Refined flour (i.e. breads, cereals, pasta, etc.), refined sugar (i.e. table sugar, high fructose corn syrup), and vegetable oils (canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, sunflower, sesame) make up more than 50% of the total daily calories consumed by the average person in the industrial world today. (1) These three food toxins are one of the biggest causes of chronic illnesses we see today.
Human beings started to evolve approximately 2.5 million years ago and up until 10,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution started, chronic illnesses were rare or absent. One of the main reasons why is they ate nutritious food from the land that wasn’t refined and packaged up. They ate meat, seafood, vegetables, tubers, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
So what has made millions of us into fat, sick, and unhappy people? In short, our environment doesn’t support our genes. Our genes haven’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. When we eat “toxic” foods like refined flours, too much sugar, and consume large amounts of vegetable oils, we aren’t giving our genes a healthy environment to work optimally. Eventually, chronic inflammation (swelling) throughout the body results and at some point we are diagnosed with one of the chronic illnesses I have mentioned.
What is a toxin?
Anything that enters the body and creates disease or damages tissue would be considered a toxin. We often think of toxins as poisons like pesticides, or heavy metals like mercury, or air pollutants. However, even something beneficial to our health like water is toxic at high doses.
Consuming food with toxins and foods that aren’t nutrient dense usually take their toll on your body over time rather than right away. In other words, it may not be obvious the food is toxic when you consume low levels of it, but will be when you consume the toxic food regularly and over the long run. For example, say you have a bite of your bread or sandwich. You may not feel anything abnormal. You continue to consume until the whole sandwich is gone and you still don’t feel anything abnormal. If you continue to eat bread (cereal grains) day after day like most people do, the effect of the toxins in the bread may slowly create inflammation and damage to your tissues. Symptoms can come on so gradually you may not even notice them until one day they get so bad you do start to notice them. Then you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness. When we eat food that has toxins and is not nutrient dense our risk of getting a chronic illness rises significantly.
And what do most people eat on a daily basis? As mentioned earlier, refined flour, sugar, and vegetable oils make up more than 50% of the total daily calories consumed by the average person in the industrial world today. (1) Sandwiches, fast food, pastries, muffins, “fancy” sweetened coffee, and pop contain these toxins and are common foods people consume on a daily basis. Eating refined flours, sugars, and vegetable oils on a regular basis is a major risk factor for developing chronic illness.
Eating refined flours, sugars, and vegetable oils on a regular basis is a major risk factor for developing chronic illness.
Refined flour: Why is wheat or gluten bad for you?
Cereal grains like wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, and rye have become staples of the North American diet. It’s no wonder people include “whole grains” in their vocabulary when they tell me they eat healthy. But is eating grains really healthy despite what these major players say? Do we ever pause to think they could be wrong?
Plants, including plants that produce cereal grains, compete to survive and reproduce just as animals do. Unlike animals, plants can’t move and run away so they have developed other ways to protect themselves which include:
- producing toxins that damage the lining of the gut
- producing toxins that bind essential minerals, making them unavailable to the body
- producing toxins that disrupt digestion and absorption of other essential nutrients, including protein.
One of the most toxic components in refined flours and many cereal grains is gluten. I talked about why gluten is so toxic in a previous article, but here are the main points:
- Refined flours are low in nutrients.
- The low amount of nutrients that are in refined flours are hard to absorb.
- Refined flours contain phytic acid which prevents the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, manganese and zinc.
- Gluten will cause an increase in zonulin (a substance produced in the small intestine) in EVERYONE. Zonulin causes the small intestine to become “leaky” or permeable increasing the chance gluten can get into your blood and cause an immune reaction. (5) The immune reaction involves inflammation. The severity of the reaction depends on the person’s genetics, lifestyle, levels of stress, the health of their gut microbiome, and their general state of health.
You don’t have to have the typical digestive symptoms like overt Celiac Disease to know if you react to gluten.(6,7,8,9,10) Based on observational studies the following conditions and symptoms, to name just a few, have been linked to gluten intolerance:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation) (11)
- Skin conditions like Keratosis Pilaris (also known as ‘chicken skin’ on the back of your arms) or Dermatitis (12)
- Fatigue, brain fog, or feeling tired (13)
- Depression (15)
- Schizophrenia (16)
- Motor coordination problems (ataxia), dizziness, feeling off balance (17)
- Peripheral neuropathy, myopathy (18)
- Fibromyalgia (19)
- Meniere’s disease (22)
- Insulin resistance and inflammation (23)
- Inflammation, swelling or pain in your joints (24)
- Endometriosis (25)
- Hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s) (27, 28)
My recommendation to patients and for you is to avoid wheat and any food products where it is hidden, completely. And if you don’t want to avoid it completely, I recommend you at least get a blood test called Cyrex Array 3 to see if your immune system is reacting to it. Sometimes people need to see hard data before they take it seriously.
Vegetable and Industrial Seed Oils: I thought canola oil is good for you?
When I first started to learn about nutrition in my 20s canola oil (at least from where I am) was the go to safe cooking oil. It has a high smoke point which means it’s less likely to burn and release toxic fumes and create toxic chemicals (free radicals) when you cook with it. What I have learned in the past five to ten years is an entirely different story.
Our ancestors of over 10,000 years ago ate an abundance of seafood and foods containing omega-3 long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA), and relatively low amounts of omega-6 seed oils. They consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1. (30) Remember they didn’t get the modern day chronic illnesses related to inflammation that we do.
At the onset of the second industrial revolution (approximately 150 years ago) there was a marked shift in the ratio of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids in the diet. Omega-6 fatty acid consumption increased at the expense of omega−3 fatty acids (30). This change was due to the start of the modern vegetable oil industry as well as the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock. Using cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock changes the fatty acid profile in the meat which is consumed by humans.
As vegetable oil consumption increased during 20th century we had a rise in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio from 8:1 in the 1930’s to a ratio of 10:1 by 1985. Today the ratio is anywhere from 10:1 to 20:1 and as high as 25:1 in some individuals. (30, 31, 32)
In short, the consequences of consuming too much vegetable oils (Omega-6 fatty acids) and not enough foods with omega-3 fatty acids is an increase in inflammation. Inflammation is a major risk factor in developing any of the chronic illnesses I have mentioned. (33) Let’s take a closer look on why.
- Vegetable and industrial seed oils (canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, sunflower, sesame) contain high amounts of linoleic acid (LA). Even though your body needs LA from your diet, when LA is consumed in excess it’s harmful. LA oxidizes easily when exposed to heat which creates compounds called OXLAMs. OXLAMs are associated with a variety of diseases like fibromyalgia, non-fatty alcoholic liver disease, atherosclerosis, and heart disease.
- Vegetable oils tend to be high in omega-6 fatty acids which create inflammation in your body. If your diet is typical of the standard North American diet your intake of vegetable and industrial seed oils will exceed your intake of foods (like seafood and grass fed beef) containing omega-3 fatty acids which control inflammation. The low intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, found only in seafood, not only puts yourself into an inflammatory state, it may also interfere with the function of your brain and nervous system as DHA plays an important role in brain and nerve function.
- Like refined flours industrial vegetable and seed oils are high in calories and low in nutrients.
So how do we make sure we’re still getting omega-6 fatty acids in our diet but not getting too much so we put ourselves into a state of inflammation?
- Remember we still need omega-6 fatty acids, but get them from real food like nuts, seeds, pastured meat and other whole foods.
- Limit or avoid your intake of refined vegetable and industrial seed oils. Instead use more nutritious cooking fats like olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, and other pasture raised animal fats. Fats with a higher saturated fatty acid content also tend to have higher smoke points.
- Make sure you are eating enough cold-water fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel) to get enough pre-formed omega-3 fats DHA and EPA. I would recommend three five to six ounce servings of fatty fish per week. This is important for everyone to do for general health, but especially for people that have diets high in omega-6 fats.
- Nut flours are a good substitute for wheat flour when baking, but don’t overdo it. They are easy to overeat and when heated they can oxidize. If you do a lot of baking try switching it up to coconut flour and tapioca flour.
Refined Sugar: For all of you fellow sweet tooths
I ate lots of refined sugar up until my late 20s: cereal with white or brown sugar, cookies, ice cream, toast with peanut butter, and chocolate bars for snacks. Eating this much sugar in the absence of a nutrient dense diet was killing my ability to control my blood sugars. I put up with the symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) for about forty years: mood swings, fatigue, poor sleeps, brain fog, anxiety, and intense sugar cravings. I learned to manage my symptoms in my late 20s by eating better, but cured them when I started eating a Paleo diet in my 40s.
Consuming high amounts of refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn’t healthy for you. Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain from overeating, insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides, weakened immune system, and behavioural disorders. (33, 34, 35, 36) Refined sugar also has no nutrient value and it disrupts the good gut bacteria we have.
When we’re eating a nutrient dense whole food diet, however, small amounts of sugar and HFCS aren’t that bad for you. However, what most people consider small amounts of sugar is far from the truth.
Can you be addicted to sugar?
Remember I said one of the symptoms of hypoglycemia is intense sugar cravings. But does that mean sugar is “addictive”? Although there is strong evidence to support that sugar can be addictive in rodents, the evidence is weak that sugar has the same effect on humans. (37)
Even though refined sugar doesn’t have an “addictive” effect on humans, what it does do is disrupt our bodies ability to tell us if we’re hungry or full. (38, 39) So even though sugar doesn’t have an “addictive” effect on us, it can lead to overeating.
If you’re eating plenty of fermentable fiber to support your good gut bacteria, enough protein and fats that help regulate appetite, there’s no reason small amounts of sugar should cause a big problem for you.
There are conditions when you could be quite sensitive to refined sugar and restricting or avoiding it should be considered:
- If you have a severe imbalance between good and bad bacteria in your gut or you have an overgrowth of bacteria in your gut.
- If you have high blood sugar problems
The title of this article is a little misleading. Yes, I have no trouble saying that gluten is a toxin and should be strictly avoided or consumed rarely. Vegetable oils and refined sugars are toxic when consuming them in large amounts, but I wouldn’t say they have to be strictly avoided by everyone.
I will say this with confidence, if everyone in North America stopped eating cereal grains, vegetable and industrial seed oils, and refined sugar, the rates of chronic illness would decrease dramatically.
If you’re not willing to eat a nutrient-dense whole food diet like the Paleo type of diet for whatever reasons, begin with eliminating or at least reducing these three food toxins.