Food Fear Factor: What Foods Are You Afraid Of?

No, this is not a discussion about eating worms or bugs or balut or any of the other less-than-savory things they ate on that show that I never watched. I’m talking about the food myths that have become mainstream “knowledge” and have catapulted the sale of some dubious health and diet books, many of which have thankfully faded into near oblivion. Think T-Factor Diet. Or Atkins for Life.

For many people, food and nutrition are a challenging matter and regrettably, some of the falsehoods touted in these bestsellers have been hardwired to the point that it’s difficult for some folks to believe that indeed, eating dietary fats or carbohydrates is a part of a healthy diet. Nor will they, if chosen correctly, increase your waistline.

According to Marc David, visionary health and nutrition consultant and author of The Slow Down Diet and Nourishing Wisdom, “We’ve looked into the science of nutrition to lead us into the promised land of milk and honey, but upon arrival we’ve been told ‘don’t drink the milk’ and ‘don’t eat the honey’”. It’s a war out there. It’s us against our desires, against our bodies, and against red meat or whatever sinful foods the media is telling us to forego today.

So, have any of these been on your whole foods hit list?

1. Carbohydrates
Probably the most misunderstood macronutrient, carbohydrates are the brain’s fuel. That’s why so many Atkins devotees reported feeling spaced out and forgetful when following this high protein diet. The key is to choose plenty of complex carbohydrates found in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole, unprocessed grains.

Where we’ve really tripped up is in the over-consumption of highly refined, processed carbohydrates found in mainstream bagels, pasta, scones, and the like. These are comprised of simple carbohydrates (i.e. white sugar and refined white flour, stripped of any nutritional integrity), that break down very rapidly and go straight to our bloodstream, causing our blood sugar to spike and then plummet due to a surge in insulin. With this blood sugar crash comes what I call “the pit,” a dip in energy and crazy hunger that make you reach for another donut before lunch. Stay away from the white stuff!

Alternately, complex carbohydrates don’t make a mad dash for your bloodstream and save you from the blood-sugar roller coaster. They take longer to digest and dole our their energy-giving over a period of time. Maintaining a steady blood sugar level is key to warding off insulin resistance syndrome, which can be the precursor to obesity and diabetes.

When it comes to grains, many people have, thanks to fads such as the Atkins Diet, thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Refined white flour is what causes trouble; rest assured that whole grain heroes such as quinoa, spelt, millet, barley, and amaranth (and their flours) provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals and won’t leave you melted in a pool of low blood sugar.

2. Red Meat
Hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef is condensed nutrition, plain and simple. It’s an excellent source of magnesium and zinc, is rich in B12 vitamins, and many have reported improved health and vitality after introducing (or reintroducing) this strength-building protein into their diet. To quote a friend who I encouraged to start eating grass-fed beef, “It really put a spark in my get-along!”

Regrettably, anti-saturated fat propaganda has been successful in dissuading people from eating red meat. What these propaganda-mongers have failed to communicate (or don’t understand themselves) is that red meat is not only composed of saturated fat (which isn’t a bad thing, see below) but also contained essential fatty acids, upon which virtually all of our body’s systems rely and which protect us from diseases including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

I’d like to stress the word "grass-fed." With the proliferation of recent films such as Fresh and Food, Inc., and Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, my sincere hope is that more people understand the dangers of eating corn-fed beef. For the most part, the idyllic farms of yore have been replaced with large feedlots and confinement facilities where cows are fed diets they would never eat if they were pasture-raised. This can lead to a plethora of problems, including acidosis and high levels of E. coli. (Read more about the benefits of grass-fed red meat in my article "Have You Herd?")

3. Fat
You have to eat fat to burn fat. If we eliminate or greatly reduce fat, our bodies ramp down into a famine state where metabolism comes to a slow crawl and think, “Whoa, I’m not getting any fat, so I better store what I have.” It’s true.

Fat is a wonderful source of energy, and this is why our bodies are designed to store it easily. It is what helps us feel full and satisfied. Without it, there is no real feeling of satiation, and before we know it, we’ve eaten that whole box of SnackWells, along with about 800 calories and a host of highly processed non-nutrients. And on go the pounds.

Just as with carbohydrates, it’s important to know the good from the bad. There are two kinds of natural fats: saturated and non-saturated. Saturated fats are solid fats found in milk, cheese, meat, lard and tropical oils such as palm kernel and coconut. Non-saturated fats are found in vegetable, fish, nut and seed oils and are divided into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocados, cashews, almonds, peanuts and canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, vegetable oils (corn, sesame, sunflower and safflower) and botanicals (evening primrose and borage).

The real villain here is trans fat, an unnatural vegetable fat from hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils such as vegetable shortening, margarine and soybean oil. Natural vegetable oil has many nutrients, but the high temperatures required to convert it into these nasty non-foods destroy them and create trans fat. What is shocking is that the molecular structure of most trans fat is one molecule away from being plastic. Don’t eat it! (Read more about the benefits of dietary fat in my article I Hope You Get Fat.)

4. Cholesterol
Cholesterol is not the major culprit in heart disease. And saturated fat does not raise cholesterol levels. I know, it’s shocking. These theories have been proven for decades, but mainstream medicine continues to heavily promote low-fat diets and the multi-billion dollar statin drug industry.

Statins can come with a host of serious side effects and they block the enzyme the liver needs to produce cholesterol naturally, leaving you deficient in enzymes, CoQ10, and vitamin D. What’s almost worse is that they incite a sense of false security. Millions of Americans are taking statins, but the number of people suffering from heart attacks and heart disease is undoubtedly on the rise. (If you’re taking statins and are interested in another perspective, please study the research of Dr. Joseph Mercola. And please, always consult your physician before reducing or discontinuing any prescribed medications.)

According to Mary Enig, Ph.D. and nutritionist and biochemist internationally renown for her research on the nutritional aspects of fats and oils, “Cholesterol acts as a precursor to vital corticosteroids, hormones that help us deal with stress and protect the body against heart disease and cancer; and to the sex hormones like androgen, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. Cholesterol is a precursor to vitamin D, a very important fat-soluble vitamin needed for healthy bones and nervous system, proper growth, mineral metabolism, muscle tone, insulin production, reproduction and immune system function.”

As with all degenerative conditions, the problem lies in chronic inflammation due to poor dietary habits, stress, inadequate exercise, and exposure to toxins. Cholesterol is produced when cells become damaged and indeed, inspection of the arteries of someone at risk for a heart attack shows cholesterol and plaque buildup.  Cholesterol will only remain in the artery if damage is present. So you see, it’s the response to chronic inflammation that has given cholesterol its bad name. To learn more about the cholesterol racket: Busting the Cholesterol Myth

5. Salt
While you’d be hard-pressed to under-consume salt, given that we can get by with as little as 500 milligrams of sodium per day, adding it to the pot isn’t necessarily risky. “Salt in the cooking water reduces the leaching of nutrients from vegetables into the water. It also speeds up the cooking process so you don’t lose as many nutrients from overcooking,” states Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking.

The National Salt Reduction Initiative, launched in New York City in January, aims to reduce salt levels in restaurant and packaged foods. In general, this is a good thing, as sodium is a potential problem even for those of us who don’t have hypertension. Nevertheless, reducing salt intake does affect blood pressure for some people, but for many others it doesn't. It may be a problem for a core group, but not everyone.

Yet this isn’t an invitation to shake freely, as excessive salt intake is linked to osteoporosis. The good news is that, if you’ve undergone a salt binge, it’s possible to release it quickly. A good workout, plenty of water, a sauna, and potassium-rich foods all help to give sodium the heave-ho.

Enjoy Real Food Without Guilt
I believe undoubtedly that it’s difficult to head down a path of ill health and obesity if the majority of our diet comes from whole, natural, unprocessed foods, including animal proteins and naturally-occurring fats. And yes, you can have those morning (whole-grain) muffins! So please, rid yourself of any guilt from eating these once-forbidden foods. Thou shalt not subsist on twigs and tofu.


Jill Grunewald is a Minneapolis-based Certified Holistic Health Counselor, health writer, and passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture. After fumbling through a career in architecture, she graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2006. Her practice, Healthful Elements, focuses on bio-individual health and whole-foods therapy, with specialization in the endocrine system and hormones, particularly thyroid and adrenal health. She loves tractors, Frye boots, her Mom’s pie, classical piano, bluegrass, mid-century furniture, tea, co-ops, great design, clean sheets, and bacon.