Eat safe — six simple ways to enhance the quality of your food
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
It’s hard to miss the food headlines these days — E. coli on
our spinach and now salmonella in tomatoes and jalapeños. I’m always telling
my patients to eat fresh veggies, but with press like this it’s no wonder
women are frustrated! I read a quote the other day from a former FDA official who
said that “produce is produced in a very complicated system... making it very,
very difficult to trace a given tomato back to its source.”
Since when did growing and selling vegetables become so complicated? Not to mention
the antibiotics and hormones in our eggs, beef and chicken, or the mercury in our
fish. Believe me, I know it can be overwhelming to decide what to eat. It’s
sometimes enough to throw your hands up in defeat. But please don’t give up
— there are ways to navigate through these complicated everyday food choices.
And many times the answers come by simply following your instincts.
With simple choices you can lessen the burden of contaminated food on your system
or avoid it altogether. And it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune in organic
groceries. Let’s take a look at six easy choices that can enhance the quality
of your food and get you back to nourishing your body without worry.
1. Know where your food is coming from — the closer to home, the better.
In a perfect world, we could all grow our own vegetables and raise our own animals
in the best of conditions. But the reality for many women is that life is too complicated
to start and tend a garden, let alone raise our own cattle or chickens!
Pesticide residues in common fruits and vegetables
Pesticide amounts vary from one vegetable to the next. Here’s an alphabetical
list of items that are consistently highest and lowest.
High pesticide produce:
- Bell peppers (sweet)
- Grapes (imported)
Low pesticide produce:
- Corn (sweet)
- Peas (sweet)
*Adapted from data gathered by the Environmental Working Group.
So if you can’t get food in your own back yard, the next best thing is your
local farmers market. Vegetables grown locally do not have to sit on trucks for
days on end or change as many hands. Nor do they endure the factory-like growing
conditions now standard on industrial farms. Local farms are often smaller and can
tend to their crops in a way that is impossible on large industrial farms. Not to
mention the fact that local veggies are also fresher and may be more inexpensive
because they don’t have to travel very far. Just remember to ask if their
crops have been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
The same goes for your meat. Buying from a nearby farm or getting to know your butcher
at the grocery store to ask where your meat is coming from will give you the chance
to ask about the health of your chicken, beef, or other meat before you buy it.
I’ve found that my patients who ask questions about the history of their food
tend to make healthier choices. In this case, knowledge is not only power, but it’s
2. Learn which vegetables are high and low in pesticides.
Anyone who’s ever planted a garden or just grown a few sprigs of basil on
the kitchen windowsill knows that bugs like our veggies as much as we do, and it
takes careful tending to keep them away. So it’s not surprising that pesticides
are so commonly used on larger farms. It’s much easier for large industrial
farms to spray than to strategically plant marigolds, or purchase ladybugs to keep
Thankfully, there are some crops that don’t need as much protection from pests,
and these are the ones you might consider buying conventionally grown rather than
organic — especially if your budget is tight (see the list at right). And
for those vegetables that are highest in pesticides, choosing organic or locally
grown options will lessen the chemical burden on your system.
My patients have also found produce washes or soaks helpful in removing excess pesticides,
bacteria or residue from their fruits and vegetables. Here are some easy recipes
we ourselves use at the clinic:
- 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of baking soda
- 1 cup of water
Put all the ingredients into a spray bottle and shake gently to mix. Be careful
because the mix may foam up. Spray on veggies and fruit and allow it to sit for
2-5 minutes, then rinse produce under cold water. Keep the spray refrigerated when
not using it. It will stay fresh for about a week.
Fill a clean sink or bowl with water. Add ½–1 cup of white vinegar and 1 tablespoon
of salt. Swish the mixture around with your hands. Allow your produce to soak for
20 minutes, then rinse well when finished.
3. Choose fish low on the food chain.
Your seafood choices make a difference
Here is some seafood shown to have relatively low mercury and/or PCB levels, along
with some seafood that is usually best to avoid. Keep in mind that information on
mercury contamination in seafood can change depending on the agency collecting the
research. And this is by no means an exhaustive list! For more healthy seafood options
and recipes, visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s page on eco-best fish.*
Good seafood choices
- Farmed arctic char
- Atlantic mackerel
- Farmed oysters
- Wild Alaskan salmon
- Pacific sardines (US)
- Farmed rainbow trout
Seafood to avoid
- Chilean sea bass
- Farmed Atlantic salmon
- Orange roughy
- Swordfish (imported)
- Bluefin & yellowfin tuna
- Canned albacore
* Adapted from data collected by the Environmental Defense Fund.
A few years ago I had a patient come to see me from New York. She was experiencing
memory problems, fatigue, hormonal imbalance, and, on top of all this, her hair
was falling out. She was devastated, and the doctors she’d been seeing couldn’t
figure out what was wrong. During one of our conversations she told me she was eating
canned tuna every day. I decided to test her for heavy metals and found that her
mercury levels were extremely high. Once we got her off of tuna and limited her
exposure to other mercury sources, her hair grew back and many of her health problems
While this was an extreme case, and we cannot say for sure that tuna was the source
of her problems, the sad reality is that in today’s world, eating tuna daily
can pose a hazard to your health.
Most women know that fish is low in saturated fats, high in
omega-3 fatty acids, and generally a great choice when it comes to healthy
protein. The down side to seafood is mercury and PCBs — as well as the general
sustainability of our fisheries industry! Because of industrial and municipal discharge,
stormwater runoff, and modern farming practices, contaminants like mercury and PCB’s
are entering our oceans, lakes and rivers, and in a process called biomagnification,
building up in fish.
Mercury (specifically, methylmercury) binds to protein, so it can be found
throughout fish tissue, while PCB’s tend to build up largely in fatty tissue.
Nowadays, most fish has some mercury in it. But the good news is that you can limit
the amount in your system by eating fish low on the food chain and by limiting how
much fish you eat per month. Smaller species, with their shorter life cycles, and
those that feed off of the “bottom” of the ocean don’t accumulate
as much mercury in the short amount of time that larger predatory fish can. So it’s
wise to eat fish like sardines and catfish rather than swordfish and sea bass, for
example. Take a look at the chart above for healthy seafood options.
You probably noticed that I haven’t included shrimp in the chart above. This
is because depending on where it comes from, shrimp can be a really good choice
or a seafood choice to avoid. The best choices for shrimp are US farmed shrimp,
spot prawns from Canada and Oregon pink shrimp (small cocktail shrimp). The problem
is, 90% of the shrimp eaten in this country is imported from Southeast Asia and
Latin America, where environmental regulations aren’t as stringent. And this
imported shrimp can be high in contaminants. Middle-of-the-road choices include
northern shrimp from the US and Canada, spot prawn from the US, and wild shrimp
from the US. As for scallops, good options are farmed bay scallops or sea scallops
from New England and Canada. Avoid sea scallops from the Mid-Atlantic. Also be sure
to check with your fish market to make sure the scallops you’re buying are
indeed scallops and not skate. To maximize profits and avoid the rubbery texture,
some markets are selling skate in place of scallops.
There are better choices than others when it comes to canned tuna as well. Since
albacore (or white tuna) is much larger in size than chunk light tuna (consisting
of the smaller skipjack), it accumulates mercury faster. Albacore tuna eat other
large fish, which have consumed smaller fish as well, so the contaminants can add
up quickly. If you’re making a decision in the grocery store, choose the chunk
light instead of albacore. It’s lower in mercury — and less
4. Enhance your gut flora with healthy bacteria.
Another way to prevent contaminated food from making you sick is by working with
your body’s innate defenses. From our earliest days following birth, we each
acquire a complement of organisms that quietly cohabit nearly every crack and crevice
of our bodies, especially our digestive systems. These tiny guests pay us back by
helping our bodies with digestion, metabolism, detoxification, and our immune response.
We can in turn boost their function by taking probiotic supplements — and
having a good source of probiotics on board is always a good idea when concerned
about contaminated food or enhancing your nutrition.
Many of my patients have had success with a high-quality probiotic blend like the
one we offer in the Personal Program. Research shows this a great way to support
a healthy gut and a strong immune system. You might also consider adding more naturally
fermented foods to your diet, like yogurt, kefir, homemade pickles or “natural”
sauerkraut, kimchee or even natto. These foods are recognized
in other cultures as essential to strong digestion — and longevity.
I recently read about a related controversy surrounding this topic in a fascinating
article in Harper’s on raw milk. This details the question as to
whether pasteurizing milk, that is, heating it to 161°F to kill its bacterial content
— is a health measure that is doing us more harm than good. Some scientists
are hypothesizing that we may even have become so “sanitary” about our
food that we lack the biological immune defenses that milk’s natural bacterial
content afforded us in the past. Obviously, this is a highly controversial subject,
and raw milk is illegal in many states. Yet many believe it can be a wonderful health
food when obtained from a farm where cows are well cared for, allowed to eat grass
instead of grain, and graze naturally.
Thankfully, there are many simple ways for us to accumulate healthy bacteria, and
in the end they can protect you from more harmful bacteria and toxins that may enter
5. Be generous with antioxidants.
You’ve probably heard that
antioxidants prevent aging and cellular damage, but many of my patients
don’t realize that they can also help get rid of toxins and boost immune function.
Antioxidants protect us from the molecules called free radicals becoming overzealous,
where they can do damage to cells and lead to disease. Free radicals appear in the
body whenever there is an oxidation going on, which includes many natural, everyday
body processes like breaking down foods, but also when we’re exposed to environmental
Sulfides, or thiols, are a group of antioxidants that may enhance our ability
to detoxify harmful compounds in the body , lessening the burden from potential
pesticides or mercury in food. Foods rich in sulfides include garlic, onions, scallions,
broccoli, cabbage, bok choy and collards. Try a stir-fry or a simple nourishing
soup made with kale, onions, and chicken broth. Sliced thin and cooked down in chicken
broth, kale loses its bitter flavor and makes a great antioxidant-rich meal. You
can also add soy milk, cream or butter, and put it in the blender to make a creamier
texture. I fed this to my kids when they were younger and they ate it happily.
Simply adding antioxidants to your diet will not only help rid your body of the
harmful heavy metals or chemicals we can consume in our food, but it will also help
preserve the body’s ability to fight off bacteria like E. coli or
salmonella if we are exposed to a bad tomato every now and again.
6. Finally — savor your meals!
This may be the most important choice on the list. And it’s one we often forget
to do with our busy schedules and overwhelming responsibilities. In many countries
around the world, people sit down together to eat. They enjoy their food with family
and friends in a comfortable space, without talking on their cell phones, trying
to drive, or eating next to their computers at work. In the rush of day-to-day activities,
we often forget that eating is a pleasure, a time to sit and relax, to indulge our
senses and feed our bodies.
Relaxing while eating might not prevent you from getting salmonella poisoning or
inactivate the pesticides that may have been sprayed on your lettuce, but it will
lower your stress and allow your immune system to better serve and protect you in
the long run.
The purpose of this list is not for you to take every word and follow it exactly
every day — you’ll drive yourself crazy! — but my hope is for
you to stay aware of what you’re eating, and to make small but smart choices
wherever you can that can make all the difference to your health.
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home
version of what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at
1-800-798-7902. We're here to listen and help.
Related to this article:
References & further reading on food safety
Last Modified Date: 04/20/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP