4 reasons why I am not a food alarmist

This is a bit of a soap box post. Fair warning.

I’ve talked before about online petitions and their effectiveness, as well as the hype over the “yoga mat bread” debacle. These things are all tied to what I call food alarmism. And it drives me nuts.

To me, food alarmism is taking a concept related to food (particularly health food) and then blowing it way out of proportion and abandoning all reason, just to advance your agenda or philosophical position (and in some cases, a business interest). It’s often done in the name of advocacy – framed as public health crusaders trying to save the American people from themselves. 

But there are a few reasons why I will never subscribe to this type of advocacy and actually feel it’s detrimental to the broader food movement. (Put another way, it makes people who care about what we eat look like psychos.)

#1 – “Chemicals” are not always the enemy. You could make water sound like a scary additive if you called it dihydrogen monoxide. Just because a substance has a chemical-sounding name doesn’t make it dangerous. Everything we eat is made up of chemicals – even our bodies are made up of chemicals. (Trust me, having a thyroid disorder mine are often out of whack.) 

I used to be on the anti-chemical bandwagon pretty hard for awhile, but the more I read, the more I realize there are a lot of harmless chemicals out there and a few that actually ARE health hazards. So you’ve got to find out what a ‘chemical’ actually is, how it’s used, what research is out there about its safety, etc. before you decide it’s poison. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t reduce our exposure to chemicals that have been linked with health hazards. But be smart about it.

#2 – Junk food is junk food. The idea of trying to get a company that makes fatty, salty junk food to take an ingredient out of its fatty, salty junk food to make that fatty, salty junk food “healthier”? That’s crazy. Here’s a simple solution. EAT LESS JUNK. And don’t expect companies that sell junk food to make that junk food healthier. When you do, all you get is health-washed food that looks healthy but actually isn’t. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten Sun Chips in your life because you thought they were “healthier” than Doritos? Yeah. My hand is up too.)

#3 – Hype is hype – whether it comes from Monsanto or a food blogger. Many people are in the business of getting people whooped up about very small issues. This is a good thing for companies and individuals who want people to be distracted from the larger picture (public health, access to healthy, whole foods for all people, the fight against hunger for starters) by starting crusades on the small stuff. What if all the energy spent on getting Budweiser to tell us what’s in their beer was spent trying to get access to fresh produce for hungry people? Which brings me to my next point.

#4 – There are bigger fish to fry. The way I see it, there are really huge issues that we need to address as a nation that relate to our food supply. Namely, making sure everyone gets enough. And that they get enough actual, healthy food. Those of us who consider ourselves foodies (with all the good and bad that term carries) need to understand that the fact that we can even make the food choices we do is a privilege that not all of our fellow citizens have. 

Besides the availability of food in general, we have a really big and rapidly growing problem with antibiotic resistance. And it’s not just food bloggers or animal rights activists who think that. The Centers for Disease Control has made it clear that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed greatly to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Even the FDA acknowledges that it’s a problem (and they basically don’t acknowledge anything as a problem). So if we want to get behind something that can really make a difference in public health (not to mention animal welfare, but that’s another story), we should rally behind removing non-therapeutic antibiotics from our livestock. Rally behind the piles of scientific evidence that we are one major antibiotic resistant epidemic away from a true public health nightmare. 

So while Vani Hari (a.k.a. Food Babe, She of Many Petitions) rallies her army of disciples to expose the chemicals in a Budweiser, I’ll choose to lend my voice to issues that might actually end up helping people – and are backed up by science, reason and common sense.         

movie review: frankensteer

Have you ever had the experience of reading or watching something thinking it was current, and then realizing it’s actually a lot older than you thought? And then it dawns on you how scary that is? That describes my experience watching Frankensteer, a documentary I didn’t realize is 8 years old until after I watched it. Because the issues it raises are all still relevant today.

As far as the documentary itself, it was clearly on the low-budget side, without the polished feel of more widely released films. It’s also not an American film – it’s Canadian – so some of the information is geared toward Canadian governmental policies, though it does look at things from a “North American” perspective as well.

For me, the best part of the film was in its opening line – that in order to produce cheap food, we have taken a benign, naturally flatulent vegetarian and turned it into a cannibal and vampire. We push these creatures to within an inch of their life until ultimately they lose it in a slaughterhouse to end up on our plates.

The film makes its way through a discussion of the dangers of growth hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics, two things that in 2014 the public is demanding be removed from our food supply more than ever. In discussing the differences between government policies on these items and showing the disparity between what Europe feels is safe and what North American nations do, it occurs to me that it’s amazing how we think that science and nature relate differently on this issue depending on your country’s borders. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s not safe for a member of the European Union, it’s not safe for me. Why that science cannot cross national boundaries is beyond me.

Frankensteer lays out all the basic reasons to avoid industrially raised beef, and in particular the health risk to humans of mad cow disease (not as much of an issue now as it was in 2006, but still nothing to dismiss) as well as E. coli and food borne illness. We shouldn’t have to take a product home from the grocery store that’s intended for consumption and have to treat it like toxic waste until cooked. 

Frankensteer doesn’t get into industrial agriculture’s effect on the economy, environment or workers, but that’s understandable for a film that’s only 44 minutes long. Honestly, there are 500 page books on the subject that can’t even cover it all. All the more reason to not eat or purchase it. 

For me, I try not to eat meat at all when I don’t know where it came from (as in, which farm). However, lately I’ve found it harder to make those choices when traveling, especially when I need protein and there are no vegetarian options that include any. While I didn’t find this film incredibly compelling in and of itself, it served as a good reminder for why I don’t eat industrial meat and a push to recommit to being strict about it in my own diet, even if it means making sacrifices.     

book review: silent spring by rachel carson

In my nearly 9 years of living in Pittsburgh, I have crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge many times – on foot and in my car. I’ll cross it this weekend during the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. I’ve always vaguely associated Rachel Carson’s name with Pittsburgh and with environmental stuff. There are outdoor programs and nature trails named after her, so it’s hard to live here and not know her name.

But it struck me recently in doing some reading about pesticides, that I had never read the book that really started it all when it comes to raising public awareness of the risks of pesticides. So I picked up Silent Spring in audio format and got acquainted with Rachel Carson.

(I should note that I would not recommend the audio version that I used. The narrator had a highly obnoxious voice that made it hard to concentrate. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more had I read it in hard copy.)

The book is credited with starting the environmental movement, which still continues to this day, more than 50 years after the publication of the book. Carson’s arguments are centered around the idea that the use of pesticides and insecticides is detrimental to the environment and all things that are a part of it. Actually, Carson calls the pesticides and insecticides that she details “biocides,” since they affect more than just their intended targets. 

Nature doesn’t operate in separate compartments – everything is interrelated. When one piece of the ecosystem is threatened, it threatens the balance and health of everything. This also holds true for water, which while in itself not a living thing is a vital part of all life on earth. As Carson points out, pollution of water somewhere is pollution of water everywhere, since we have a limited supply of fresh water on earth. Along those lines, poison at any part of the food chain travels up and down, affecting predator and prey. This simple summary doesn’t do justice to Carson’s extensive research or her talent with prose (which can be hard to come by in books about science).

Silent Spring is heavy on details, which while that makes it dry at times, is a good thing when it comes to the validity of her arguments. I’d imagine if I had a hard copy there would be footnotes a plenty. It’s also important to keep in mind that it was written in 1962, so some of the particular details of what she talks about aren’t accurate anymore – things like particular chemicals that are no longer in use in agriculture (most notably DDT). But sadly, even the parts that aren’t factually accurate anymore are still relevant, since chemicals that have since been banned have been replaced by others. 

While this book won’t be up your alley unless you’re really interested in pesticides and their impact on ecosystems, it’s worth knowing about this book in the broad sense and what it has done to impact where we are currently with these issues. For more on how Silent Spring jumpstarted the environmental movement, check out this piece in the New York Times from the 50th anniversary of the book’s release. 

Pittsburgh can be really proud that one of its natives was an environmental pioneer and a fascinating person in general. (I’d actually love to read more about her life and the years before Silent Spring, since she died just two years after its publication.)

yoga mat sandwiches: real threat or hype?

You might have heard the phrase “yoga mat sandwich” tossed around lately. After a prominent food blogger/activist started a petition to get Subway to remove a chemical called azodicarbonamide from its breads, the issue went viral.

Azodicarbonamide is a chemical foaming agent, used in yoga mats and other plastic items to make the item spongy, light and strong. And apparently, bread at Subway. It supposedly “makes bread rise higher, stay soft and form an attractive crust.”

But it’s not just Subway making “yoga mat sandwiches” – according to a follow up study by the Environmental Working Group, azodicarbonamide actually appears in at least 500 processed food products made by a large number of companies. The World Health Organization has found that there are health risks to workers who are exposed to azodicarbonamide, but no one has done studies on its health effects in humans who ingest it.

So here’s the problem. It’s fine for these bloggers and activists to try to get the word out about what’s in our food. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and to some degree, talk about that in this space. But ok, Subway is now removing that chemical from its bread. But what will they put in its place? Bread that’s just made up of flour, yeast, salt and water? Doubtful. 

It’s not an effective overall strategy to get one company at a time to remove one ingredient at a time from one product at a time. What we need are comprehensive regulations and overhauls of the food industry in general, so that the FDA does not approve additives for food use in the first place with no scientific evidence as to whether or not they can threaten human health. We need a policy that considers chemicals to be dangerous for food until proven safe, with effective, third-party science.

So go ahead and stay away from processed foods with “yoga mats” in them – but don’t believe that the removal of that one chemical from a food makes it healthy and/or clean. Processed foods are processed foods. Don’t buy into the hype that industrial food companies are prioritizing public health by removing singular additives – even in the face of increased public awareness, they are still prioritizing profit.

corporate involvement with kids: how much is too much?

Two recent news stories have highlighted the issue of corporate involvement with children on environmental and nutritional subjects. These incidents included advertising as well as education, and I think they illustrate clearly the importance of corporate responsibility – something we clearly lack.

In Ohio, the oil and gas industry under the auspices of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program created a program sponsored by Radio Disney called “Rocking in Ohio” to teach kids ostensibly about the importance of oil and gas. (I say ‘auspices’ because that group is funded by only oil and gas industry companies.) The group’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that “our country can’t survive without oil and gas” and that “kids are the best way to spread the message.”

I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not important to teach science to kids – for them to understand what oil and gas are, how they are extracted, and what impacts they have on the economy and environment – both positive and negative. Science is awesome. And to be fair, the program did not educate children specifically about fracking, which is the most controversial issue in the oil and gas industry today (particularly in Ohio, where this program was based.) But is the best way to teach them to give an industry front group center stage and allow that presentation to be sponsored by Radio Disney? Why do children’s educational programs need to be “sponsored” at all? It’s a serious crisis if this nation needs to rely on corporate OR activist interests to educate its children. We need to give them facts and allow them to use their developing reasoning and analytical skills to draw conclusions. You know, like a scientist would.

Even more disturbing is the second of the two recent stories – Gatorade’s award-winning video game promotion in which water is made out to make your athletic performance suffer. Just the idea is even absurd – because anyone who has done anything remotely athletic in his/her life knows that water is essential to athletic performance. But Gatorade (owned by Pepsi Co.) specifically requested that ad agency OMD create a game for them to reinforce the message that Gatorade is superior to water. OMD specifically said that the goal was to convince kids that “water is the enemy of performance.”

In the game, Usain Bolt (the Olympic champion sprinter) runs through a course where kids try to collect Gatorade, which makes him run faster, and avoid water, which slows him down. Ok, really?

Even as a runner, I am not a fan of Gatorade for a multitude of reasons (read my post on it here). But the biggest issue is that there are few kids who are active enough that they even need to fuel with Gatorade or electrolyte replacements instead of water. Only kids who are heavily involved in sports and vigorous athletic activity even need to consider electrolyte replacement. For kids who just go to gym class? Water is fine. They don’t need the added sugar, and it’s flat out LYING to tell them that Gatorade improves athletic performance. What they should be doing is encouraging kids to get active.

Advertising to kids is a slippery slope, since their reasoning skills are still developing and their ability to discern between reality and advertisements is spotty, at best. (I’ve talked about this before too.) Putting a famous athlete on a Gatorade ad makes kids think they should drink it too – but the likelihood of a kid working out like a pro athlete? Slim to none. Even though Pepsi Co. owns its own bottled water brand – Aquafina – they push Gatorade for athletic performance. Aquafina is supposedly even a partner with the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign, to try to get kids to drink more water. It’s ludicrous to even try to claim corporate responsibility for children’s health and then turn around and tell them water is the enemy of athletic performance.

These two examples show how even programs with seemingly good intentions or benefits can have profit-driven corporate interests behind them. It’s important to understand where the messaging you are hearing is coming from and to discern facts from advertisements.

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song “McDonald’s Girl” could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It’s where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it’s honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald’s had the best ones.  

That’s why it’s kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I’ve been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I’m defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby’s. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald’s as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you’d cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that’s not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won’t eat fast food at all – salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I’m not going to lie. I still smell McDonald’s when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It’s no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald’s isn’t good for you. And while it’s possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald’s (I ate A LOT of McDonald’s when I worked there.), weight isn’t the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It’s ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it’s about the farthest away from “clean food” that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It’s not just what’s in fast food that I have an issue with. It’s where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don’t eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don’t want the dairy or the eggs either.

It’s worth noting that just recently McDonald’s announced that it would “commit to sourcing sustainable beef” in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of “sustainable beef,” it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald’s generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you’ve got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either – CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald’s and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn’t get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn’t required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It’s also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale – and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It’s true that most 6 year olds don’t get to McDonald’s on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald’s to very young children – ones unable to discern what advertising actually is – is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald’s, with parents who didn’t just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren’t the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren’t either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald’s is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let’s state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There’s no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald’s uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter’s necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon’s report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald’s, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that’s why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it’s cheap and convenient, I choose to go without. 


natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.

managing thyroid disease

I was asked to write a post about my own experience with thyroid disease, since I often mention it here as something that influences my own lifestyle choices. But before I explain my own experiences and thoughts on it, I want to state two things for the record.

This is only my experience and shouldn’t be construed as advice or a judgment on someone else’s experience or the way he/she chooses to handle his/her own disease. I’m not your doctor and I’m not a licensed expert of any kind (unless you count book expert since I have a master’s degree in literature).

I do not believe that all diseases can be cured or even necessarily affected by lifestyle changes. I am not anti-medication and will always encourage people to seek actual medical advice from a legitimate, licensed professional. (And I’m NOT talking about Dr. Oz here, okay?)

About five years ago, at a routine physical with my then-PCP, I mentioned that I’d had great difficulty losing weight even though I was watching what I was eating and exercising, and that I also was experiencing severe hot flashes/night sweats and having major difficulty sleeping. I was fatigued all the time as well (falling asleep on the couch at 6 p.m. kind of fatigued). He told me that “some women just have a hard time losing weight no matter what they do” and that there wasn’t an explanation for these symptoms, but that he’d order routine blood work anyway.

Lo and behold, I had hypothyroidism. He put me on generic thyroid hormone replacement (levothyroxine) and called it a day. So I started taking it and saw no relief, which led me to my first endocrinologist.

I am now seeing my fourth endocrinologist (who is fantastic and someone I plan on seeing until either one of us isn’t in the area anymore). That will give you an indication of how difficult it’s been for me to find real relief and support.

Throughout the few years that I was seeing other endocrinologists, I was misdiagnosed as being pre-diabetic (and took Metformin unnecessarily for almost a year, which was a total nightmare) and was also given different dosages of three different meds – generic levothyroxine, Synthroid brand levothyroxine, and Armour (synthetic porcine (pig) thyroid that includes T3). I was also made to feel like my symptoms made no sense, and therefore shouldn’t exist. I was also forced into the clinical “normal” range for my TSH (level of thyroid stimulating hormone produced by the pituitary gland) regardless of whether or not that was my body’s normal and told to just deal with the symptoms.

During that time when I was receiving no support whatsoever from the medical professionals I was seeing, I started to do my own research on behavioral/lifestyle modifications that might give me some relief. I realized that I had to take my health into my own hands and wanted to feel like I was doing everything that was within my own control to get relief. It was around that same time that I started to learn more about our industrial food system and its impact on health. Things started to make sense, and I decided to make changes in my diet.

I started small by eliminating soda and then moved to artificial sweeteners all together. I began to phase out unhealthy processed foods and then eventually moved to any hyper-processed foods, even if they were supposedly “healthy.”

Why? Because having a disease that creates chaos in my body’s levels of its own hormones and chemicals means I don’t need to add to that chaos by ingesting chemicals, many of them with unknown properties. To me, that’s common sense.

Did my symptoms disappear? No. But they were lessened, and I also noticed a dramatic shift in my energy levels, no longer being dependent on caffeine and stimulants in food for energy. When I felt good, I felt really good.

Later, I took a nutrition and fitness combination class called Project Jumpstart and I began to exercise. Exercise was something I had never incorporated into my life in any meaningful way, partially because I was so utterly exhausted. (This is a big way that hypothyroidism contributes to weight gain – it doesn’t necessarily make you gain weight, but it makes your metabolism so slow that you don’t have any energy to work out.) I started with a little bit at a time, and almost two years later, I’m about to run my first half marathon and I’m in the best shape of my life. Exercise has great energy benefits as well, and I notice my body feeling sluggish when I get out of my routine.

I also take the brand name thyroid replacement hormone, Synthroid. I take the brand because it’s recommended for people who need to have the exact same fillers with each dosage. When you take a generic pill, the fillers and dyes are different for each company that makes it and you don’t know what your pharmacy will be carrying from month to month. So for consistency’s sake, I take the brand. I have seen much better results with the Synthroid than Armour or the generic levothyroxine.

Essential to this entire thing is my new endocrinologist, who supports me keeping my TSH at a level where I have less symptoms. She also supports my own lifestyle changes with food and exercise, and helps me with other solutions for some of my symptoms, which she believed were triggered originally by my thyroid when the TSH was really high, but then continued even when the TSH came down (trouble sleeping and gastrointestinal difficulties).

In particular, she recommended a sleep therapy workbook that has really re-trained my brain to know how to sleep and rest properly, and I continue to use it to control my insomnia. It’s essential to find a doctor that listens to you and your needs, trusts that what you tell them about your symtpoms and your body is true, and wants to commit to helping you feel well, even if it means they spend 30 more minutes with you. 

My plan of attack for thyroid disease now consists of the following:

– Seeing my endocrinologist regularly and getting regular bloodwork to keep a close eye on my TSH
– Eliminating processed foods and hormones in meats as much as possible
– Reducing exposure to chemicals in household products that have been clinically shown to be endocrine disruptors
– Guarding my sleep and following the behavioral modifications to keep the insomnia under control

I hope that gives some insight as to how I manage my own disease. Leave any questions in the comments – it’s always good to share experiences!

beauty product detox

I’ve been slowly trying to evaluate the household products (including personal care items) that I use to determine my level of exposure to endocrine disruptors. It’s been almost two months since I started doing the research and realized what was actually in the products I use (many for more than 10 years). Here’s an update on what I’ve done so far. (For the record, none of these companies know I exist. These are just my own opinions about the products. I’m linking to the products I recommend so you can see what they look like and look at the ingredients for yourself, not because they are affiliates.)

Household products:
We had already switched to Method cleaners for our bathroom and kitchen surfaces awhile ago and we continue to like them for those purposes. With cleaning supplies, I’m mostly concerned about toxic fumes and residue, as these products aren’t being applied to my body directly, so I am okay with some chemicals being in these products that I am spraying on my bathroom or kitchen counters. Method also has this handy list of disclosures about all possible ingredients in their products. I am always a big fan of companies that value transparency.

We just switched to Seventh Generation dishwasher detergent, and we’ve only done a few loads, but so far so good. I actually like that there isn’t the strong fake scent of lemon coming out of the dishwasher after washing, and I did notice that my Camelbak didn’t have that funky dishwasher smell after cleaning.

Beauty products:
The big three that I wanted to address for beauty products were deodorant, shower gel and shampoo, since I use those most frequently, especially at the rate I work out. I first compiled a list from my research of the big things I wanted to try to avoid. This is what I came up with:

DMDM hydantoin
imidazolidinyl urea
phenol derivatives
TEA (triethanolamine)
sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate
benzyl salicylate
fragrances and dyes
aluminum (in deodorant)


I looked at the ingredients of several deodorants to try and choose one that might meet most of my criteria. I settled on Tom’s of Maine Long Lasting Women’s Deodorant in the Beautiful Earth scent. Well, it did its basic job, keeping odor away when I was sitting at work or at home in the air conditioning. But because it wasn’t labeled an antiperspirant, I wasn’t surprised when I noticed much more sweat than usual. This deodorant doesn’t contain aluminum, which is the main antiperspirant ingredient in these types of products. So it worked when I wasn’t concerned about wetness. But when I worked out for the first time with it? Fail – on both the odor and wetness fronts. Definitely not a product that was designed for heavy sweating, whether in hot weather or exercise (and definitely not hot weather exercise). So I will probably use this product from time to time, but it won’t be a long-term solution for me for daily use. 

Shampoo and shower gel
I was having major problems even finding a shampoo to try because so many of them are advertised as “natural” but only remove a few of the most toxic substances. That’s good, but not good enough for me for the amount that I shower. I happened to read about the Honest Company from another blog and decided after looking at the list of ingredients and the breadth and depth of their product lines to take a chance and order the sampler pack of the Essentials. It came with hand soap, lotion, shampoo/shower gel, laundry detergent, and healing balm. I tried not to let myself simply be enchanted by their lovely graphic design and really test them out to see if they worked. 

I immediately loved the shampoo/shower gel hybrid. It has a very faint orange/vanilla scent that doesn’t linger long, but it is very clean. It also doesn’t leave a film in my hair or on my skin. It’s also kind of nice to use the same product in my hair and as a shower gel, since the scents don’t compete with one another. It also has one of the cleanest ingredients lists I’ve found in any shampoo/shower gel.

The hand soap smells very clean as well, with a hint of lemongrass. When you use it, you don’t feel like you’ve taken a bath in perfume. The lotion seemed like any other lotion, and the healing balm was particularly nice to use on my blistered right foot that has been battered by running this summer.

The laundry detergent is fragrance free, which is something I will have to get used to, since I’ve been a Tide girl since college. But the clothes still smell clean after use.

I am definitely a fan of all of the products I got in my sampler, so we decided to go ahead with a subscription. You can choose your delivery date for each shipment, everywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, and each time you choose 5 products from their very large line and can add up to three extra products at a 25% discount. Buying it in the bundles saves money off of the list price. In the first bundle I’ll be getting some of the other beauty products, including some conditioning hair products that should hopefully help tame my humid weather frizz.

I should note that this is more money than I’m used to paying for cleaning or personal care items, even with the discount, but I’m impressed enough with the products that I’m willing to pay the extra cost. If I’m willing to pay more for healthy foods to put IN my body, I should be willing to pay more for safe products to put ON my body. I want the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing the best I can to limit my chemical exposure.


i used to be a diet coke junkie

I’ve written before about why I won’t consume sports drinks, even during long races. And it’s pretty obvious to anyone that I’m not a fan or a consumer of processed foods in general. But this wasn’t always the case. If you opened the cupboard door in my first apartment 8 years ago, you would see a vastly different array of products than in my pantry today. Boxed meals and processed snack foods, not much resembling a “whole food” at all. But what really stuck out, in my tiny galley kitchen, was the stack of Diet Coke cases against the wall. 

I actually didn’t drink a lot of pop growing up (and I obviously grew up where we called it pop and not soda). I didn’t even like cola until I was a teenager. And when I started working at McDonalds and the only thing that was free was pop, I began to drink a lot of regular Coke. That only lasted for about a week, as I quickly overloaded on the sugar and decided to give the diet version a try. And from that day, for the next 10 years, I was addicted to Diet Coke.

When I say addicted, I’m not exaggerating. I drank the equivalent of 6-8 cans of Diet Coke a day, either at work from the fountain or in cans in my dorm room or later, apartment. I quickly became addicted to the caffeine, especially because I also took up a coffee habit in college. By graduate school, working and going to school at the same time, I was drinking 40 ounces of coffee and more than 72 ounces of Diet Coke every day. If I was thirsty, I drank Diet Coke. I rarely drank water. 

When I’d randomly go on diets after gaining bits of weight here and there, Diet Coke was a staple. Zero calories! It was one thing I never had to “give up” and there were times I honestly craved feeling an icy cold can in my hand and hearing the click of the open tab and the bubbles. You know those commercials where someone opens a can of soda and a ton of fun starts? That’s almost how I looked at it, as embarrassing as that is. I couldn’t wait for the burn of the first cold sip. 

Also during the time I was a heavy consumer of Diet Coke, I suffered from pretty severe migraines. I thought it was the stress of college, graduate school, work, etc. and I saw a neurologist regularly and was on special migraine medication. Never once did the doctor ask me about my eating or drinking habits. So I medicated rebound headaches which I attributed only to caffeine withdrawal, and I kept on glugging. 

After we watched Food, Inc., Mark and I started changing our eating habits. We started sourcing meat, dairy and produce differently. We cooked more and more and we cut out processed foods and investigated nutrition labels closely before we made purchases. Except for Diet Coke. I just couldn’t give that up. It was one thing I really wasn’t willing to part with, justifying my consumption because it was calorie-free. 

It might have been the studies linking diet soda and depression. Or the fact that aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, has been linked to cancer and premature birth. It might have been the fact that we were spending a lot of money every week on Diet Coke (generic would not do). But one day, I just decided to stop. I replaced some of the caffeine with tea or coffee in the mornings, but not all. I started drinking water.

And I haven’t suffered from a severe migraine since. After noticing a distinct rise in my energy levels and also a decrease of cravings for sweet foods, I cut out all artificial sweeteners entirely. I now look back and can’t believe that a beverage had such a hold over my body (and my wallet). I was a marketer’s dream come true and I played right into their hands, falling for all of their lies hook line and sinker.

It didn’t help me lose weight. In fact, I’ve lost more weight since I gave up soda and artificial sweeteners than I ever did when I was addicted to Diet Coke. It gave me headaches and gave me cavities. (Thank goodness I didn’t get to this point. Warning – it’s disgusting.) And I was consuming something with questionable health risks. Was drinking Diet Coke now worth developing cancer later? Of course if I’m someday diagnosed with cancer, I won’t necessarily know what caused it. But I can at least have the peace of knowing I eliminated a known risk factor. 

If you are a regular consumer of diet soda (or really any soda), I’d challenge you to give it up, even for just a few weeks. I would venture to guess you’ll notice a change in how your body feels (and you’ll save yourself some money too).