Unfortunately, we live in a toxic world. It’s nearly impossible to avoid ingesting chemicals, pesticides, additives, preservatives and other toxic elements that are prevalent in the air, water and food supply. The facts are staggering: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the environment every year in the United States.
While that may sound grim, the human body is designed to resist damage from toxins, starting with our skin, the largest organ in the body, which protects us from pollutants in the environment. Sweating, sneezing, urinating and having bowel movements are all ways we rid ourselves of toxins every single day. Once toxins enter into circulation in the body, the liver—our body’s detoxification powerhouse—works tirelessly to eliminate these harmful compounds through waste.
So, what can you do to minimize your exposure? Thankfully, there’s a lot. Certain foods actually enhance the liver’s ability to clear toxins from the body, and we’ll discuss those below. But the first step in clean eating—consuming whole, unprocessed foods—is to eliminate as many toxins as possible by making educated choices. Being aware of what you eat, where it comes from and how it was produced can make a big difference in lightening your toxic load, ultimately protecting your overall health.
Beware of Antibiotics and Hormones
Seventy percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to healthy livestock to promote growth and reduce disease occurrence. Repeated consumption of these meats can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans. The World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance to be one of the top three threats to global public health and recommends banning this practice. Look for antibiotic-free meats, especially poultry (they are usually marked “certified organic.”) Talking to your butcher can help avoid confusion: Many people think “free-range” and “grass-fed” options don’t contain antibiotics, but that isn’t always the case.
Limit Genetically Modified Foods
Research suggests that genetic modification of food may create allergens and contaminants (keep in mind that this research is preliminary and has not yet been definitively proven). The process may also lead to insecticide-resistant bugs and herbicide-resistant weeds, which in turn leads to the use of stronger chemicals to combat the problem. Corn and other corn products, soybeans and other soybean foods, canola oil, sugar beets and potatoes are most likely to be genetically modified in the United States. Since food labels aren’t legally required to disclose the use of genetically modified ingredients, the only way to avoid them is to buy organic when you can.
Reduce Exposure to Mercury and PCBs
Mercury, which is toxic to the brain and nervous system, is released into the air through industrial waste and accumulates in the plant life that is eaten by fish—which are then eaten by us. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are probable carcinogens that are prevalent in farmed salmon and fish from the Great Lakes. Mercury has also been found in drinking water; as a contaminant in the manufacturing of high-fructose corn syrup and in some dental fillings. To reduce your exposure to these toxins, start by being savvy about the fish you consume. High levels of mercury have been found in swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, shark and orange roughy, and albacore tuna contains more mercury than light canned tuna. (Visit our article Safe Ways to Eat More Fish to learn more.) Home water filters that use reverse osmosis can trap mercury and other heavy-metal toxins, and specially trained biological dentists can safely remove old dental fillings that contain mercury (request non-mercury amalgams for future fillings).
Seasonal, locally grown food tastes better, contains more nutrients and may harbor fewer toxins, but it’s still important to know how the animals were raised or how the produce was grown. When you can, choose organic options to limit your exposure to potential carcinogens, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals. To find farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) options in your area, visit Localharvest.org.
Wash Your Produce
Produce may contain pesticide or herbicide residues, bacteria and other microbes, so be sure to wash everything before you eat it or cook with it (even “pre-washed” bagged vegetables). You can purchase prepared vegetable wash solutions, which contain baking soda to scrub the produce and citrus oils as a surfactant to loosen surface dirt. Or simply use one teaspoon mild soap in one gallon of water to clean your produce. (Neither approach is effective, or course, on pesticides that were absorbed into the flesh of the fruit or vegetable.) Some more prep tips: Always clean produce before cutting; use a vegetable brush to help rid the peels of any stray contaminants; and discard the outer leaves of cabbage and lettuce.
Forgo Processed Foods
Avoid filling your cart with boxes, bags and pre-packaged items and instead shop the perimeter of the store where you’ll find produce, fresh baked goods, dairy and meat in their natural forms. If you’re considering a packaged food, put it back on the shelf if the ingredient list looks like an alphabet soup of words you can’t pronounce.
Choose Natural Sweeteners
Research suggests that high fructose corn syrup—ubiquitous in processed foods and soft drinks—may have negative effects on the liver’s ability to transform toxins for elimination. Plus, unless it’s farmed organically, corn is a genetically modified crop. There’s much controversy about artificial sweeteners and their link to certain cancers and diseases, too. To lessen your toxic load, try natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and cane sugar. In moderation, they are healthier choices than synthetic ones, but “limiting all types of added sugar is a key component of a clean eating style,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson
Avoid Trans Fats
Trans fats are known for their artery-clogging reputation, but they’re a dietary toxin that taxes our immune systems, promoting inflammation and increasing risk of certain cancers and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Since foods that contain up to .5 grams of trans fats are labeled as having none, the only way to avoid them is to bypass any product with partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list.
Choose Detoxifying Foods
The foods you eat can help to remove unwanted compounds once they’ve entered your body. “In order to allow the body to effectively excrete toxins, we must have a consistent supply of antioxidants from an abundant intake of deeply colored vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, whole grains and beans—mostly plant foods,” Powell says. Some nutrients involved in this process include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, copper, magnesium, zinc and manganese. Visit our article Top 9 Detoxifying Foods to learn more about what you can put on your plate to reduce your toxic load.
Drink Clean Water
We need clean drinking water for two reasons: to reduce exposure to toxins in water and to remove contaminants from our bodies. “The last phase of detoxification is excretion, which is critically dependent on water for urine, feces, perspiration and respiration—all the major detox pathways,” Powell says. Our drinking water has to meet standards for some chemicals and disease-carrying organisms, but there are no standards for many toxins. And before you reach for bottled water, you should know that often it’s not truly filtered—it’s usually municipal water from wherever it’s bottled that has been exposed to ozone to kill any microorganisms. To reduce your exposure to toxins and pathogens, drink filtered water whenever possible. We recommend carbon filtration as a minimum standard and reverse osmosis if there is concern about heavy metals or other significant contamination (or for those who may be immune-compromised). Consider investing in a glass, stainless steel or BPA-free bottle instead of using soft plastic water bottles–the chemicals can leach into them. For information on what chemicals and heavy metals your tap water may contain, visit the Environmental Working Group’s website and consider getting your water tested through doctorsdata.com, a lab that evaluates many more chemicals than the local water companies.