prepackaged food. Processed salt is devoid of the minerals nature originally gave it. Most of us also get way too much salt in all the processed foods we eat.
The Answer – Ditch the processed stuff for the natural sea salt. Himalayan sea salt is a great option. So is Celtic salt. There are even ancient mines in Utah that produce a pink salt similar to the Himalayan. Avoid processed foods and try adding a dash of good salt just before you eat it rather than mixing it in before. This lets your taste buds get a stronger hit of flavor, so you use less. Iodine is a concern though. You want to make sure you are still getting enough of this mineral too. Try adding more sea vegetables to your diet.
9. Non Organic (Certain Ones) – Every year the Environmental Working Group releases a list of the best and worst fruits and vegetables when it comes to pesticides. Potatoes, apples, spinach, and strawberries are four that many of us eat often that made the list of the worst offenders. These are covered in pesticides, many of which are known to be harmful to humans.
The Answer – Read the list and pick up organic versions of the worst ones. Feel free to use non-organic when it comes to the cleanest, but wash them thoroughly.
10. Soy – Soy is not the health food people once thought it was. Most soy in the U.S. is genetically modified, heavily treated with pesticides, and wasn’t really all that healthy before GMOs became more common. Soy contains phytoestrogens that mimic human hormones and interfere with our natural balance. It is also considered a common allergen, causing allergic reactions in many people, especially children.
The Answer – Organic, fermented soy products like tempeh and miso are far healthier as many of the allergens and phytoestrogens are broken down during fermentation. For vegetarian or vegan protein powders, there are other options like brown rice, pea, and hemp seed proteins. Many of these provide even better amino acid profiles than soy without the same risks. Vegetable proteins have also been shown to be as effective as animal protein when it comes to building muscle and recovery. Warrior Blend and Classic Protein both avoid the problems of both soy and whey.