Environmental Dangers: Social and Political Influences and Diet

When we are dealing with disease, it is very safe to say diet plays a big role.  Whether that be in how we got sick or how we get and stay healthy again, a healthy diet is synonymous with a healthy body.  Therefore, especially when we have a scare, we may be inclined to make changes to our dietary intake.  Being bombarded with information on diets, supporting ‘proof’ of their effectiveness and health benefits can be incredibly overwhelming.  If it’s on the internet, or commercials on tv or the radio, they must be legit…right?!

For me personally, diet has always been very much related to my body image.  I spent the majority of my teenage and adult life wanting to be 5 pounds lighter (no matter what my weight).  Usually achieving this periodic weight loss was associated with liquid diets.  In the last year, my personal views of health and dieting has changed quite drastically.  Instead of striving for weight loss, my focus has turned to overall body functioning and long term health.  This shift set me on a path of researching dieting history and current diet options.  This has certainly spiralled into a variety of other health related concerns which I also continue to research, such as food quality.  I will touch on this topic in this article and will delve deeper into it in my next article.

It is no surprise that people have been looking for options to be healthier, thinner, more muscular for as long at their is recorded history.  Ironically, it seems there were countless solutions created for problems that simply didn’t even exist (then).  There have been hundreds of fad diets that have been launched over the last 100+ years.  You may have heard of some of the crazier ones.  Maybe the most wild is the Tapeworm Diet.  By swallowing a tapeworm a person could consume more and still lose weight as the tapeworm would eat away at whatever the host ate resulting in weight loss.  Eventually, the host would take a pill to expel the parasite.  Bathing in arsenic or drinking carbon were also Victorian fads from the early 1900s intended to dissolve fat or reduce weight.  Suffice it to say, many people died as a result of either administering these ‘solutions’ or trying to correct them.  Then there was the ‘Fletcherizing‘ diet which was coined by Horace Fletcher in the late 1800s – early 1900s that stated chewing your food 32 times then splitting it out would allow your body to absorb the necessary nutrients without gaining any weight.  Essentially, this was a primitive version of juicing.  Surprisingly, this diet was quite popular among some prominent members of society.  In 1964, Robert Cameron wrote a book titled ‘The Drinking Man’s Diet’ which boasted that people could still eat steak and drink beer and lose weight.  It is one of the very first versions of the low-carb diet.  Astonishingly, at 94 years old, Cameron reissued the book in 2004 and it is still available for purchase on Amazon.  With the exception of the tapeworm diet, there have been several iterations of the Fletcher and Drinking Man’s diet since they originally launched.

Today we have such diets as the snake diet which basically believes that the human body is built to endure periods of food scarcity, and therefore, we shouldn’t consume food regularly as it disrupts the bodies ability to use stored energy.  The fasting period lasts for several days at a time and the only thing consumed during this time is ‘Snake Juice’ which is an electrolyte drink that can easily be made at home using sugar and salt.  The keto diet is also a popular one.  Keto theorizes significant weight loss by achieving a ‘ketogenic’ state, forcing the body to use fat instead of carbs (sugar) as energy.  This is the modern day version of the earlier Drinking Man’s Diet.  Marvin watched a Netflix Original called ‘The Magic Pill’ while I was admitted in the hospital.  I couldn’t watch it then.  I was just too close to darkness to watch it.  He insisted we watch it together a couple months later.  Essentially, the documentary follows a family who has a history of health issues.  The whole family; a mother and father, their 3 children (one of whom has autism) and the mothers mother, are paired up with diet experts who help the family rid their homes of foods that are processed, high in carbs and sugar and then replace them with whole foods consisting of high fat and low carbs.  Digging into this, I learned that keto is based in hunter/gatherer mentality when people basically lived on two things – what comes out of the ground and what could be killed and consumed.  In times when food was not so plentiful people didn’t really have the option of a top sirloin or a cut of filet mignon.  They ate what they could find, including fat.  In theory, this makes total sense and so we started modifying our grocery shopping list and cooking to include higher fats, less processed foods and lower carbs.  The effect of the keto diet on the family from the film was astounding.  The 3 year old daughter with autism, who had never spoke a word in her life, began speaking within 1 week.  Everyone lost weight and experienced beneficial outcomes of being on this diet.  The proof was certainly in the pudding.  There have been numerous studies done which confirm both benefits and risks of the keto diet.  In this article by National Centre for Biotechnology Information which highlights a recent study done on 83 obese people who were put on the keto diet for 24 weeks.  Ultimately, the study finds that the subjects overall weight, body mass index, Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL – also known as bad cholesterol), triglycerides and blood sugar all decreased significantly.  This study by Harvard Medical School highlights that there is definite short term weight loss results but refers to the difficulty of maintaining this diet long term as a result of its restrictiveness.  For the same reason, there are no long-term studies that highlight the potential long-term effects.  Interestingly, this study also refers to the effectiveness of this diet in some autistic children, who experienced positive behavioural effects, as well as some epileptic children who did not respond to medications but experienced fewer seizures having tired the diet.  There are now talks about doing studies on several other neurological disorders, including brain cancer, to determine the effect of keto on those.  The study also references the dangers of consuming bad fats, high amounts of red and processed meats, as well as the potential outcome of ‘yo-yo’ dieting.  All leading to increased risk of chronic disease including cancer and younger mortality.  I was also a little shocked that neither article specifically references the effect of this diet on cardiovascular function.  This article from Nutritional Facts talks about the effect of keto on arteries and increased risk of heart disease.

Some interesting considerations about keto is the quality of the animal products that exist today, compared to when we only hunted wildlife for food.  The fact is, generally speaking, we do not eat meat we hunt anymore.  We eat industrially raised animals.  Most of whom never see the light of day, are caged in factories where disease is managed with medication and growth is supplemented with hormones.  Therefore, eating high quality of animal products can expose us to unhealthy fats and drugs we would not have been exposed to historically.  This MUST be considered when following keto.  While there are clear benefits to following this diet, using caution with the type of meats and fats being used is critical to long term health.

Along the same vein, another interesting topic they broached in the Netflix film was organics.  One of the first things Marvin and I did when I went on my first break during treatment was to scour our kitchen cabinets of anything that was not organic, was processed or had ingredients that we couldn’t pronounce.  Mostly, Marvin pulled stuff out of the cupboards and put things in grocery bags to donate and I pulled a few of them back out and put them back in the cupboard because I wasn’t ready to give them up.  He has always been of the opinion that organics are best for our family.  I wasn’t entirely convinced until I got sick, and desperate to get better.  The things I learned by flipping a can over, reading the ingredients, then googling them was jaw dropping.  Did you know that Ragu Chunky Pasta Sauce is made with Calcium Chloride as the preservative?

BeFunky-collage ragu.jpg

For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s driveway de-icer.  Manufacturers use driveway de-icer as a preservative in our food.  Let that sink in for a minute…Try googling the ingredients of the canned goods in your cupboards to learn more about what you are eating.  Comparatively, there are many organic companies who keep their additives low or non-existent. Bioitalia makes tomato paste that contains ONE ingredient.  Crushed organic tomatoes.  That’s it.  Here is a website that gives some great tips on how to buy safer foods, The Ingredient List: Know What’s In Your Food.

There are 3 major arguments I’ve encountered related to organics.  Firstly, there is much controversy over how much better organic is over non-organic.  In the Netflix documentary mentioned above, one of the guest speakers argued the health benefits of organics.  Quite frankly, if you have an organic farm beside a non-organic farm that is spraying pesticides, the likelihood of those chemicals making it over to the organic field is pretty high.  In addition to this, car exhaust, plane exhaust, industrial exhaust, etc. aren’t contained to a property line.  Whether we like it or not, this pollution is in our air, in our water, in our animals and therefore, in our food.  This gave me pause for thought.  I have also seen some research done by the Environmental Working Group who releases a list of the dirtiest fruits and vegetables every year.  The list highlights the most chemically ridden fruits and vegetables in the US.  Here is EWG’s 2018 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce.  If you do some googling, you can easily find comparative data that will show you the number of chemicals found on non-organics vs. organics and there is lots of Canadian data out there to wade through also.  Secondly, there is also the argument of how expensive it is to eat strictly organic.  To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible to eat strictly organic.  Either that or I am a horrible cook (I am definitely a horrible cook).  In my experience looking for organics, it’s not always easy to find everything you need for a recipe in organics.  While I agree that eating organic is expensive, I also happen to know first hand how much it costs to have a severe or chronic illness.  While Canada boasts ‘free’ healthcare, let me assure you, illness is not free to us personally or to our government.  The day I was discharged from the hospital, my Dad had to go to the pharmacy to pick up my medications for me.  The bill for those medications was over $4000 CDN.  That made up a 1 month supply.  I am eternally grateful for the help I received and continue to received from my benefits provider, through my employer.  At 80% coverage, I only paid $1000 CDN out of pocket.  In the long run, it costs us all more to be sick.  Third, and lastly, how organics are regulated seems to be questionable.  At this time, I haven’t waded through enough research to make a final decision on how I feel about this.  For the record, I am well aware of how well set up studies can be.

If it’s not enough that we need to decide whether we are going to follow a diet or not, we also need to consider what is truly healthy, and how we are going to source that healthy food.  It is our responsibility to make informed decisions about our own health.  There are several things we can do to success in this:

  1.  Think about what goal you are trying to achieve.  Are you looking to lose weight for a vacation or are you looking to make long term lifestyle changes that will improve your quality life and longevity?
  2. Take the time to educate yourself on what options exist.  Have an unbiased open mind towards the data that promotes and contradicts any advertised solution.  The fact is, the people advertising have something to gain and whether science supports their claims or not, if they believe in it, they will promote it.
  3. Now that you know your options and you’ve educated yourself on the opposing views, you will need to decide how you want to proceed, or if you want to proceed at all.  If you aren’t comfortable with proceeding after doing some research, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board to find an option that suits you better.
  4. Source any supplies or products you may need to help you in your journey.  For instance, if you are moving towards a ketogenic diet, you may want to spend some time research which local farms you will source your animal meats from and learn about how they raise their animals.  Do they use pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics?  What is the environment like?  How are animals transported?  Slaughtered?  Any farm who raises their animals humanly and healthily will invite you to visit as they have nothing to hide!!!  
  5. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.  I mean, at some point in history, people thought it was a good idea to swallow tapeworms.  This method of weight loss can be highly dangerous, even fatal.  In fact, it is banned in most countries.  While this is an extreme example, it is a very valid one.  If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
  6. Keep in mind that just because you make a decision today, doesn’t mean it has to be your decision tomorrow.  Every day we wake up and we decide how we want to live that day.  Keeping informed on trends, factual evidence and most importantly, how you feel is key to effective safe change.

The funny thing about all of this is, there will always be people who are unwilling to consider that maybe, just maybe, the food in our cabinets is poisoning us.  Maybe it’s easier to reject the concept and blindly trust regulators or government will keep us safe.  I used to be one of those people.  Every time I drove by the Maple Lodge Factory in Brampton, I’d see the protestors with their animal cruelty signs and think about how I’d like to have my own sign screaming how much I like chicken.  Ignorance is easier and people will do anything to protect it.  Life is hard enough as is without having to acknowledge that maybe the people we vote into office, who are supposed to work on our behalf, may not really be doing so at all.  This is one of the many reasons why it is so important that we really do our research and understand our options.  The more people who are willing to go outside their comfort zone and learn, possibly even advocate on behalf of yourselves, your children and our future generations, the more positive change we can effect.  If for no other reason at all that to force our government to ban driveway de-icer from our food.

Until next time, keep up the good fight.  You’ve got this!

Published by Michelle Burleigh

Michelle is a highly driven, ambitious woman who gratefully possesses a love of learning and a passion for personal growth which support her ongoing healing and career growth. As a mother of two incredible young girls, a wife, and a patient advocate, and most recently, an author, she has not allowed her December 2017 diagnosis of Acute Leukemia stop her from making and achieving goals. She felt compelled to start SoYouveGotCancer.ca to help people and their loved ones feel more empowered and informed throughout their own healing journey.

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