Girl Planting seeds

Back to Basics: Clean Eating for Health

girl_eating_pastaBy Benjamin Kligler, M.D.

Summer is here! The days are getting longer, the temperatures warmer, and the pandemic is starting more and more to lift. For me this season means planting our garden and an opportunity to revisit some of the basic ideas and actions that make for a healthy diet, including how to minimize exposure to environmental hazards in our food supply.
With over 85,000 mostly-untested chemicals in our environment, many of which can in some way find their way into our food and drink, eating organic is obviously one of the best strategies to start with. But often when I nudge patients or families in that direction, they feel it would be too difficult, too expensive, too much of a shift in how and where they get their food and what they eat. But, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. For many of the chemicals in our environment, dose is a major factor, and so reducing the dose we take in of these substances by gradually shifting toward organic or minimally treated (meaning food produced on a farm which may not completely meet the standards for organic but makes an effort to minimize the use of pesticides and other chemicals) can be a great start. And there are at least two simple ways to make that start:
1. Begin with choosing organic animal products when you can. Cattle and poultry fed pesticide-filled feeds tend to concentrate the residues in their milk, their eggs, and their meat. And not only pesticides, but estrogen residues and other hormones, antibiotics, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxin can accumulate in animal tissues. Choosing organic milk and eggs—which are widely available now –and organic meats—which are gradually becoming so—is a good way to start reducing your family’s dose of harmful chemicals.
2. Think about choosing organic for specific fruits and vegetables, but maybe not all if that feels too difficult. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes lists each year of the top “clean” and “dirty” fruits and vegetables ( These lists will tell you that when you feed your family strawberries, spinach, or apples, you should try to choose organic. But for avocados and asparagus, you might decide to save a bit of money and go conventional. Studies suggest that children ages 8-15 who have high levels of the pesticide breakdown product dimethyl alkylphosphate (DMAP) had twice the odds of ADHD when compared with children with low or undetectable levels. And based on data from national health surveys, children with typical levels of pesticide exposure from eating pesticide-treated fruits/vegetables, have higher risk of developing ADHD compared to those with lower levels.
There are a number of other easy changes you can make in addition to the move towards organic to reduce the exposure to chemicals in your food:
Download the Healthy Living app from EWG ( Search for any of the food or drink products you might typically buy and see how they are rated in terms of safety. As with organics, shifting towards products with less artificial preservatives and stabilizers can help you cut down your daily dose of chemicals. 
Try to buy food packaged in cardboard or glass rather than plastic. There is some evidence that certain chemicals from plastic can leak into our foods and ultimately into us—and we all know there is enough plastic in the world already! And if you do buy something in plastic packaging, make sure to transfer the food to glass or other containers for storage, and not to ever microwave or heat food in plastic (and avoid putting it in the dishwasher)—the heat helps those volatile chemicals seep into our food.
Start to look for foods that are labeled “non-GMO.” It is very hard to totally avoid genetically modified foods, which are now present in more than 75% of the U.S. food supply. But even though the health risks of these foods are still not entirely clear, over 60 countries now require labeling of genetically modified food. The issue is not that it is automatically dangerous to eat GMO food. The problem is that the use of genetically altered crops has allowed increased use of weed killers like glyphosate (“ROUND-UP”), because plants like corn and soybeans have been engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. But humans are not resistant and we do not want these chemical residues in our foods!  
There are lots of other ways to cut down on chemicals—but more important than which way you pick is the decision to start doing it!
Dr._KliglerDr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.
1 Kuehn BM. Increased Risk of ADHD Associated With Early Exposure to Pesticides, PCBs.  JAMA. 2010;304(1):27–28. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.860
2 Bouchard MF, Bellinger DC, Wright RO, Weisskopf MG. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics. 2010 Jun;125(6):e1270-7. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-3058. Epub 2010 May 17. PMID: 20478945; PMCID: PMC3706632.
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