Backlash: sugar and salt saturation

Many people don’t realize that even healthy-sounding bread, fruit juice, yogurt, condiments, cereal, and other packaged foods contain scads of sugar and salt—which abundant research irrefutably links to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. USDA stats show that Americans today consume 43 percent more caloric sweeteners than we did in the 1950s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75 percent of Americans’ sodium intake now comes from processed foods—not the salt shaker—and a recent study found that 75 percent of packaged toddler foods are high in sodium.

What to do now

  • Do the math. “We have been conditioned by processed foods to like that high-sodium flavor,” says Clayton. “But in 2010, the American Heart Association recommended keeping sodium intake to 1,500 mg or less daily. Likewise, with sugar, you need to budget it—stick to 100–200 sugar calories per day. It’s not that you can’t have them, but you need to monitor how much you consume.”
  • Read labels. Become familiar with other names for sugar, like corn syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, and any ingredient that ends in –ose, such as fructose, sucrose, and glucose. Then compare labels, urges Clayton. “Look at a canned soup and see how high the sodium is, or a regular broth versus a low-sodium broth. When you start studying labels, you’ll see that, gee, this serving of soup has 570 mg sodium or this food has 50 grams of sugar in it, or wow, the top four ingredients on this label are sugars.”
  • Be patient. When cutting back on sugar and salt, it takes taste buds six to eight weeks to adjust to a new style of eating, says McColl. Can’t bear to eliminate bread, a common salt offender? “Just choose one meal a day to enjoy bread, and the other meals have other grains or starches, such as brown rice, oatmeal, or sweet potatoes,” she advises. The same goes for sugar. “It will be tough the first week or two, but once you get that sugar out of your system by eating plain whole foods, you will not have sugar cravings anymore.”

Backlash: nutrient depletion

Unfortunately, even when you choose apples, carrots, and cucumbers over crackers, you may not be getting as many nutrients from those foods as your grandparents did. A landmark 2004 study found that 43 vegetables and fruits had markedly less calcium, protein, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins B2 and C than in 1950. Why? According to the researchers, during the past 60 years, farmers shifted their focus to getting the greatest yield. Often, that means growing only one or two crops; and, because crop rotation reintroduces nutrients into the soil, monocropping robs dirt of its riches.

What to do now

  • Connect the dots. First and foremost, learn more about where your food comes from and how it’s grown. “The average person goes to the store and says, ‘I’m going to eat my fruits and vegetables; those are healthy for me,’” says Hoffman. “That’s good, but I think in our minds we envision an old-time orchard with apples handpicked at the peak of ripeness, and that’s not how it is when they’re grown conventionally.” Ask questions about where your store gets its food, including meat and dairy. What sourcing standards are used?
  • Cover your bases. “Everyone should take a multivitamin-mineral complex as an insurance policy, because of depleted soil but also incomplete nutrition,” says Clayton. A recently published long-term study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that taking a daily multi could lower cancer risk by about 8 percent; and a 2013 meta-analysis found that people who take vitamin and mineral supplements appear to be in a better mood—perceiving 65 percent to 77 percent less stress, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion—than nonusers.
  • Keep your cool. “Living food” devotees—those who eat foods not heated above 115 degrees—swear by raw foods’ health benefits, which stem from the preservation of foods’ natural enzymes that promote healthy digestion and nutrient absorption. Not ready to go cold turkey—er, broccoli? Some is better than none. Find out which raw foods satisfy you and incorporate them into your daily regimen—raw nut butter on apple slices, for example, or a glass of raw coconut water.
  • Counter free radicals. When food-nutrient intake is low, you need even more antioxidants—nutrients that fight free radicals, which exacerbate aging, says Sowers. He suggests 500–2,000 mg vitamin C and 400 IU vitamin E daily.  “And make sure your daily multi contains 70–200 mcg selenium,” another free radical fighter, he says.

Backlash: food and water contamination

In addition to what’s missing from foods, another modern concern is what’s present in them—namely, toxins and contaminants. As the world’s population has skyrocketed, so have agricultural “innovations” aimed at streamlining and economizing food production, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers you can’t apply without hazmat gear and antibiotics injected into factory-farm-raised cattle, pigs, and poultry. “Today, 70 percent of all medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are used in food animal production,” says Sasha Lyutse, food and agriculture policy advocate for the National Resources Defense Council. “Fed to animals day after day, these antibiotics kill the weakest bacteria, but the stronger ones thrive. You really couldn’t design a better system to promote antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs.’”

And it isn’t just meat eaters who are affected. “Resistant bugs can travel away from feedlots via water, soil, and air that comes into contact with contaminated animal waste,” Lyutse says. “They can end up on a doorknob, on a piece of unwashed fruit, or at a hospital, where they can cause really severe illnesses.” And those pesticides and fertilizers? They wind up not only in food, but in the groundwater that eventually comes out of someone’s tap.

What to do now

  • Purify. “I think everyone in Southern California knows that there are water issues,” says Sowers, whose Riverside, California, store serves a county with 2 million people. To see how your city’s water measures up, check the Environmental Working Group National Drinking Water Database (ewg.org/tap-water). In most cases, a simple, carbon-based filter will take out a lot of what’s problematic, such as heavy metals and pathogens, Sowers says; a distillation feature can eliminate even more contaminants. Don’t rely on bottled water, which isn’t necessarily pure; the EWG found 38 contaminants in ten popular brands. And consider a shower-head filter to reduce chlorine; it’s commonly added to disinfect tap water but can exacerbate dry skin, asthma, and allergies.
  • Eat organic. You hear a lot of debate about whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods, but what’s indubitable is that USDA Certified Organic foods must be grown and processed without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Check the EWG’s updated “Dirty Dozen Plus” list (ewg.org/foodnews) for the most important foods to buy organic. Organic crops and livestock also mean fewer toxins leaching into groundwater.
  • Wash. You can’t rinse away absorbed pesticides in conventionally grown food, but you can use caution against surface bacteria. Always clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water and, to be extra careful, a biodegradable, nontoxic produce wash. Try a mixture of vinegar and water in equal proportions, or buy ready-to-go natural spray or wipes, such as Eat Cleaner or Environné products, made with citrus and other plant extracts.