Friday, October 30, 2015

Toxins, toxins everywhere

Sometimes, when I have a meal with others, I experience the Nutritionist Dilemma: should I tell them that the food they are eating is utterly unhealthy? Examples include fast food, chips and treats loaded with tons of refined sugar, colorants, hydrogenated vegetable oils and soy lecithin. Up to the allegedly healthy options like zero-fat cheese cream, soy yogurt, tofu, pasteurized fruit juices, crackers with 7-cereals, roasted nuts, meal-replacements, etc.

With all my good intentions of course, I don't want to be condescending or sarcastic. I just want to help people. And the response is the most frustrating and disarming claim a nutritionist can hear:

If you pay attention to everything, you don't eat anymore

Case closed, eat your healthy stuff, let me eat my poison.

One of my professors said that "doing lectures in social events is not efficient anyway". In his long experience as a nutritionist he knows what I am getting used to, little by little.

The mindset problem

We live in a polluted world. Some toxins are 100% natural (just think about the Amanita phalloides), some are man-made. Some substances are healthy in moderation and toxic in excess (Vit-A for example). In short, we cannot eliminate all types of pollution and toxins from our lives. Even now, most of you are sitting in front of a laptop (WiFi network), and probably have one or more cellphones within meters, if not in their pockets (microwaves).

Speaking about food, even an iceberg salad from the most organic produce contains toxins, both natural and artificial. How does this situation fit in the "frustrating and disarming claim" above? Easy: since we are already getting our daily load of toxins unwillingly... we should do the best choice possible in the cases were we have control of the situation. The good things we choose to eat should be good enough to counterbalance what we are not in control of.

I prepared a short (pun intended) list of common sources of toxins. It is obviously not complete, these are just examples. The goal is to raise awareness, stimulate the curiosity and have the reader do their own researches.

Let's start with the...

Ingredients, of course

Some food is not suitable for human consumption. Again, think about poisonous mushrooms or those delicious-looking red berries you saw in the woods: some food can kill you in days if not even hours. Some toxins are more vicious and kill you very slowly, in years. Surprisingly enough (well, to be honest I am not surprised anymore), some of them have even been promoted as health food.

I'll go now through a quick list, I think there is little-to-no need for explanations and everybody will pretty much agree on it. If not, just let me know.
  • Soy and derivatives (how could I not mention it...). Even if you don't eat tofu, fake-meat, soy milk or soy yogurt, this legume is found everywhere in pre-packaged food, either in the form of oil, flour or just lecithine.
  • Grain-fed meat from animals which should be fed grass. These animals are often filled with antibiotics to cope with the diseases to which they are easily subject due to their awful diet.
  • Rancid vegetable oils, just check my post on fats in case you missed it.
  • Plastic bottles, technically not an ingredient, but may leak into the water we drink. Plastic bottles are a source of xenoextrogenes and BPA. Choose glass whenever possible.
  • Styrofoam and plastic cups, plastic spoons, again can become ingredients by leaking cancerogenic molecules into your hot coffee.

Some healthy food may be/become toxic if not properly prepared or just eaten in excess. Notable examples are:
  • Some cereals (wheat, rye, oat, barley), proper preparation include soaking, fermenting or sprouting in order to eliminate phytic acid, lectins and to start breaking down gluten. Pasta, biscuits, pizza, grissini and white bread are the wrong way to eat cereals. Sourdough and oatmeal soaked overnight are the traditional and healthy ways.
  • Meat, charred meat is in fact cancerogenous, that's the bias of almost every study that proves how bad red meat is. Proper cooking techniques include stewing, boiling and slow roasting. Btw, meat can even be eaten raw if you trust the source.
  • Fish, due to the delicate ω-3 fatty acids, should never be cooked too long of too violently.
  • Cruciferae (broccoli, bruxelles sprouts, cabbage, ...) contain goitrogens, which impair the absorption of Iodine, thus causing thyroid issues in those people predisposed to. While most people can safely eat moderate amounts of them raw, for some others it is imperative to cook those vegetables to get rid of the goitrogenic effect.
  • Nuts and seeds, as I keep repeating, are not suitable for roasting. This is particularly true for nut flours, where the surface in direct contact with the air is augmented. Eat them rigorously raw. Further improvements include soaking them overnight to eliminate phytic acid.
  • Pulses (beans, chickpeas, green peas, lentils) are a great food which has unjustly been banned from the paleo diet because they contain phytates and saponins. Proper preparation includes soaking and cooking. Hint: never start from the fresh seeds, they must be dried and re-hydrated in order for the trick to work. As for nuts and cereals, the seed must think it's time to sprout.
  • Pseudo-cereals like quinoa, and amaranth contain saponins: again, soaking or at least pre-washing them before cooking will improve their health benefits (and their taste...). Unfortunately not many people know it.
  • Liver, is such a superfood with so many vitamins and bioavailable iron that eaten in excess may be toxic. In the same way you can overdo seaweed (iodine) and brazilnuts (selenium).
  • Red wine, I consider drinking a personal choice, however everybody with few exceptions agrees on the health benefits of the occasional glass. One thing people must realize is that the benefits of resveratrol have a upper limit, on the contrary the damages of ethanol are unlimited. Try not to reach the break-even point (translation: drink only one glass and occasionally). 

Food additives

When you buy prepared meals you can be sure of one thing: there are food additives. Colorants, preservatives, plenty of added sugar for sure, emulsifiers (often soy lecithin) and of course flavor enhancers, with MSG being probably the less dangerous.

I have been working on a list of food additives and their safety for my own use. I think that this subject is big enough for a dedicated post and probably even a printable handout that I will share with pleasure once I am done.


I am always surprised how surprised people are when I tell them that anti-stick cookware is not safe. I think that everybody already digested the fact that teflon is pretty much toxic, some people (including me...) even digested their share of teflon chips. Why should the new generation of cookware made with the same polymers used to make teflon... be any less unhealthy? That's the sad truth: silverstone is another name for teflon, what changed is the process to produce it, which justified the change of name. Ah, the power of patents...

Silicon has become a recent favorite, especially for cookies, muffins, cakes, etc. Flexible, non-stick, easy to wash, my grandma would have loved it. However from a health point of view silicon is very controversial and despite my researches I still do not have a clear opinion on its safety. In doubt, I prefer to avoid it, anyway I don't bake that much...

Aluminium cookware. Neurotoxic. Enough said.

Plastic containers in microwave oven... self-evident.

Ok Alex, once again: what should we use?

I am a big fan of cast iron cookware and through the years I replaced everything in my kitchen. According to me there is hardly a better choice: they can be used with any type of heat source including the oven. They distribute heat evenly and keep food hot long time on the table. They are not non-stick and if you try to cook fat-free you'll immediately notice it but that should not be a problem: after reading my previous articles you should not fear fats anymore. Last but not least... they will literally last centuries, if properly used of course.

Stainless steel is a good choice for an all-purpose frying pan or cooking pot. Definitely cheaper than cast iron, it is also thinner and may not deliver heat as evenly, but in general works very well for soups or for making bone broth (I want to see somebody lifting a 10 liters cauldron made of cast iron full of boiling water). It tends to leak iron, which may be good for some people, but also nickel, especially when in contact with acid food like tomatoes. And some people are sensitive to nickel.

Glass is a 100% safe and relatively cheap choice if you cook in the oven. Great for baked potatoes à la provençale, tartiflette, ratatouille, but also lasagne, moussaka, eggplants alla parmigiana, stuffed peppers, roasted fish... Sorry I have to stop here, I'm getting hungry.

Ceramic... that's a tricky one. In my opinion that's the best choice for cooking in the oven. It is refractory so it cooks food evenly without the risk that it stitches on it. The enamel however must be certified to be lead free.

Earthenware pots... oh yes! Crockpot, gwetch, tagine. Terracotta is another excellent choice for slow cooking. The lack of enamel and thus the porosity of the surface keeps the food moist and prevents a lot of flavors from being dispersed. I believe everybody seriously interested in cooking should own at least one (I have five). Again, the risk is lead poisoning, so don't use the first cheap crockpot, only quality products.

Skin products

Toxins, toxins everywhere... not just in our dishes. Let's talk about balms, creams, shampoos, shaving foams and soaps. Quick question first:

Would you eat your moisturizer or drink your shampoo?

As obvious as the answer is, the fact is that you are already eating it. The skin is one of our lines of first defense against pathogens and chemicals, however some chemicals are able to leak through. Just think about cortisol creams and nicotine patches. Why shouldn't it be the same with any other product you put on your skin?

Objection: they tested the creams and they are safe. I wish I could be so optimist. Tests don't last enough to show the side effects of prolonged use. The ultimate guinea pig is always the customer.

Objection: I don't want wrinkles. Neither do I. Skin health is important and that's exactly the reason why it should be approached the correct way.

Let's get practical Alex, no moisturizer, no soap, no shampoos. What then?

Products like Alep's soap or the original Marseille soap are made with three ingredients: oil of olive, oil of bay and lye. Both are extremely efficient for cleaning skin and hair and work wonderfully as shaving foam, too.

For skin care, one thing people are missing is that the skin is the mirror of what happens inside your body. If you don't fix the root cause you'll never get rid of the effects.
  • Dry skin is an indication of chronic dehydration and/or essential fatty acids deficiency. It may also be that you are using a soap that is too aggressive or just take too many showers.
  • Adult acne often reveals SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). I would check this first, before using hormones based creams...
  • Wrinkles, while it is true that they cannot be prevented indefinitely, they can be postponed: nutrients like glycine (bone broth, collagen, chicken skin, ...) and Vit-C all contribute with surprising efficiency to keeping the skin young, brilliant and healthy looking. The side effect will be healthy joints, tendons and ligaments, and.... tastier meals!
The subject is very big and can't be fully covered here (for example, butter and coconut oil are good moisturizers and I personally don't mind eating them). I hope I conveied the Big Idea.

I am not an expert of skin care products but I am a nutritionist and I like working inside-out. I promise I will dedicate a post on this, maybe with the help of somebody.


This is an interesting one. Sweat is one of several pathways our body employs to eliminate toxins (the others are urine, feces and the breath). Important centers are the lymph nodes which are located under the armpits, which incidentally is also a place where we sweat a lot.

I won't develop this topic any further, I'll just leave you with some food for thought: does it really make sense to prevent your body from sweating and thus from detoxifying? What would be instead a better solution?

Dish cleaning products

Sometimes you do indeed eat soap, this happens if you wash your dishes and don't rinse them carefully. It has been calculated that, over a lifetime, the average person drinks a couple of liters of the stuff, drop by drop and day after day of course. Still, this is yet another poison we deliberately add to our diets when in fact we have the choice not to.

Sometimes, the best way to convey an idea is irony. One comic situation I always have in my mind is a mother screaming in a high-pitched voice:

Oh my goodness there is still some food on the dishes!
Let's wash it away with a petroleum-based poison!

And by the way, if you wash your dishes with bare hands, chances are that you are absorbing some through the skin, too.

Ok, Alex, we got it. So we leave the dishes dirty until next meal?

I never said that, there is in fact an alternative: cleaning them with edible products. My favorite cleaning agents for dishes and cookware are cheap vinegar and lemon husks (also good for brushing, very useful for the cast-iron grill). People are often skeptic about their effectiveness until they try. Then it is just a matter of making it an habit.

Volatile compounds

I skip tobacco if you don't mind, because that one is obvious.

The quality of the air we breathe is very important and just the fact of living in cities already gives us a decent daily dose of toxins (particulate matter, benzene, etc). We can't do much to fix it, except building a hut in Tibet and live like a hermit eating yak butter and potatoes until we reach the age of 120: it is proven to work, it is just not my ideal lifestyle, I believe it isn't yours neither.

We are not looking to be perfect, we are looking to do our best. The best we can do in this case is to avoid supplementing with additional toxins where we are in control. Examples of daily toxins most of us deliberately add to their air are:
  • Insecticides: those sprayed in the air are clearly the most dangerous. For a micro-droplet you actually need to kill a mosquito, you disperse a consistent quantity of the product. Guess who is breathing it? My take: run after the mosquito and kill it by physical means: the benefits are that you will be doing some cardio, too.
  • Eau de toilette, air scents: this one may not be obvious because people think that those products are tested and therefore safe. They are not. The fact that they don't kill you on the instant doesn't mean they are 100% harmless. Think of allergies, asthma, migraines... why are they becoming more and more diffused? For perfumes the problem is double since it is put directly onto the skin (see above: creams, soaps, shampoos...).
  • Hair spray: those copolymers of polyvinylpyrrolidone and polyvinyl acetate stitch to your hair, what do you think they do to the mucosa of your respiratory tract? With all my heart: stay away from it.
  • Nail polishers and thinners: they easily melt a crust that could bravely tolerate water, alcohol, vinegar, bleach and other solvents for one entire week. It is also very volatile so chances are you are inhaling every drop of it. Acetone and methanol are both extremely toxic, there are however alternatives which don't contain them. I found some products but won't list them here because I don't like doing ads, just be informed that they exist. I let the pleasure to find them to those interested, it's a girl thing anyway ;)
  • Cleaning products: although green alternatives exist (I manage to clean 99% of my house with just water, vinegar and alcohol), sometimes something stronger is needed. In these cases, make sure you wear gloves and possibly a surgeon mask. You may feel funny at the beginning but it is better than feeling sorry at the end.
  • Fabric softeners: I wasn't much a believer of this but after I read some studies of how conditioners stay in the tissues of clothes and bed sheets after the spin phase, how they keep sublimating for days, and their potential effects on heath, I am seriously considering not using them anymore.
  • Paraffin candles: cheap (and sometimes scented with chemicals) they are in fact made with a derivate of petroleum, so nothing I would breathe happily. Good alternatives, although more expensive, are beeswax candles. Think it this way: candles are great to create a warm and romantic ambiance... use the real thing!
  • Incense... I understand the charm of those exotic smelling scents and the feeling of enlightenment many New Agers get from burning them in their bedrooms or even at the office but... get real: fumes they are, therefore cancerogenic.
  • Paint thinners, glues and other solvents: many people like DIY. That's fine, it is a great hobby. Unfortunately it comes with a price and I am not referring to the costs of the materials and tools. Fumes of paint thinners and solvents are toxic and potentially cancerogenic, moreover the proximity to the source and the fact that often bricolage is done in a poorly aerated location makes you inhale quantities of it. If you really like bricolage and can't renounce to it, consider doing it outdoors.

Done? No way. The list is obviously an example, it could be much longer but again: it is the concept that is important. Smart people can figure out the missing bullet points just by looking around in their living rooms, while stupid people won't change their habits no matter how complete my list is.


The post is over, now I can finally ask:

How many of you removed the cellphone from their pockets
while reading this article?

But why? Anyway we live in a polluted world!

Exactly: the fact is that keeping a source of microwaves close to the reproductive organs is a choice, and we can choose not to. Shouldn't it be the same with the food we eat, the cookware we use, the creams we spread on our skins and the volatile compounds we deliberately release in the air?

Stay healthy and... stay tuned!

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