Eating right and living a healthy life seems to be more confusing than ever. As different ideological warriors battle it out on the internet, it can be very difficult for someone to know what to believe. Should you cleanse your gut with a juice fast or steer clear of GMO’s? Stock up on those Superfoods? Or is it all marketing and buzzwords?
As “Food Babe” and “Science Babe” duke it out on social media, Columbia University contemplates dropping Dr. Oz, and Kraft opts to remove artificial dye from their classic blue box of macaroni and cheese, food and nutrition and “wellness” is currently big news. McDonalds has announced major changes in the fast food restaurant business plan, seeking to eliminate antibiotic-treated chicken and milk from cows treated with growth hormones. Is food safety actually getting better, or is there a growing amount of hysteria and hype? How can we cut through the hype and get to the reality of what is really healthy?
I recently had a conversation about these questions with Dr. Zara C. Rowlands, Department of Human Ecology Chairperson at Youngstown State University and Registered Dietician since 1995. Dr. Rowlands has studied Human Food and Nutrition, Nutritional Sciences, and Dietetics and Nutrition for over 25 years. Here is what she had to say.
Elizabeth Lehman: There seems to be a growing amount of concern about wellness and what people are eating. How much of it are legitimate concerns and how much of it is hype?
Zara Rowlands: Oh, there’s a legitimate reason to be concerned about the diet and wellness because there is so much evidence that food relates to more than just physical wellness but also mental abilities, feelings of wellness itself; endorphins that we produce in response to certain foods that we eat, neurotransmitters that are affected as well. So there’s a legitimate reason for considering diet to be an important part of wellness.
EL: How are we able to sort through what is valid and what is not?
ZR: It’s about looking at who is putting this information out there – if they have an agenda or if they are actually qualified to be able to offer expert advice on the foods that we are eating. Sometimes the internet is one of the bigger sources of information for the “man on the street” and anyone really can put what they want to on the internet. There is nothing that says you actually have to have any license or that you have to have any qualifications. There are so many people that look at their own personal life experiences and their own interpretation of their own personal experiences and then they put it out there as if it’s a cure-all for everyone else, and that’s not the reality. It should be from credible sources. It should be from somebody whose profession it is to do physical, medical, and nutrition counseling.
EL: So, how about Food Babe?
EL: They say she is one of the most popular voices on the internet about nutrition. Are additives and preservatives really going to give us cancer?
ZR: Well, you see with a lot of these so-called “warriors” is that they really don’t have “health literacy”. They read information and they interpret it with the limited knowledge that they have on what it really involves and what the content is, and they come to these conclusions and then they shout them. If somebody is whispering to you about what is sensible and what’s true, you don’t always hear them because there is somebody else, shouting, “This is a miracle!” and that this is a cure and the “magic bullet,” and this is going to cure everything for you. And that’s what her followers are falling for. They are thinking, “Well, she is really beautiful so she must know what she’s talking about.” Most of it is genetics. She probably did not earn how she looks. So, with her telling you, “You can have perfect skin, and you can have a perfect body,” just do what she did, is not necessarily going to work for you. You have different genetics, a whole different experience. There is the nature versus nurture argument always, in terms of body image, size, and shape. You can’t really fight your genetics. You can make healthy decisions that will make your genes do their best, but there are some things that are we are just genetically predisposed to and we can’t really get around them. We see this a lot with diseases. If you have the genes that will predispose you to cystic fibrosis, you can eat as healthy as you want – you’re going to have cystic fibrosis. And it’s the same genes that say, “You’re going to have a big butt.” If you have extra calories, you will see people who don’t gain weight all over. They will gain weight on their bottom half, or they will gain weight in just the tummy section. Those are genetic predispositions. So, it’s not always possible to achieve perfection. And you sometimes have to take with a grain of salt what these so-called “warriors” are telling you because it’s not always fact-based. And, face it, facts are boring sometimes. And it’s not going to happen overnight, if you change your diet, it’s not going to happen overnight, you are going to see miraculous changes. You’re going to see it over time, and that’s what most people don’t want. They want the “magic bullet”.
EL: A lot of companies are starting to change the way they do things. McDonald’s just announce they are going to stop serving chicken treated with human antibiotics and they are going to stop using milk treated with the growth hormone rbST. Is this really necessary?
ZR: Yes. There are some things that companies do because they want to preserve their good image, and these are some issues that really have an effect on human health. If you are overusing antibiotics, you know that it breeds organisms that are resistant to the current methods of treating them. So there are reasons for making changes like that, good reasons for it. You know, if you can have a food that is naturally grown without pesticides and other things that can have an ill effect, then it’s always a better option. But sometimes, growing things without antibiotics or growing things without pesticides means you can put the population at risk. So, there is no one answer. It’s about making the best decision in that situation. Sometimes there is a good decision and sometimes it’s that someone is shouting so loud, they think it’s going to give them a better image if they make these changes.
EL: Are GMO’s really dangerous?
ZR: No – that’s the thing. It’s, again, not 100% dangerous nor is it 100% safe. There are situations where GMO’s … we’ve been eating GMO’s forever. And some of those GMO foods were brought about to increase crop yields, which is a good thing – if you have crop shortages, you want a better crop yield. You want foods or plants that are resistant to pests. You want plants that are going to grow faster. All of those are GMO initiatives. But when they start inserting genes into tomatoes, into things, genes that really don’t come from plants and animals, like a fish gene, then you might have some basis for concern. But there’s so much –the corn that we eat now bears no resemblance to the original corn. But the original corn was very hard to grow; the corn kernels were irregular, the texture of it was just mostly animal feed quality. So, there are some good things about GMO’s that you don’t hear about at all. You don’t hear about rice that now has a vitamin, a naturally good source of vitamin A in a food that didn’t. In a population where rice is a big part of their diet, and they don’t have good nutrient quality, then why not? Why not have vitamin A available to them?
EL: So it is not 100% good or bad – it’s a spectrum?
ZR: It’s a rule of nature – nothing is 100% good, nothing is 100% bad, but you need to be educated on where it’s appropriate and where it is not. And that’s the problem. These “warriors” who are out there spouting off that all GMO’s are bad and need to be labeled and they don’t understand that there’s a whole backstory to it. If you have to label everything that’s GMO, then you put the burden on the growers, so that’s going to drive food costs up tremendously for nothing sometimes. For no reason.
EL: So, with Kraft macaroni and cheese taking out the yellow dye, what’s that about? Is that stuff bad?
ZR: That’s, again, the trend of certain people considering it a bad thing, and they make so much noise that the food company then decides they’re going to eliminate it. But, you know, a lot of yellow dye is actually carotenoids – it’s a precursor of vitamin A. Would you say, “Don’t eat vitamin A, or don’t eat foods that have vitamin A added to them”? And if you think about the diet of children, they are so picky and they have these jogs that they go on where they only eat one food, and macaroni and cheese is one of those foods. And how do you make it? You put milk in it, and you make that sauce with that carotenoid color in it, and they like it. So what’s wrong with that?
EL: OK, so, juice fasts… do they really cleanse toxins, are they at all helpful?
ZR: No. That’s the problem – we have a liver and we have kidneys. Those are the organs where their job is to detoxify you. So, your gut – if you use those juice fasts, sometimes the way they work is they give you diarrhea. And I don’t know that diarrhea is a good thing, because it dehydrates you. And these juice fasts; they really do nothing for you. Your gut replenishes itself every two to three days, so it’s not a lasting thing. It’s not like you do this juice fast and say, oh, I’m good for two years, or I’m good for five years. It’s not going to have that much of an effect you; it’s just probably going to dehydrate you from the diarrhea. And the thing is with fasts is they’re not good for everybody. If you have certain chronic diseases, fasting is not a good recommendation for you.
EL: So you want to at least check with your doctor if you’re going to do it?
ZR: Yeah. And if your liver is functioning well, and your kidneys are functioning well, you don’t need any cleansing other than that.
ER: So what can people do if they really want to “eat clean” and be healthy?
ZR: Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s genetic, which foods are really beneficial to you and what are not. Look at different parts of the world, there are some people who can eat whatever they want to and their weight never fluctuates, people who can at as much saturated fat as they want and their blood cholesterol never goes up. Some of it’s genetic, but, again, if you want to eat healthy, a diet that is heavily plant-based with some good high protein sources is usually a better diet. So, “clean eating,” that’s another term that really has no legal definition. What does clean mean? Does it mean you don’t pick food up off the floor? The way it’s interpreted sometimes is having a lower impact on the environment. Or there is this “whole foods” movement. And all these things are fashion terms – fashionable “in” things that make you seem cooler than the rest of them. But there’s no real definition for them. You look at marketing terms – they say “superfood.” There’s no superfood. There are foods that have nice amounts of certain nutrients, but even that you could actually over-do. And then it would not be good for you.