Jun 5, 2011

Making Healthier Food Choices: More with Robyn O'Brien

A few weeks ago, I posted this video of Robyn O'Brien speaking at TedxAustin on how our food supply is making us sick. O'Brien is a former food industry analyst who used her analytical skills to research our food system after one of her children had a severe allergic reaction. She was in Austin this week to give another talk at a luncheon and invited me to come.

Disclosure: the talk and luncheon were sponsored by Stonyfield Farm. They provided us with lunch at the Shoreline Grill and a goodie bag containing O'Brien's book The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother's Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America's Food Supply and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself, a Stonyfield Organic Yogurt Cookbook, Going Greener Guidebook magazine produced by Body & Soul (now Whole Living) and Stonyfield, a spatula and a baby bib.

At the luncheon, O'Brien shared some facts...

• One out of three American kids have autism, allergies, ADHD, and asthma.

• One out of 17 kids under the age of three has a food allergy.

• There has been a 265% increase in hospitalizations of people with food allergic reactions.

• From 1997 to 2002, the number of people with peanut allergies doubled.

• The United States has one of the highest rates of cancer in the world. If you move to the U.S. from another country like Japan, your likelihood of developing cancer goes up four times.

• In the U.S., one out of two men and one out of three women can expect to get cancer.

• Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under 15.

• The U.S. spends more money on healthcare than any other country. Sixteen cents of every dollar is spent managing disease (nine cents of every dollar is spent on food).

So what is a food allergy? When your body responds to a food protein as a foreign entity and launches an inflammatory response to drive it out.

• Milk allergy is the most common allergy in the U.S. From the USDA, O'Brien learned that in the 1990s, the U.S. began engineering new proteins into our food supply, starting with milk. In 1994, scientists engineered a synthetic growth hormone to increase production and profitability. No human trials had been conducted but animal studies shows it increased mastitis, ovarian cysts, lameness and skin disorders in cows that increased antibiotic use. Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all 27 countries in Europe wouldn't allow these hormones into their food supply because they had not been proven safe. In the U.S. it was allowed with the justification that it had not been proven dangerous. Yet studies started showing that these hormones led to elevated hormone levels in people that are linked to breast, colon and prostate cancer.

• Also from the USDA, O'Brien learned that in 1996 to increase profitability, a new protein was introduced into soybeans so that they could withstand increasing doses of weed killer. One human trial conducted showed that these soybeans caused an increase of 50% in soy allergies. Just like with milk, other countries would not allow this into their food supply, but the U.S. did.

• Another engineered protein was introduced into corn so that it releases its own insecticide as it grows. Again, this corn was banned in other countries, but allowed here. Some countries didn't even want the plants introduced into their soil.

• O'Brien's research from the Grocery Manufacturers Association showed that 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically-engineered ingredients. But corporations like Kraft, Kelloggs, and Coca-Cola are not using those synthetic ingredients in the products they formulate for other countries because consumer demand there would not allow it. "We have the ability to make that change here," she said.

So what is the answer to all of this frightening information? In a world where it's already so challenging to feed ourselves and our kids because of budget and time constraints, how do we navigate the grocery store? How do we know what foods are safe? And here is one of the things I admire most about O'Brien — she's real world. Her mantra is "don't let perfect be the enemy of good." She advocates taking one step at a time to steer your family's food away from unhealthy ingredients. Change the milk you drink or switch to organic for certain produce that contains the most pesticides. Or make a transition to eating less processed food.

O'Brien's foundation, AllergyKids, has primers on organics, nutrient-dense foods, GMOs, and lots of tips on what you can do at home, at school, and in the grocery store to steer towards healthier food.

One thing I've learned in making the transition to a gluten-free diet, I can't take in all the information I need at one time. I have had to do it in stages. One step at a time. And I've been at it more than a year now. I keep learning more every day about how to eat healthier and help my body recover. But I've seen the same thing that O'Brien saw in her kids: change. As I started making changes, I started feeling better. The better I felt, the more energy I have had and the better my body has functioned, the further I can go. In her book, O'Brien noticed that her children started having a much easier time going to bed after they made some changes in their diet. It's little steps like that that make a difference and can build into big progress over time.

Just take one step. Read a little, learn a little more, and take another step. I hope this inspires you to take a look at what you're eating and how to make healthier choices.

1 comment:

Recipes Club said...

Thanks for sharing! I recently saw Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) speak and it really has helped me to begin thinking about better ways to eat. I'm still finding it really challenging, because often eating healthier means spending more time in the kitchen, time which I don't always have. I've moved to using free range eggs and reducing the amount of overly-processed meat we eat. Like you said, it's a process and it takes a while. I'd love to hear some of your ideas and where you've seen success here!
~Nancy Lewis~