fresh fruits and vegetablesThere are many reasons to follow a vegan, or the newest trend, “seagan” diet, which includes fish. Many studies have shown significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease in vegans and pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) than in people eating a meat-based diet. And for vegans, it is a choice to avoid harm to animals by eating only plant-based foods.

There’s another benefit to eating a plant-based diet. Because our environment has become contaminated by decades of industrial production, there are no truly pollutant-free places left on the planet, with some places more contaminated than others. Although both plants and animals are exposed to pollutants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins, animals like cattle and chickens accumulate these chemicals at up to a million times higher levels than plants and store them in their fatty tissues. Fish also accumulate pollutants at high levels when they’re reared in contaminated environments.

Consequently in addition to what we’re exposed to in our environments, eating animal products that are high in fats like meat, cheese, and butter greatly increase the transfer of these pollutants into our bodies. This is of concern because these toxins are harmful to our neurological and reproductive health.

tunaSo why would vegans eat fish? Adding seafood to a plant-based diet can help you overcome nutritional deficits like inadequate levels of the brain-healthy omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although plants like walnuts and flax have omega-3 fats, it is primarily alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) instead of EPA and DHA and studies have not shown links between consuming ALA to improved brain health.

If your concern as a vegan is to avoid animal-based products or you want to reduce your exposure to fat-based contaminants, then you can choose to include algal sources of fats in your diet, either through supplements, or eating sea-based veggies like kelp. Because algae are plants, they are often much less contaminated than fish. Just make sure you’re choosing products that have been grown in clean waters.

However, if you want to include fish in your diet, these are the best steps to take to avoid getting a hefty dose of toxic chemicals along with your meal:

  1. Eat lower on the food chain. Small fish like sardines and herring tend to have lower levels of toxins than predator fish and, if you like tuna, go for “canned light” over albacore or ahi, which have higher levels of the neurotoxin mercury.
  2. Choose wild-caught fish from cleaner waters (I recommend checking one of the great fish consumption guides from the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council).

Bottom line: the more organic, unprocessed, and plant-based foods you include in your diet, the lower your risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals so prevalent in our environment. And if you add fish to your vegan diet, make sure you use a guide to choose cleaner options to reduce your exposure to pollutants.

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September 30, 2016

OUlogo.jpgJoin me for the #OctoberUnprocessed Challenge! Starting tomorrow and for the entire month of October, I’ll be choosing to eat minimally processed, whole foods . And I will be posting at DocLaurel (Facebook) and @Laurel_Standley (Twitter) on ways that eating a less processed diet can reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals.

This is the 7th annual Challenge, which is hosted by Andrew Wilder (@EatingRules) on Facebook. To find the group, just search for October Unprocessed and join ~3,000 people participating this year. Even if you are only able to reduce rather than avoid processed foods during the month, you can make a big difference in eliminating unhealthy ingredients from your diet. Learn more about the Challenge at https://eatingrules.com/october-unprocessed/.

Please join the conversation – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Join #OctoberUnprocessed!

September 30, 2014

october-unprocessed-2014During the month of October, I’ll be tweeting (@Laurel_Standley) on the benefits of an unprocessed diet on reducing exposures to toxic chemicals. This was inspired by Andrew Wilder’s annual event called October Unprocessed (follow @eatingrules). I highly recommend visiting his site (https://eatingrules.com/october-unprocessed-2014/) and signing up for the month as a way to reconnect to ‘real’ food and good health. Oh, and to benefit from a reduced exposure to toxic chemicals that are present in packaging and processed foods.

Bon Appetit!

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I recently read about studies that show a counterintuitive relationship between consuming higher fat dairy products and reduced body weight (e.g. http://n.pr/1kBi0fZ). I read this with concern because animal fats, such as those in high fat dairy products, are a key source of fat-soluble toxins to our bodies (see http://bit.ly/1hywXix) and it can take many years to clear these toxins from our tissues.

What isn’t clear from these studies is whether there are alternatives to dairy fats or animal fats in general that would achieve the same result. For example, they didn’t assess whether people could replace full fat dairy products with healthy vegetable fats, like those in avocados and nuts, to achieve satiety while avoiding the toxins that bioaccumulate in animal fats.

Vegetarian, especially vegan diets, have been linked to lower diabetes, heart disease, and cancer risks (see http://bit.ly/1mQCGT7). And consuming these foods instead of meat products (including fatty dairy products) definitely reduces your exposure to fat-soluble toxins such as PCBs and dioxins, which are taken up by animals at levels many orders of magnitude higher than plants.

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One of these studies on body weight versus dairy fat consumption mentioned the presence of omega-3 fats in organic high fat dairy products as an added health benefit. But there are definitely cleaner sources of these fats. And because most people consume non-organic dairy products, I am concerned about the advice to increase consumption of high-fat dairy since cattle raised conventionally produce lower levels of omega-3 fats in addition to accumulating fat-soluble toxins.

Sometimes what’s best for you in terms of other health indicators may not be best for you with respect to reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals, like the benefits of breast-feeding versus toxins in breast milk and the use of sunscreens with potentially toxic ingredients versus protecting your skin from damaging ultraviolet radiation. In those cases, breast-feeding and reducing exposure to ultraviolet rays make sense, even if they increase exposure to certain toxins.

But in this case, I really would love to see studies compare a vegetarian, low toxin alternative to this association between consumption of dairy fat with lower body weight.

For now, I think the bottom line is to try the vegetarian approach toward achieving a smaller ‘bottom’ to avoid increasing your risk of diseases associated with exposure to toxic contaminants, especially the fat-soluble ones present in high fat dairy products.