Saturday, September 22, 2012

What's in Your Food?

A mother recently approached me and asked if I would be willing to talk to her son regarding his newly adopted dietary beliefs.  The mother was concerned that he may be adopting an extreme way of eating and that this approach may lead to deficiencies in his diet.

This young man while doing research on a paper about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), developed awareness of the potential damage they can do to human health and the environment.

While the topic of GMO warrants an entire article on it’s own, in a nutshell genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) are foods derived from genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified organisms have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques.  The idea behind these engineered crops was to improve yields and make them more resistant to drought, pests and weeds all while reducing the need for chemical use in agriculture.  However, plenty of research has shown that virtually all of these claims have not materialized, while serious risks and consequences, including herbicide-resistant super weeds, super pests, uncontrollable cross-contamination and health problems from GMO foods, have emerged.  I will touch on GMO foods again at the end of this article.

With his new knowledge this young man is turned off to the domestic food industry in the United States.   He has chosen to adopt a raw-vegan lifestyle, in brief summary this consists of plant-based foods that aren’t processed or cooked beyond 105-115 degrees.  Think lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and sprouted grains.  I could have told this young man that he was wrong and that this way of fueling his body was going to lead to trouble but I choose a more constructive rout.

What usually happens when we tell a young adult that they are wrong and that we know better?  They usually resent our attitude and rebel; they are gong to do what they want to do regardless of what we think.  Instead I respected his decision and asked if he would like some tips for eating in this way.  When he accepted my invitation it allowed me to give him some advice that he was open to.  I told him that if you choose to eat in this way there are certain steps that must be taken to ensure adequate and balanced nutritional intake.

This young man is 19/20 years of age and is very active, it’s important that he eats enough food to maintain his energy and health.  Without protein and fats from animal based foods he would have to be prepared to obtain these essential nutrients from other sources.  I advised that he should make certain that he was consuming foods like nuts, seeds, beans, quinoa, brown rice, peas, avocado, and coconut (just to name a few) to ensure he was getting the protein and fats that are required for his system to function properly.

At this point he hasn’t closed the door on me and may be open to more advice in the future.  This will allow me to slowly provide information that he can use and make informed decisions going forward with this lifestyle choice. 

This situation also brings to mind the often times unhealthy relationship our society has with body image and ultimately the food that we eat or choose not to eat.  The term obesity is so prevalent in our society right now and it’s not exactly a flattering term to have associated with any child.  I taught a class last year with third-fifth graders and when I asked why they liked to exercise more than a few yelled out “because I don’t want to be obese!”  That was a real eye opener and it demonstrated that kids are aware of what that means and it’s negative associations.  BMI is another term (along with obesity) that needs to be confined to the laboratory and research papers largely because it’s meaningless and often misinterpreted by kids that don’t need to hear it.   Terms don’t solve anything but behaviors do.  We need to educate kids on healthy eating and exercise behaviors and that should be the focus of our interventions not measuring their waistlines.

According to new study from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, cases of childhood eating disorders are on the rise. An article from CNN reported that findings show hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of 12 have increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.

Just a few of the effects of eating disorders include extreme weight loss, low energy levels, low iron counts, and hair loss. These are signs more and more dietitians are seeing in children coming into their offices. [1]

The above examples are an excellent talking point because children and young adults are still developing their belief systems and when they consistently hear about how terrible the modern food industry is or the youth obesity epidemic they don’t want to eat any type of meat or drink milk because they think it’s full of chemicals or will make them “fat.”  Sadly some of their fears may be warranted because most of the conventional crops, meats and dairy sold at the grocery store are sprayed or pumped full of chemicals and those foods should be avoided.

However, as leaders of young people we need to inform them that animal products raised humanely on small family farms are not only good for our health when we eat them but it is also sustainable and healthy for the environment as well.  A great way to do this is by visiting the farmers market and developing relationships with the men and women that provide our food.  Most farmers love to interact with their customers and are even open to tours of their farms.

This is a tremendous strategy for kids to build an appreciation and healthy relationship with food.


I wanted to briefly touch on the topic of GMO foods again because they are the subject of an intense political fight in the state of California and the results of this battle could resonate throughout the entire country.

Proponents in California want to place a proposition on their November ballot that would require all foods that contain GMO foods be labeled, as it is not currently required throughout the country.  Heavyweights in the food industry are pushing back against the proposed legislation with millions of dollars in donations from their supporters, some of who may surprise you.

The requirement that manufacturers have to label what is actually in their products seems like a no-brainer but a lot is at stake because many of the players in the food industry would be exposed for putting this “stuff” in their products and the fallout could result in a steep loss of profits and credibility.  The fact that California is the 8th largest economy in the world is the reason it will likely affect labeling nation-wide, as large companies are not likely going to label their products as genetically engineered when sold in California, but not when sold in other states. Doing so would be a PR disaster.

It’s also important to note that if and until GE foods are labeled, your BEST strategy is to simply buy USDA certified 100% Organic products whenever possible, as these do not permit genetically engineered ingredients, or buy whole fresh produce and meat from local farmers.

For a chart showing the supporters of the California legislation and their opponents look below:


This guide can help you identify and avoid foods with GMO:

Phil Loomis
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist


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