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.


What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).


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

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 ( 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!



Over the last couple of decades we have learned much about the wide range of toxic chemicals that people are exposed to at home and elsewhere. These exposures are associated with illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and disruption of reproductive and other hormonal systems.

Our companion animals are also exposed to many of these toxins in our homes and back yards. Just as studies have shown that we humans are carrying hundreds of chemicals in our bodies,1 recent studies have demonstrated that dogs and cats are also carrying toxic burdens in their bodies, in some cases at higher concentrations than their human companions.2,3

While you can’t protect your pets from all sources of toxic chemicals, here are a few things you can do to reduce their exposure.

 Pesticides and cancer


‘Jack’ (Luke Taylor)

Several studies have shown an association between use of pesticides in lawn care or flea/tick control and cancers in dogs, such as lymphoma and bladder cancer. Here are a few tips to reduce your pet’s exposure to pesticides.

  • Reduce or eliminate use of pesticides to control weeds or insects on lawns where your dog or cat plays. For safer alternatives to these chemicals, check out the following sources: or
  • Visiting a dog park? Ask park officials whether the area has been treated with pesticides and when. Waiting a week or two after application can help reduce the presence of pesticides in the grass and your dog’s exposure.
  • Select safer flea and tick treatments for your pets using the NRDC’s guide:

Cats and hyperthyroidism

Recent studies indicate that high exposure to environmental toxins in canned food and household dust may be linked to the rise of hyperthyroidism in cats. Because cats spend a lot of time on the floor and ingest dust as they bathe, keeping your home’s floors clean and replacing synthetic carpets with hardwood or tile floors and foam furniture with natural fibers (e.g. cotton or wool) can help. Also, try to feed your cat less canned fish, as this source has been found to contain the highest concentrations of contaminants.3 Of course, your cat will determine whether or not they’ll go along with that plan but give it your best shot if you’ve got a fish-loving cat in the home.

Plastics and reproductive health


‘Ellen’ (Laurel Standley)

Chemicals that leach from plastics such as soft vinyl (recycle code 3) or polycarbonates (recycle code 7) have been linked to negative impacts on reproductive health, particularly when exposures occur in the womb. Concerns about these exposures include “feminizing” effects on males and increased risk of breast cancer. As a precaution, especially when your pet is expecting, reduce her exposure to plastics. 

  • Replace plastic food bowls with food-grade stainless steel or ceramic bowls. Just make sure the ceramic is well glazed and lead-free (check the internet or your favorite pet store for sources of lead-free bowls).
  • Find alternatives for plastic chew toys when possible, making sure to avoid toys made from vinyl or recycled plastic bottles.

Teflon and birds

Fumes from heated fluorinated nonstick coatings have long been known to be highly toxic to pet birds. But you might be surprised at how many surfaces in our homes have non-stick coatings. To protect the health of pet birds and to reduce your own exposure to these fumes, make sure you don’t overheat the following products: nonstick pans and utensils, self-cleaning ovens, irons and ironing board covers, and microwave popcorn bags. If you’re not sure whether the product you are using has a nonstick coating, check with the manufacturer.

Water contaminants

Tap water and some bottled waters can contain low levels of many toxins, including disinfection byproducts (DBPs) that are formed when the water is treated to eliminate pathogens. DBPs have been strongly linked to increased risk of bladder cancer in humans. Dogs, especially Scottish terriers, are also vulnerable to this disease. To remove DBPs and most other contaminants from your pet’s drinking water (and your own), filter tap water through carbon systems such as those sold by PUR® or Brita®.

Bottom line: You and your companion animals are exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals in home and outdoor environments. Removing toxins from your home will protect both you and your pets from illnesses related to these chemicals. To learn about more things you can do to reduce your own and your pet’s toxic burdens, check out my recent book “#Toxins Tweet: 140 Easy Tips to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure to Environmental Toxins”.4

References (“National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals”, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009).

2 (“Polluted Pets: High Levels of Toxic Industrial Chemicals Contaminate Cats and Dogs”, Environmental Working Group, 2008).

3“Elevated PBDE Levels in Pet Cats: Sentinels for Humans?” Dye and coauthors (2007), Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 41, pp 6350–6356.

4Available at:

fireplaceWishing you a safe and joyous holiday season with those you love.

Day 1. A real holiday tree (organic if you can find it) and its organic soil sop up carbon from the atmosphere ( and reduce exposure to plasticizers from fake trees.

Day 2. Looking for great ideas for nontoxic presents? Check out and before you shop.

Day 3. Ideas for nontoxic decorations: bring in nature’s pinecones and create popcorn and cranberry garlands that will feed birds once the holiday is over.

Day 4. Enjoying a #MeatlessMonday reduces your exposure to fat-soluble toxins like dioxins, PCBs and organochlorine pesticides. A recent study showed lower cancer rates in vegans.

Day 5. Fill your home with naturally fragrant scents, like oranges with cloves and pine boughs, instead of synthetic fragrance products.

Day 6. Find nontoxic toys for beloved youngsters at the wonderful site

Day 7. If you are traveling by car for the Holidays, try to avoid heavy traffic and diesel trucks to reduce exposure to fumes or put fan on recirculate while in traffic.

Day 8. Wise to choose less contaminated fish for Friday’s meal using guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s

HolidayEllenDay 9. Don’t forget your pets when creating a nontoxic holiday. Check out for suggestions.

Day 10. Candles, though festive, are sources of indoor air pollution, including carcinogens. Use them sparingly and choose unscented beeswax or soy instead of paraffin.

Day 11. Spend some time outdoors today in a natural setting to take a break from indoor air, shown in studies to be higher in toxins.

Day 12. Prepare a nontoxic Holiday feast from unpackaged, organic foods and reduce exposure to pesticides, phthalates and BPA.