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(from WashingtonPost.com)

The Mediterranean Diet has been in the news lately for reducing the risk of heart disease and the need for pharmacological or surgical interventions.1 As a long-time fan of Dr. Dean Ornish’s work documenting the benefits of diet and lifestyle changes on reversing heart disease and cancer,2 I was struck by the fact that many of the same recommendations for the Ornish and Mediterranean Diets are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxic substances that contaminate food.

These researchers have shown that shifting your diet away from animal-based and processed foods can help reverse damage from heart disease and cancer. Fortunately, making these same changes are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxins associated with animal fats, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, as well as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which can contaminate food during processing and packaging.

Animals can bioaccumulate fat-soluble toxins at levels up to a million times those in plants and these chemicals are stored in their fatty tissues. Because of this, consuming fats from beef, chicken, or fish can give you a high dose of toxins that are tough to clear from your body. In fact, it can take decades to get rid of these toxins so it’s better to just not consume them in the first place. Keep in mind that cheese and other fatty dairy products also contain these toxins so that vegetarians who consume animal-based products like dairy and eggs will also be more highly exposed than those who do not.3 The good news is that a vegan diet, which contains no animal-based fats, is especially likely to result in a lower exposure to toxins. In addition to the heart-protective nature of their diet, a recent study showed that vegans also have a lower risk of cancer than omnivores and vegetarians.4

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Eat this not that! Vegan meal on left, packaged meat-based meal on right.

In addition to contaminants that are present in the food itself, additional toxins may be added during processing of our food. These include endocrine disrupting chemicals such phthalates and BPA. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to reduce your exposure to BPA and phthalates by avoiding processed food but that it isn’t easy to do so.5,6 This indicates that we will also need to change the materials used for packaging and processing to keep these toxins out of our food.

When taking toxins into account, it is important to get ‘healthy’ fats like the omega-3 fatty acids from less contaminated sources. Vegans can obtain these from algal sources and ominivores from distilled fish oils or less-contaminated fish.7 However, recent news on the mislabeling of fish in stores and restaurants may make selecting safer species a bit of a challenge.8

Finally, I also recommend switching to as much organic produce and foods as possible within your budget. Consuming organic foods will not only reduce your family’s exposure to residues of neurotoxic pesticides but also reduce the concentration of these toxins in the environment where we get our drinking water, grow our food, and live. The Environmental Working Group has great guides to help you save money while selecting less-contaminated produce.9

Bottom line: following these recommendations will help you reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and, as a bonus, exposure to environmental toxins:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, preferably organic.
  • Avoid animal fats.
  • Include omega‑3 fatty acids from clean sources.
  • Minimize consumption of processed and packaged foods.

References:

  1. Estruch, R. et al. (2013). “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”. New Engl. J. Med. (Published March 2013).
  2. Dean Ornish, M.D. (2008). “The Spectrum. A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health.” Ballantine Books, Publisher.
  3. Kalantzi, O. I. et al. (2001). “The global distribution of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in butter.”  Environ. Sci. Technol. 35:1013-1018.
  4. Tantamango-Bartley, Y. et al. (2013). “Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population.” Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 22:2286-94.
  5. Rudel, R. et al. (2011). “Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention.” Environ. Health Perspect. 119:914–920.
  6. Sathyanarayana, S. et al. (2013). “Unexpected results in a randomized dietary trial to reduce phthalate and bisphenol A exposures.” J. Expos. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol. (online February 27, 2013).
  7. Natural Resource Defense Council’s Consumer Guide: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/guide.asp.
  8. Warner, K. et al. “Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide.” February 2013. http://oceana.org
  9. EWG guides to “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/