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. 


setting priorities for healthy living

The food world was buzzing last week with the announcement from General Mills that Original Cheerios are going GMO free. This is the only variety going GMO free, since original Cheerios are primarily made of oats, which are not genetically modified. The sugar and corn starches will be going GMO free.

The way that the media exploded with the announcement shows me that people are starting to demand GMO free foods, or at the very least, more transparency about what’s IN their foods. This is positive progress.

But I can’t help but feel that the hype can also distract from the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. GMOs in food or parabens and other chemicals in soaps or household cleaners are important to understand and good to avoid when possible. But limiting your exposure to these is a secondary priority. It doesn’t matter if you eat GMOs in your breakfast cereal, if you’re also addicted to soda and fast food and processed junk. 

Sometimes it can be easy to grab on to the media’s soundbites and think that those are the most important indicators of health, since it’s what people are talking about. But the most important information is the most boring – that a healthy diet of clean foods, stress management and an active lifestyle are the largest contributing factors to your overall health and wellness. It’s a lot easier to just start buying hand soap without parabens than it is to give up soda. (I know. I’ve been there.)

As you’re thinking about setting priorities for your new year, focus on specific tasks that can help you hit those main priorities. Maybe it’s avoiding fast food, cooking more often at home, drinking more water, or getting exercise 2 or 3 days a week. Choose small things to tackle, so they aren’t so overwhelming. Take one step toward one goal, not 12 steps toward 10 goals. For example, if you want to cook at home more often, check out this post on where I get a lot of my clean recipes

on resolutions

Happy New Year!

There’s something about January that brings a sense of new beginnings. Maybe it’s the breath of fresh air after the hubbub of the holidays, or the fact that we flip a new year on the calendar that makes us feel like we can press the reset button and start anew. In 2013, I set some goals for myself – concrete things like “run a half marathon” and not just “run more.” I met most of those goals, and exceeded some of them. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to open my goals document every so often and check to see that I’ve made progress. 

So I’m setting my resolutions for 2014 and will keep myself accountable for progress on them during the year. They’re all reachable, but will be a challenge in one way or another. I don’t like to go overboard, since I know that my work and my commute take up a huge portion of my week and my attention during my waking hours. Plus, I don’t like setting myself up for failure. I’d rather succeed at a few small things and be content with that.

With that, here are my goals for 2014 in three categories: mind, body and home.

Read 75 books.
I read 70 books in 2013, and I’m going to up the ante by just a bit in 2014. Within those 75 books, I have a goal of reading one of what I call the Russian doorstop novels that I haven’t read before, as well as finishing up the rest of Margaret Atwood’s canon. I use Good Reads to help me keep track of what I’m reading when.

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have no shortage of things that outrage me, and I know that battles about GMO labeling, Ag-Gag laws and farm bills will keep me occupied with this one.

Run a marathon.
Yes, I’m putting it out there. I’m not going to beat myself up if I work on the training and my body doesn’t cooperate (I’m looking at you, knees!), but I’m going to try. I know in my heart I will always regret it if I don’t try, and that’s reason enough for me to start. I will begin training in February, with the goal of working up to a marathon by the fall. I’d also like to do several halfs this year, and to travel to at least one race outside of my area. The goal for the full marathon is just to finish, and my goal for a half marathon in 2014 is to get a PR, which I think is doable. 

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Rather than set a goal for weight loss, I’m focusing on health and fitness this year. Water is a big one for me – I feel so much better and have so much more energy when I’m properly hydrated. It also helps me with my running to be hydrated at all times, so I’m going to dedicate myself to hydration.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Mark gave me the tools to make kombucha for my birthday last year and I have yet to start, out of fear that I’ll mess it up. I did stop buying kombucha in the store, like I promised myself, but I haven’t taken the leap. 2014 is the time.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
I have my grandma’s sewing machine, and I’m going to put it to good use this year. I’m not particularly gifted in this area, so I’m starting easy and hoping to make Mark a quilt from a pile of old, beloved t-shirts.

Can one new thing.
I want to branch out this year and can something we’ve never canned before. Doesn’t have to be elaborate, but I’d like to try something new and different.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I want to do some research on bee-friendly plants and make the flower beds along our garage an all you can drink nectar buffet for bees. (Can you tell that Vanishing of the Bees inspired me?)

Make the chickens some treats.
I want to be more actively involved in the chickens’ care and I really want to make them some treats to give them a diversion.

Organize the basement.
I did a great job of simplifying and downsizing our house this past fall, but the largest work to be done is our basement, which is a mess of boxes and disorganization and junk that is just begging to be a functional space. If the only house related thing we get done at all this year is to organize the basement, I would count it a success.

I’m going to check in monthly here to keep myself accountable to these goals, and hopefully share some how-tos when I have some success! 

What are your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments – I’d love to know what you’re doing to make 2014 the best year it can be! 

movie review: Vegucated

If the point of a documentary is to get people to critically think about an issue, Vegucated certainly met its goal for me, though it caused me to scribble furious notes and get riled up more than any other documentary I’ve watched so far.

Vegucated follows three people who agreed to go vegan for a period of 6 weeks, undergo a health screening before and after, and be educated about why someone should choose to be a vegan. Childish cinematography aside, I didn’t want to hate this film. I felt like it meant well, but veered off into a lot of what I felt was misleading information.

First, my disclaimers. I think anyone should be able to pursue the diet of their choice. I respect vegetarians and vegans for their diet choices and see the myriad of benefits diets such as these provide, not only for animals and the environment, but for individual health. However, if the choice to live by those diets involves twisted logic (which is then used to attack what I’d call an ethical omnivore diet), that’s where I have an issue.

When the three participants decided to go vegan for the purposes of the film and were beginning the transition, the filmmaker/narrator emphasized that they should look for vegan versions of their favorite products to ease the transition. This film was so full of processed foods, it made me ill. I’m not sure why someone would choose to give up dairy or eggs, only to constantly eat heavily processed foods with artificial additives and GMO soy. Processed foods have a huge impact on the environment and vegan versions of regular processed junk are not at all more healthy. To wave GMO soy milk and veggie/soy burgers packed with a list of 30 ingredients and claim that it’s the epitome of health is misleading. If I saw one more person waving a container of Earth Balance around acting like it was health food, I was going to scream.

Along those same lines, the filmmaker points out all the wonderful restaurants where you can eat vegan – like Subway! and Johnny Rockets! My question is this – even if you eat a vegan option at Subway, you are supporting a corporation that does not support environmentally sustainable practices, and sources the meat it serves to other people from the worst of the factory farms they claim to not support. So it rings false to me when you claim veganism is good for the environment, but give your money to the exact corporations that destroy it. 

There was a great deal of footage from factory farming operations in this film, which in some ways is great. I applaud any effort to get people to stop eating factory farmed meat. I’ve written about that before, as well as made clear my support for defeating Ag-Gag laws. If the only meat available were from factory farms, I’d never eat another bite for the rest of my life. Factory farms are atrocious and disgusting in the extreme and should not even be allowed to exist. However, the filmmaker/narrator doesn’t just stop there with farms – she visits a “small, family farm” and claims it’s just as bad as factory farms. No kidding. The “small, family farm” that she showed had a CONFINEMENT SYSTEM for its chickens. 

The farms where we source our meat absolutely would never use a confinement system. I’ve been there and seen it – I don’t have to go undercover with a camera because they openly welcome people to visit. While I think people can legitimately have ethical issues with eating animals, it is unfair to paint all meat eaters as people who allow animals to suffer. Not everyone who drinks milk sources the milk from a cow who had her calf ripped away from her at birth.    

Another argument that doesn’t hold up is that all animals raised for food contribute to environmental decline. It’s true that factory farmed meat is terrible for the environment, and the majority of grain production in the country (as well as most of the antibiotics, incidentally) goes to raising these animals. Last time I checked, our farms allowed their cattle to graze on pasture, not grain shipped in from across the country. They also use their manure to fertilize fields, not trap it in a waste lagoon and then spray it everywhere, contaminating water supplies. They use rotational grazing methods that are sustainable. They don’t destroy the earth – they nurture and protect it.  

And this doesn’t even touch the health portion of this film. Yes, in 6 weeks the three people each lost a few pounds and saw benefits in their blood pressure and cholesterol. And it’s a fact that a plant-based or plant-heavy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol is great for your health. But these people were not active and also continued to eat junk food – but it was vegan junk food, so it was “healthy” (ooh, Teddy Grahams are vegan!). These people are obviously not representative of all vegans, but to promote it as a healthy lifestyle while still encouraging people that they can eat processed cookies is wrong. “Vegan” doesn’t equal health any more than “organic” equals health.

Ultimately, to paint all farms and meat eaters with such broad strokes is irresponsible. I know many vegans and/or vegetarians that eat a whole foods diet and don’t rely on processed garbage as an “easy way out.” But this film made me feel like I was on one side of a war, good (vegans) versus evil (everyone else). In actuality, I think an ethical omnivore has a lot more in common with a vegan than most people would assume – both are conscientious eaters, aware that what we eat involves much more than just mindless bites. So why can’t we just get along?  

movie review: Food Matters

As a geek that loves documentaries, I recently added a bunch of food/environment/science related films to my Netflix/Amazon Prime queues (one of my favorite benefits of streaming vs. cable!). After reading a lot about it on Twitter, I started with Food Matters.

This film focuses around the basic idea that you are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out – that kind of thing. From the outset, I felt like the filmography was relatively rough – almost manic, with distracting backgrounds and too many vintage clips of instructional films from the 1950s and 1960s.

However, I agreed wholeheartedly with the premise – that this country suffers from an epidemic of chronic malnutrition (as opposed to acute malnutrition or starvation). Far too often in my own experience, I’ve gone to the doctor with an issue and was just given pills and pushed out the door. When I had constant headaches in grad school, the first doctor I saw just wanted to give me pills, even when he knew I was crazy-addicted to caffeine.

The film makes the claim that modern medicine too often treats symptoms and not the underlying disease or condition. Much of what currently ails us as a population can be attributed to our lifestyle – poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. Makes sense. It’s made sense in my own life. I agree with the film’s assertion that the human body has an astonishing capacity to heal itself from many ailments, if given the chance.

Food Matters does a good job of reminding consumers that just like Big Agriculture, Big Pharmaceutical is a half a trillion dollar industry. There is a lot of money involved in treating illness with medicine in this country. Every time you take a blood pressure pill or a blood sugar pill, you are putting money in the hands of drug companies that have a vested interest in you never actually getting off their medication. They make no money from wellness. For the vast majority of the population, it’s affordable and safe to change your diet and start exercising. So why would you want to just stay on the pills when they won’t prolong your life or more importantly, improve your quality of life?

As is the case in Big Agriculture, supporting research for drugs is often sponsored and paid for by the drug companies themselves. Drug companies don’t want to pay for research that suggests that a plant-based diet and an abundance of vitamins and minerals can lead to health. The film also talked about high dosage vitamin therapies that have been studied for years as treatment for various chronic illnesses, including serious illnesses like cancer.

While much of what the film discusses makes perfect sense – that nutrition should be our primary prevention strategy against disease, etc. – it also veers off into more alternative therapies that left me interested, but highly skeptical. For instance, there’s a lot of information on colonic therapies that “cleanse” the body of toxins. As I explained in my post about why I don’t do juice cleanses or lemon juice/maple syrup/vinegar cleanses, a healthy colon doesn’t need help cleansing your body. Don’t put toxins in your body and you won’t have to force them out uncomfortably by drinking 2 liters of water after you get out of bed and having nothing but high fiber juice for days.

The film highlights the Gerson Institute, which champions a holistic therapy for cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases. The therapy, according to their website, includes activating “the body’s extraordinary ability to heal itself through an organic, vegetarian diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements.” They claim a great success rate and honestly, I’m not doubting them. Anyone who has ever seen someone suffer from cancer knows that chemotherapy is awful in every possible sense. And anyone who wants to treat their cancer with vitamins and enemas should absolutely have the right to do so. (It’s ridiculous that all of the Gerson clinics have to be out of the country even though they are staffed by MDs that go to the same med schools that other doctors in the U.S. attend.)

But I’m still skeptical that raw juices and enemas are cure-alls. Sometimes disease happens, regardless of the health of your lifestyle. For instance, eating raw foods isn’t going to make my lungs stop being asthmatic. I have a decrease in asthma symptoms because of my increased lung health due to cardiovascular exercise, but I don’t stop having the disease. I also don’t want to go back to my life before being on thyroid replacement hormone – even though my lifestyle has also contributed to a reduction in symptoms.

Overall the film had interesting food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun. And it serves as a great reminder that the diseases plaguing the west – particularly heart disease and diabetes – can be not only prevented but REVERSED by true lifestyle modifications. I would not put it in the same class of documentaries as Food, Inc. or A Place at the Table, but it wasn’t a waste of an hour.

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.

finding recipes for clean eating

I’m often asked where I get recipes to support the way I eat, especially easy meals that fit into a busy lifestyle. The following are some cookbooks and sites I use to make healthy meals from whole, clean foods.

America’s Test Kitchen’s cookbooks and its Cooks Illustrated magazine and website are my primary go-to locations for recipes. While some of their recipes are more time consuming to make, with heavier prep, they are reliable and tasty. They also take care in their light and healthy recipes to not rely heavily on “diet” foods like fat free cheese (gag) and fake sugars, etc. Here are my favorites:

Links are to Amazon where applicable for convenience’s sake, but I’m not an affiliate and receive no compensation for clicks.

The following are some other blogs that I watch for new recipes. I will also note that not every single recipe on these sites would fall under my own guidelines for what I would eat, but generally they are a good guide. (I try to stay away from food blogs where the author is regularly paid or perked by food companies to shill their product and make a recipe around it.)

I also use other tools like Fooducate, which has a blog and an app. Using the app, you can scan products in the store to see their nutritional content and ingredient list demystified – a great way to see past the health claims on the box. 

Finally, I am a great lover of print publications, so I also enjoy these magazines (and their online sites). You can buy these at the check-out at some grocery stores and also at Barnes & Noble, etc. or get a subscription online, which is much cheaper!

Also consider following a lot of these blogs or websites on Twitter – you can get links to new posts as well as links to other sites. It’s a great way to keep the new ideas flowing so you don’t get bored.

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!

How the AMA sold out, at our expense

Around the time I started getting interested in real food and knowing where my food comes from, I was also just starting a healthy lifestyle course that included a weight loss/body transformation component as well as exercise. My interest in food issues seemed to go hand in hand with the class, and I’ve never looked back since.

Here’s the thing, though. While eating real food from local, sustainable sources is good for the earth, for animals and for the community, it’s also good for your body. Many of the arguments for eating a diet of real food come from a health standpoint. Because America has an epidemic on its hands. As a country, we eat a lot of just plain horrible food. Junk. Chemical filled, calorie bomb, fake food. And we also don’t move very much.

The media loves to talk about the “obesity epidemic” in America. Just this week, the American Medical Association, against the recommendation of its own Council on Science and Public Health, decided to label obesity a “disease.” You might be thinking, so what? The AMA has no real authority, right? Well, sort of. They don’t have backing by the government, but their recommendations shape the way our health care is delivered and the way insurance works – by determining what insurance companies should pay for and how much. It helps guide the attention of physicians and healthcare practitioners across the country. So it’s important.

But it’s total crap.

AMA leaders said they were happy with the decision (again, against their own advisory panel’s advice) because it will (1) force doctors to pay more attention to obesity, (2) improve reimbursements and coverage for weight loss surgeries and drugs and (3) reduce the stigma surrounding obesity.

In regard to the first point, 51% of primary care doctors are overweight. Do you think the AMA coming out and “diagnosing” people with the disease of obesity is going to make doctors focus their attentions more on overweight or obese patients if they haven’t been able to focus on addressing their own weight and/or wellness?

In regard to their second point, surgeries and drugs for weight loss have shown very little clinical evidence of long-term success. So who wins if the reimbursements and coverage for these procedures and pills change? Primarily drug and device manufacturers and facilities that provide the procedures. It follows that you run the risk of doing unnecessary procedures just because the insurance will pay for it.

And people like to talk about gastric bypass being a miracle for weight loss. But what no one realizes is that you actually have to eat a very restricted diet and show that you can stick to it for several months before most hospitals will clear you to have the surgery if your insurance pays for it. So if you have the ability to eat a restricted diet to get the surgery, shouldn’t you just restrict your diet to healthy foods in the first place and avoid the risk of (many) complications? Yes, there are some people that really do need the surgery. But it’s not the miracle that everyone believes it to be, and it requires an unbelievable amount of determination and hard work. (Just like living a healthy lifestyle.)

In regard to the third point, the AMA says that it will help the public understand that some people have no control over their weight. That is partially true. There are people who have weight gain due to circumstances out of their control, or their bodies severely limit their ability to lose, even under the ideal conditions (hello, thyroid disease). But the way we reduce the stigma surrounding obesity is to start focusing on health, not weight loss. We have to stop equating skinny with healthy.

This brings me to the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health’s objection to this classification. BMI (body mass index, or a ratio of height and weight) is the only real tool that clinicians use to diagnose “obesity,” and it is widely known to be flawed. (You have extremely healthy people with high BMIs and extremely unhealthy people with low BMIs because health is multi-dimensional.) If the only tool for diagnosis of a “disease” is known to be flawed, how can you actually determine whether or not someone has that particular disease? A logical argument, which was flatly ignored by the larger body.

The Council also raised the point that people could be automatically diagnosed with a disease (that could affect their health insurance premiums) simply because of their BMI. I currently have a BMI of 27.9, but my bloodwork (like blood glucose and cholesterol) is super humanly awesome, I eat a clean and healthy diet, and I’m so active that I get up at 5 a.m. so I can run up and down hills in cemeteries. I challenge any doctor to tell me that I have the “disease” of being overweight. Do I still continue to watch my weight and work toward a weight that feels right for my body? Yes. But never at the expense of my health and certainly not to please the American Medical Association and put more money in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. Keep in mind that pharmaceutical companies need people to be obese to sell them obesity drugs. They don’t make money when people start eating salads and taking a walk.

It’s common knowledge that our health care system is broken. But we aren’t going to fix it by taking more pills and having more surgeries. We’ve allowed the professional societies for dieticians to take sponsorship money from companies that sell sugary soft drinks and garbage foods. And now we’re letting pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists decide what constitutes a disease instead of research and evidence-based practice.

We need our health care practitioners to focus on wellness, not just weight loss. Eat healthy foods and be active because those are healthy behaviors, clinically shown time and time again to reduce (actual) disease risk and increase quality and length of life. Don’t follow fads and eat fake diet foods just to drop the pounds because the AMA wants to fear monger about obesity being a killer disease. Obesity can be a side effect of an unhealthy lifestyle and it is a risk factor for chronic disease, but it isn’t a disease in and of itself, by any definition. 

The AMA should focus its wellness efforts on increasing people’s access to real and healthy foods and give them the opportunity to learn healthy behaviors, not cater to Big Pharmaceuticals. Makes you wonder if a drug company will sponsor the next AMA meeting. I guess we’ll see.