Category Archives: Health News

Autism: Great Worry, Great Love (and Great Misconceptions)

One of the happiest kids I know.

One of the happiest kids I know.

This is a story I wrote in 2010 about my nephew Keyshawn and I thought I would share it here today for Autism Awareness Day. Today he is 15 years old and everything I wrote below is still true of his beautiful personality and of my fears for him and others like him. Both the love and worries have grown over time.

While as a society, I think we are more aware of Autism than we were at the time I wrote this, I think there are major gaps in our knowledge of it and how to best care for those who aren’t able to care for themselves. Our awareness is great but I think in some ways we are being misled. People love to point out all the famous people who are suspected as having Autism (I saw a post recently that listed Al Gore and Bill Gates as probably being Autistic) and how far they’ve gone in life.  It stings a little whenever I see those posts because while I think it’s awesome to give role models to those on higher functioning end of the spectrum (who may otherwise think their Autism is a roadblock to their success because they are a little different) I think it’s important to remember that not all of Autism looks like the quirks of these famous politicians and inventors. Not all Autistic people can communicate articulately (or at all) and run a company or be second in command no matter how hard they work.

My nephew, though I know he has a heart ten times larger than my own and is intelligent in ways I can’t even comprehend, is not going to be one of those celebrated at such high positions in life unless he has some amazing breakthrough in communication or society changes the defining parameters of success.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote the incredible talents and wonderful eccentricity of those Autistics who do have the potential to rise to the same level of greatness as Isaac Newton or Mozart.  But let’s not forget everyone else on the spectrum while we’re at it. There seems to be this idea that we shouldn’t think of Autism as a handicap because so many with it are capable of so much and really aren’t held back if they have the right intervention early on. I’m all for those who are capable doing everything they can and not being held back! All for it!! But please remember that that doesn’t paint the picture for everyone with Autism, it’s just the ones we hear the most about.  There are thousands of people with Autism who like my nephew can’t even tie their own shoes or dial 911 on their own. There is still a huge need for awareness, research, emotional and financial support and so much more.

On this Autism Awareness Day, I ask that we remember that Autism doesn’t always look like quirky successful yale grads and billion dollar global business owners.

Now to my original post which was my reason for writing today. 🙂


Autism: A Story of Great Worry and Great Love
April 2, 2010

Today is Autism Awareness Day. I’ve realized over the years that there are a lot of people who don’t know anything about Autism, other than what they’ve seen from the movie “Rain man”. Autism has many variations and each autistic person is unique, like a snowflake, most of them are nothing like Dustin Hoffman’s character. I thought i’d tell you a little bit about my own experience with Autism.

I have an Autistic nephew. His name is Keyshawn. We knew something wasn’t right shortly after he was born. He was 6 months old before he was able to hold his own head up and he didn’t crawl until he was about a year and a half old but boy could he talk! My sister Shauna and I often babysat him and were amazed at how quickly his speech was developing despite his physical delays. We loved showing off how smart he was by pointing to things and having him name everything. He even associated each of us with the car we drove by saying our names and pointing to matchbox cars that were the same color.

All of a sudden that changed. He was becoming hesitant to talk and wouldn’t say anything when prompted. We thought he was just getting shy around strangers, as many 2 year olds do. His mother took him to several specialists and each time they said it was probably Autism. Autism? No way, we thought, he’s social and loves hugs and kisses. Autistic people hate to be touched and don’t smile at you! We were in denial but slowly it became clear that this was Autism. It was just not what we thought autism was.

I see him struggle to communicate with those around him because he lost most of the ability to speak at 2 years old and has regained very little of it. I watch people stare at him because they think his clapping and stomping is the result of a lack of discipline. They don’t understand that it is something he does to soothe his anxiety. He doesn’t know how to calm himself down otherwise. When people he’s never met before say hi to him, he just looks at them out of the corner of his eye with a blank expression on his face.

He’s now 10 years old, yet he can’t do a lot of the physical activities that other kids his age can do. He has hypotonia, or low muscle tone, something that is very common in autistic children. His hypotonia makes him clumsy. The muscles in his limbs don’t have enough tension to support some of his movements. His sense of pain is dulled considerably. His baby sister used to bite him on the arm so hard that it left big purple bruises. His mother didn’t know what was causing the bruises until she witnessed the toddler biting him. Keyshawn just sat there not responding. A normal child would scream in pain and move away from the source. His brain doesn’t interpret the biting as pain. The lack of sensation to pain and the low muscle tone mean that he could seriously injure himself and not even know it.

I worry about what his adult years will look like. Will he be able to hold down a job? Will he be able to live on his own someday? What will happen to him if our family doesn’t have the financial means to take care of him, especially as we age ourselves? Will he ever be able to read a book? Will he ever again be able to tell us verbally what he’s thinking? Will he be able to stop someone from hurting him? It breaks my heart that the answer to most of these questions is probably no. That’s not true for every Autistic, but it’s the likely story here.

I look at him in awe because he is fascinated by things most of us wouldn’t give a second thought to. My heart melts when I see his face light up with sincere love for those he has grown to trust. And it makes me laugh when I see him interact with someone he clearly doesn’t! Keyshawn’s BS meter is well oiled and fine tuned, even if some of his other skills aren’t. There is no fooling him. His laugh is joyful and infectious when you tickle him. He’ll say “more!” (one of the few words he still uses) when you stop. He loves to sit at the kitchen table with his Aunts and just watch and listen to them talk. He can’t join in on the conversation much but it’s very apparent he understands what we’re saying and wants to be a part of it. His sisters adore him and it’s clear that he is equally fond of them. They are much younger than him but they understand that he is a delicate little soul that needs extra love and protection. I worry about him so much but I don’t doubt that he will affect those who enter his life in a positive way. I feel very lucky that the autistic in my life is one who can show and accept love. There are many who can’t. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that he can.

Autism is difficult to understand and there are daily battles that are both frustrating and baffling but it’s not a death sentence. It’s not something to be embarrassed by. Do I wish we understood the cause? Do I want there to be a cure? YES! But I don’t wish that Keyshawn was any different than he is. He is a unique, perceptive & lovable child and I am so happy that he is a part of my family. He is a daily reminder that we are not all the same and that we need to be more tolerant & accepting of each other.

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5 Things You Might Be Doing That Aren’t as Healthy as You Think

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

If you’re like any of my clients, you have an interest in taking better care of yourself, and this includes making healthy choices in your diet and lifestyle. But what if some of the things you think are healthy really aren’t such a great idea?

If you follow nutrition at all, it can be seriously hard to keep up with what information you should follow! Studies come in all the time with conflicting results and the media reports on it – telling us that something is healthy one day and that it’s not the next! The media likes to report on the most interesting or popular things but they don’t always give the whole story, so we end up hearing a very sensationalized version of the truth. The problem with this is that we only get half the message or become confused by the conflicting info.  We end up making choices that we think are “good” but ultimately might not be the best thing for us. There are many things that I think the media has fudged the message on and I want to clear up some of it.

Part of my job as a coach is to educate and this means helping clients see multiple sides of a situation (in case they only see one) to remove any possible confusion. That way, they can analyze for themselves if something is a smart choice for them.

Today, I’m sharing the top 5 “healthy” things that I hear clients repeat over and over that they are confused by.  If my clients are feeling confused, I’m sure you are too!

This post ended up being longer than I planned it so if you’re short on time just read the bold bulleted number statements and the bold bottom line statement underneath each one!

Here are 5 things you might be doing that aren’t as healthy as you think they are:

1. Automatically assuming that non-dairy “milk” is healthier than dairy.
None of us need “milk” of any kind to survive beyond infancy but the idea that we need to have milk in some form in our diet is a hard one to let go of! And while some people do just fine on dairy, others find that it can be a big cause of health issues (allergies, lactose intolerance, asthma, inflammation).  Giving up dairy when necessary is easier than it was in the past because there are so many non-dairy versions of some of our favorite foods! But just because something is not made from dairy doesn’t automatically make it a good choice.

The most heavily produced non-dairy products are non-dairy milks like almond, hemp, soy, rice etc. And let’s be honest, a bowl of cereal just wouldn’t be the same with water. 🙂  The problem is that many of the store bought versions of non-dairy milks are full of not so great ingredients. They are often heavily sweetened and have additives like carrageenan, guar gum and others that we don’t want to consume in large quantities. These additives are often FDA GRAS (generally regarded as safe) ingredients. GRAS ingredients are only regarded as safe in small quantities. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little store bought non-dairy milk with these additives here but if you formerly drank 3 glasses of milk a day and are trying to replace the calcium that was in that with 3 glasses of non-dairy milk, you’re going to take in a lot more of these additives than is likely good for anyone. We don’t know if they are safe in daily increasing quantities.  To get more calcium without dairy, try adding a couple of servings of collard greens, bok choy, sardines, sesame seeds, broccoli and spinach to your diet.

If you really must use non-dairy milk several times a day, the best kind is one you make at home without any additives!  Check out this great recipe for homemade almond milk from Oh She Glows. It’s great without the sweeteners/flavoring too, believe it or not!

Bottom line: If you need/want to go off dairy milk, use non-dairy store bought milks in moderation and make your own if you will be consuming large quantities.

2. Choosing low fat or fat free foods instead of their regular fat original versions.
If you’re still buying low fat versions of foods you really need to stop. Why? For starters, look at the ingredient lists between a fat free frozen yogurt and full fat ice cream.  A low fat or fat free frozen yogurt will have many more ingredients in it, including several thickeners and additives that give it the texture and mouth feel that we want and expect when eating.  The length of the ingredient list alone is alarming. The longer an ingredient list, the more room for non-foods to be added in (and the often fall on the FDA GRAS list as well).

Another problem with eating the lower or no fat versions of food is that to get the same amount of enjoyment from the food, we often need to eat more of it. Fat is the nutrient for satiety and if you have a strong craving for a fatty food, odds are it’s the fat your body is after. If you choose the low fat or no fat version, you’ll never quite satisfy that craving and you may find you keep looking for something that will.  We think we’re saving calories when actually we’re increasing the chance that we will eat more. While it can be difficult to feel comfortable with the idea of eating more fat (especially if you’ve been a chronic dieter), if you try it for a little while you’ll see that you actually end up eating less when you eat more fat, leading to less cravings and eating less calories overall.

And a final reason to go for full fat versions of food: We actually need fat in our diets.  Vitamins A, D, E and K can’t be used in our bodies without fat in the diet. A few other important roles of fat in the diet:  it helps regulate our sex hormones (so important if you want to conceive, have a regular menstrual cycle or healthy libido), it keeps our hair and skin healthy and nourished and is integral for sharp brain function!

If you’re worried about eating fat and heart health, that’s an important topic and I’d love to talk to you about it but this blog post would be miles long if I did that. We’ll save that for another day (contact me if you want to discuss sooner!).

Bottom line: Eating full fat foods means less junky additives, more satisfaction from our diet, and better nutrient absorption for good health.

3. Eating large quantities of raw kale every single day
Just because every green smoothie, juice or raw salad recipe today has kale as the star ingredient doesn’t mean you should eat huge amounts of it every single day.  Kale is an amazing green full of vitamins A & C, magnesium, iron, calcium and many phytonutrients! But eating it raw in large quantities can be problematic for those with existing thyroid, kidney or gallbladder issues. And in some extreme cases, otherwise healthy folks who took in very large quantities of raw kale have developed hypothyroidism.

Kale is really good for us and in general, most of us do not eat enough leafy green vegetables period and we should absolutely be eating more greens in general.  But while it’s good to eat kale, a better idea is to eat kale and other green vegetables. Rotate through all the greens you can find in your local store and alternate between eating them raw and cooked.  Doing this ensures you get a wide variety of nutrients and don’t end taking in too much of something that could hurt you. You may also find that eating them cooked means less digestive stress (which means we’re more likely to want to still eat them).

Bottom line: Enjoy kale and other green vegetables in both raw and cooked forms but make sure you rotate and don’t eat the same greens all the time.

4. Training “hard” all the time
While the majority of us could probably use more activity in our lives, some folks hear
“exercise is good for you” and assume that means more, harder and faster is always better. Training hard has it’s place (maybe you’re training for a competition or event or have a plateau you’re trying to push past) but it may not be the right thing for you all the time.

Frequent vigorous or very long exercise sessions actually increase our cortisol levels. While increased cortisol is important when we’re in a dangerous situation (such as running for your life!), our stressful lives today mean we have increased cortisol levels most of the time. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause many health problems, including a suppressed immune system (more colds!), decreased libido, increased anxiety and depression, and even weight gain (think belly fat). For the athlete, high cortisol levels can also mean a breakdown of muscle (which is the opposite of what we want!) and reduced speed, strength and endurance.

Another thing that can become problematic with very hard training is that it can actually increase your urge to eat aggressively. One one hand, if you’re training harder or for more duration, it makes sense that you would want (and you need) to eat more to refuel. But in many cases, the hunger response that is created is far greater than the actual fuel need we have. We pat ourselves on the back for our hard exercise and eat more to reward ourselves but most of us underestimate the amount of food we take in.  Done once in awhile, this isn’t a big deal but if you over-train every time you exercise and do it frequently, you can actually undermine your weight loss goals in a big way.

It’s important to listen to your body. It’s good to push hard and feel challenged. It’s important to do activities we enjoy and get a lot out of. It’s important to have an active life. But rather than push yourself to work your hardest and longest every day of the week, think about what might be best for your body on any given day. If your knees are aching from a long run yesterday, maybe you would benefit more from taking a rest day or doing some gentle yoga today instead of trying to run on your already strained legs. If you’ve gotten poor sleep the last several nights and feel like you might be getting sick, it might be a good idea to go for a walk or resting instead of hitting a Crossfit class for the 8th time this week.  I’m not suggesting we stop pushing ourselves or that we don’t work hard – I love tough exercise as much as anyone.  But I think it’s important to listen to the signals our body sends and aim for balance and challenging oneself.   That way you can do the activities you love for a long time!

Bottom line: Challenge yourself physically but know it can sometimes be more beneficial to rest or do more gentle activities if that is what your body is asking for.

5. Making refined grains or grain products the major base of your diet
I’m going to go a little off tangent here but bear with me. The USDA came out with the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 and in those dietary guidelines for Americans was the recommendation that we should be eating 6 – 11 servings of grains per day. Interestingly, it mostly focused on processed versions of grains. The recommendation was that we should consume 6 – 11 servings of breads, cereal, rice & pasta. So we did and often more.

And rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed since. Check out the graph titled “New Cases of Diagnosed Diabetes Among U.S. Adults Aged 18 – 79 Years, 1980 – 2009” in the middle of this page from the CDC. What starts to happen right after 1990? Also check out this text summary of obesity trends among US Adults between 1985 – 2010. What happens around 1994? In both cases, rates started to increase sharply and have continued since.  Now correlation isn’t necessarily causation and I can think of several other reasons for these increases (increasing sedentary lifestyles for one) but I am convinced that the dietary recommendations to make refined grain products the base of our diets have contributed significantly. I’ll explain why.

What are breads, pasta and many popular cereals made from? Highly refined flours.  Refined flours spike blood sugar as badly as pure cane sugar because there is no fiber or hull to slow down digestion.  Eating 6 – 11 servings per day (and probably more since our serving sizes have increased) and not getting much exercise means that our entire society has been working hard to develop insulin resistance.  Another problem is that constant blood sugar spikes lead to blood sugar crashes and what happens when our blood sugar crashes? We get crazy hungry and don’t make the best choices food wise so we end up eating far more than we need and often really unhealthy stuff.

My point is that if you’re still following these outdated recommendations (and many are), you are setting yourself up for health problems if you don’t have them already. Grains can be a part of a healthy diet for many of us (it’s a case by case basis – some do not tolerate them well) but I’m referring to whole grains in their whole form not whole grains in refined pasta or bread. And 6-11 servings is far far too many!

Bottom line: Eat whole grains in moderation if you digest them ok but avoid refined grains. Eat less of them than the recommendations from 1992 suggest!

I encourage you to question any news report or article about nutrition and health. They’re telling you one or two sides of the story – are there more? Do your own research and decide for yourself.  Nutrition and health are relatively young sciences and we still have so much to learn but using your intuition and a little thoughtful questioning you can make some choices you can feel good about.

Are there any health trends that you’ve jumped fully on board with? Is there anything you’re doing that you wonder about the benefits of?  Share with us all below so we can learn from each other.

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The Easiest Way to Eat “Healthy”

whole foods make it easy!

whole foods make it easy!

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has been on a food journey for as long as I’ve been on one. While I’ve been cooking, studying health and nutrition and battling my weight and eating issues for far more than a decade, the average person just doesn’t give it all that much thought. Maybe they do if they’re a big foodie, if they want to lose a few pounds or if they have a health scare where they need to change their diet to manage their condition. But for the average person who’s never been in one of these scenarios, convenience or preference often rules the day. My husband pointed this out to me recently as I went on and on about some misleading statements a commercial on TV was using to make their food product sound like a healthy choice. He said “Andrea you take it for granted that you know that, most people don’t. I don’t.”

Thanks to John bringing me back down to earth, I thought it might be a good idea to use today’s post to clear up some of the confusion that’s out there around “healthy” eating.

I follow these guidelines myself and find them to be the simplest “diet” (ahem, lifestyle!) to follow. I no longer have to worry about calories, fat or anything else. And I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been because of them. I feel like I can finally relax around food.

Forget about Labeling Claims
One huge problem with figuring out what is good for us is that we see labels in the store that say “heart healthy!” or “good source of whole grains” or “Natural” but those labels don’t necessarily mean that the food product is good for you. In fact, for some of these labels there is no strict definition by the FDA – foods can be labeled as “Natural” as long as the don’t contain artificial or synthetic ingredients and that leaves a lot of vague wiggle room. “Heart Healthy” labels mean a food is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. As long as it fits those criteria they can use whatever ingredients they want, including chemicals, preservatives and artificial junk. I could write 30 pages on misleading food labels but that would be overkill. The important takeaway around labels is this: Ignore food labels.

Most food label claims are there purely for marketing. They’re designed to convey information that will make us want to buy it. They are not designed with your health in mind. They’re there to make money.

You’ll notice as different food trends show up, new labels will appear. Gluten free is a big one right now and while avoiding gluten is incredibly important for many people, the fact that a product doesn’t contain gluten does not mean it’s good for you. It could still be full of refined grains, sugar and other stuff you don’t want to eat. If you’re going to look at packaging at all, focus on the ingredient list (what’s in it?) and the nutrition label (the part that lists the fiber, calories etc).

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year if you want to read a little more about label claims.

One easy way to avoid the confusion that food labeling claims make is to focus on what we call “Whole Foods”.

Focus on Whole Foods
I’m not talking about the grocery store by the same name. I’m talking about a group of foods that you can always count on to be full of high quality nutrition. There’s no standard definition for the term “whole foods”. Sometimes people also use the phrase “clean eating”. Some people are very strict in their interpretation of it and others are a little more forgiving with criteria. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense and will be easy for you to remember.

To me, whole foods are:

  • food that is close to nature as possible
  • foods that your grandmother and great grandmother would recognize as food
  • grown or raised
  • food that will rot or go bad

To me, whole foods don’t:

  • have artificial sweeteners, preservatives, chemicals or food coloring in them
  • need to be made in a factory. While some whole foods may be processed at a factory slightly (think canned beans or frozen vegetables) for convenience but they still resemble their original form very closely.
  • have very long ingredient lists

Examples of whole foods are:

  • vegetables & fruit
  • meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy
  • whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, bulgur, barley, teff etc)
  • beans & lentils
  • nuts, seeds, avocados & olives
  • herbs, spices, vinegars, maple syrup and honey

What’s so great about Whole Foods?
Because they’re pretty close to their natural state and haven’t been refined or heavily processed, these foods have more vitamins, minerals and fiber than the majority of processed foods. They don’t have added sugar, added trans fats or refined flours that will spike your blood sugar. They don’t have chemicals or preservatives added. Nutrients have been stripped away or destroyed to make it taste better or last longer.

It’s easier to eat “healthy” when the majority of your foods fall into the whole foods category. Most are packed with nutrition. Healthy starts to get harder to figure out when we are buying a lot of convenient processed foods. That’s when we have to worry about the grams of fat, carbs etc as well as the ingredients.

While food processing started off as a way to feed more people, increase nutrition (in the case of fortified products), increase shelf life and portability, you only need to take a quick walk down the aisles of any grocery store to see that most food “products” are made to satisfy junk food cravings or convenience. We have whole aisles dedicated to “snack products” like chips and candy.  Entire walls of freezer cases for ice cream and non dairy “topping”. Let’s not kid ourselves, today, the majority of processed food is not about good nutrition or far reach.

What’s not a Whole Food?
Aside from the junk foods I mentioned above, something else that doesn’t really fit into the whole food category – most breads, pasta and baked goods in stores. You may be surprised to hear this. Whole grains in their whole form are great but products “made with” whole grain can be a whole other story. They are often refined (meaning the outer tough fiber is removed). It really depends on the ingredient list and is a case by case basis (the majority of stuff in the market doesn’t count).

Again, ignore the labeling claims about whole grains and focus on the ingredients. It may be high fiber (thanks to added fiber for bulk) but when a sweetener made from corn is the second ingredient, stay away. There are some breads on the market that are made with great ingredients. You really want to play detective and read each label before you purchase it. Your great grandmother would have never eaten a loaf of bread with high fructose corn syrup, so why should you eat one?

How to make this work for real life
Obviously if you’re eating a diet that is low in whole foods making a switch may seem like a huge task. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. As I said earlier, I’ve been on this food journey for more than a decade. Don’t put pressure on yourself to change everything overnight.

A few things that can help:

  • Make one change at a time and don’t make another until you are comfortable with each one. Perhaps you want to switch from a peanut butter brand that contains high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils to one that just contains peanuts. The taste will be very different at first but you’ll get used to it and over time begin to prefer it!
  • Make your goal 90/10 each day. 90% whole foods and 10% splurge or processed! Right now you might be at 40% whole foods and 60% processed. That’s ok. Keep the goal in mind and aim for higher whole foods intake over time. It will take time.
  • Cook / eat at home more often. It’s much easier to control the ingredients that go in our meals when we make them ourselves. I love a good restaurant meal like anyone else (maybe more than anyone else! haha) but we try to make eating out a special occasion. It’s possible to get whole foods at restaurants but it really depends on what you are ordering and where. In your own kitchen you know exactly what is in your food!
  • Keep an open mind. Be willing to try new foods and experiment. There will be foods you don’t like. There will be foods your kids don’t like. Try things at least a couple of times and prepare them different ways. You never know when you’ll stumble on a recipe that changes how you feel about a food!
  • Don’t deprive yourself. Eating well, eating clean, eating whole foods is not about depriving ourselves. It’s about doing the best we can for our bodies in any given moment. Sometimes, a piece of chocolate cake (or whatever your vice is) will fit the bill even if it’s not “clean”. As long as you don’t have a medical condition that makes that food dangerous, eat it occasionally and enjoy it when you do. Then go back to eating as well as you are able.

We’re in this for the long haul. I’m not sure who said it but . . . health isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You don’t get up one day and finally reach “healthy”. You want to live well so that you can be your healthiest every day.

If you didn’t have time to read this long post, here’s all you really need to know:
1. Ignore label claims
2. look at ingredient lists
3. focus on whole foods as much as possible

I hope that cleared up some of the confusion around food that gets thrown at us day in and day out. There’s no need to follow trends or marketing campaigns if you listen to your body and stick to foods from nature.

What’s the deal with GMOs in food? Should you eat them or not?

IMG_2697We keep hearing about GMOs in food. It’s on the news. Vermont just passed a mandatory labeling law. Some food products packaging declare that they are GMO free. But what’s the deal? Should you be eating them?

Some say we shouldn’t eat them and other’s say there’s absolutely no danger and that they’re necessary for the future.  I can see the potential benefits to the science behind it but I am wary that enough long term research hasn’t been done (especially when it comes to things like Bt corn).

When I decided to hold a veggie garden workshop last month, I sent home attendees with a handout on GMOs (along with some organic non gmo seeds) and I thought I would share it here because so many people have questions about whether they should be eating GMOs.  I tried to give pros and cons to both sides (but I’ll admit it’s hard for me to not sound biased).  Here’s the thing, no matter what research you do, you’ll be able to find sources that support whatever side you look at (and not just with GMOs) so it’s really important to try to take in as many facts as possible and then make up your own mind.

What do you think?  Do you think I’m crazy for being wary of them?  Do you worry about GMOs in your food?

GMOs Yay or Nay?
For a little background, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.  Humans have been altering the genomes of plants for a very long time but until relatively recently it was through natural means; things like planting only the seeds of the best crops or cross breeding varieties to produce a sweeter plant. Today, a scientist in a lab can take DNA of any living thing and choose to insert it into another, completely unrelated species.  For example, they may choose to insert a gene from a moth into a potato to reduce the effect of potato blight disease on the next crop.  We even have GMO crops that have been engineered to withstand normally deadly doses of herbicides and pesticides.

The Upside of GMOs
Some of the benefits of GMO foods are that they are expected to increase our food supply. Advocates of GMOs say that with less disease or pest problems, farmers can grow more crops and feed more people, in less time and for less money.  GMO foods can be bred to taste and look better.  There is even potential to increase the nutrient content in certain varieties. GMO science also has wider reach than just food production. GMO research is helping the medical community understand which genes are responsible for certain diseases and speed production of some vaccines.  We are even studying GMO pigs for future organ transplants into humans!  There is also research being done to see how GMOs could be used for cleaner fuel sources.  With the growing problems our planet is facing, it would be irresponsible not to investigate the potential of GMO science.
The Downside of GMOs
As far as GMOs in our food goes, there is a lot we just don’t know yet.  The USDA does not require independent safety studies on GMOs and no long term studies have been done.  Research on GMOs is still in the infancy stages.  Some plants have antibiotics added to them so that they are resistant to certain diseases.  These antibiotics then show up in our bodies making medicines less effective when we need them. Some GMO corn and cotton varieties have been bred to contain Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that naturally occurs in the soil that is deadly to moths, caterpillars and butterflies.  This bacteria has been used as a pesticide in Organic farming because it is effective but easily washes off produce.  These GMO plants that have been bred to contain this bacteria have it in every fiber of the plant.  There is no washing it off.  So while this bacteria previously wasn’t harmful to humans, what happens when we’re ingesting large quantities of it in every bite of corn, corn syrup or tortillas that we eat?  Try finding processed food that does not contain corn in some form. Cornell University found that Monarch Butterfly larvae died after eating pollen that came from Bt corn.

Beyond unknown health risks, a few other possible consequences of GMO foods is the potential to create super weeds that are resistant to herbicides, difficulty preserving non-gmo fields (A farmer in Oregon found GMO wheat growing in a field he did not plant it in), legal ramifications (GMO seeds are patented and farmers have been sued for planting seeds more than once after purchase), and environmental pollution from liberal pesticide spraying (on pesticide tolerant gmo plants).

Unfortunately for us, there is no clear answer yet as to whether GMO foods are good or bad. Credible research on the dangers of GMOs are limited and often inconsistent but at the same time, much of the research that has come out saying GMOs are safe for consumption have been done by the same biotech companies who benefit financially from their widespread use.  If you do your own research, you will find people on both sides armed with lots of “facts” to obliterate the other side’s argument. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s up to you to decide.  There is no requirement at this time to label foods containing GMOs so we don’t always know when we are consuming them.

For me personally, just because there isn’t a ton of evidence saying that they are bad yet isn’t enough for me to jump on board wholeheartedly.  Once upon a time, the American public was convinced cigarettes were not harmful either.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.

If you are concerned about GMOs in your food, the most important thing you can do right now is getting the government to require labeling for GMO foods. There is a lot of money coming in from biotech companies (like Monsanto) to prevent labeling.  They know if we know there are GMOs in our food we will choose to spend our dollars elsewhere. We at least should have a choice in knowing what we put in our bodies.

What foods in our food supply are more likely to be GMO?
The crops most likely to be GMO today are: soy, corn, sugar beets, canola oils, papaya, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and peas, zucchini, yellow squash, dairy (due to the use of rbGH growth hormone) and alfalfa (fed to factory farmed animals).   To give you an idea of the reach, 88% of corn and 94% of soy produced in the US in 2012 were GMO.

How can I avoid GMOs?

  • Buy Organic when possible.  The USDA organic certification states that “the use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.”
  • Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal.  GMO labeling is not mandatory in the US and this label is the closest thing we have currently to any guidelines.  You can read more about it online at: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/understanding-our-seal/
  • Buy from local farmers – ask about their sources.  Local is usually a better choice even if it isn’t organic.

What else can I do?

  • Advocate for GMO labeling in your state. Until we know if GMO foods are truly safe (and we won’t know for many years) we should at least have the right to know what is in our food.  A label declaring this is the first step. Visit www.righttoknow-gmo.org/states to learn how you can help your state to support GMO labeling.

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