The Perfect Storm of Toxic Food, Sick Kids, and the Limits of Medicine
Why is it that approximately 40% of children now have a food allergy? Is the industrial food system to blame or modern medical practices? Perhaps a combination of both… Michelle Perro, MD and Vincanne Adams, PhD would certainly say so.
The following excerpt is from Michelle Perro and Vincanne Adams’ book, What’s Making Our Children Sick?: How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It. It has been adapted for the web.
To some readers, the notion that we are eating foods that are making us sick seems somewhat far-fetched. After all, we live in a country that has the most proficient and prolific systems ever known for the production of foods. We have a broader variety in our food choices than any generation preceding us, and foods are “cleaner” (in the sense of being free from microbial pathogens) than ever in history. On top of that, most middle-aged adults are likely to say that they ate all these foods even before something called “organic” existed, and they are not that unhealthy.
Yet it is clear that our kids are getting more food allergies, food sensitivities, and chronic health problems related to diet than ever before, and certainly more than we middle-aged adults did as kids. (Adults are not that healthy either, if you look at population statistics.) According to 2013 data from the Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy, over half of US children and teens live with a chronic condition. Approximately 40 percent of American children now have an allergy. This is remarkable in a nation that spends more money on its health care and provides more drugs on a per capita basis to its population than any nation in the world.
Is it possible that we are doing something wrong? Is it possible that all of these chronic problems in our kids are related to something so basic as food? Is it possible that the ways we are treating these problems through our existing medical repertoire are missing the mark in some part or altogether? We believe our kids are sick with chronic ailments today because of the cataclysm of at least three things:
- Living in a toxic environment from chemical exposures, rather than from microbial infections, making the foods we eat a source of disease
- Outmoded models of clinical care and disease causation
- A scientific community that is embattled when it comes to food-health science
These ingredients create an uncomfortable brew. This is a terrain of conflict that results in poor health, frustrated patients and families, and conflicted medical professionals. We have, in other words, created a perfect storm for ourselves and for our kids. This storm starts with what we eat (and what we feed to our kids). It also moves beyond this very quickly.
What we are faced with today is more than just a problem of eating too many sugars and fats, too many fake foods, or what Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, calls edible foodlike substances—the packaged foods filled with secret ingredients or artificial man-made fillers. To be sure, these food choices are unhealthy, and there is ample scientific consensus on this opinion.
What we are interested in goes beyond these well-known unhealthy foods. The big issue here is that our kids are not justgetting sick from eating fake foods, they’re getting sick from eating real foods, foods that many of us would consider healthy. Why? Because many of our real foods have been overloaded with fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and have been redesigned with genetic alterations that often lead to increased loads of toxic pesticides.
Our concern is that many of our so-called “healthy” foods contain the same toxicants that are found in fake foods. That is, many of the fruits, vegetables, and grains that we eat (or that our farmed dairy and livestock eat) have been chemically altered and industrially grown with the use of pesticides.
These foods contain chemical toxicants either because of the ways they were modified or grown, or because of the fact that they were fed modified foods that we, in turn, eat. Modern food is now industrialized food that comes from a whole interconnected chain of agroindustrial chemical dependencies that pervade the entire food ecosystem. To sum up, we are concerned, specifically, with anything that is not organic.
Organic foods are, by definition, foods that have attempted to avoid (usually successfully) these chemical production dependencies. (It is important to note that some organic foods can also be tainted and some are large-scale cash crops, but they remain the better choice and a good place to start.)
The Toxic Lunchbox and Beyond
What is happening to our kids today reaches far beyond the problem of food, even if it starts there. We are feeding our children toxicants, often without knowing it. Their lunchboxes are too often filled with foods- plus, foods that have added qualities that are harmful to our children’s guts and, consequently, their bodies and brains. Widening the lens from the toxic lunchbox, we know that their ailments are symptomatic of our larger failure to understand the ecosystem within which our foods are grown and upon which we depend for survival.
Widening the lens even further, we know that harmful chemicals permeate not only the foods, but also the environments within which our children live, from the plastics in their cosmetics and school supplies to the particulate pollution in the air from cars and factories. All of these, cumulatively, are causing massive disruptions of our kids’ health, an irony considering that the chemical revolution was once promoted as “a medical miracle” but is in reality a children’s health disaster. This system is unsustainable. Our sick kids are the prima facie evidence for this.
If we begin our journey with the simple premise that many of our foods are making our children sick, we must quickly move to more deep-seated and hard-to-answer questions. First, how and why have our foods been turned into toxicants? Can these transformations in our foods explain all of these varied chronic disorders? What evidence can we rely on to make sense of the links here? What models of health and disease and, more importantly, of clinical practice are going to lead us out of the storm?
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
Hippocrates, known by many as the father and founder of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” We have traveled far from his insight today, as pharmaceuticals become more and more a replacement for food and food is seldom seen as a source of medicine in its own right. In fact, one might argue that the second part of his aphorism is all we do now; we let medicine be a replacement for food. However, food is a medicine and we need to return to this wisdom. But we also need to make sure that the food we eat is not dangerous or harmful to our health. The problem today is that few doctors are trained to think of food as a first-line remedy, and even fewer are made aware of the fact that many foods have become dangerous.
In fact, among the growing ranks of clinicians who become focused on food’s enormous role in health, many do so because they have personal experiences that are similar to those of their patients or they have patients who present with things they cannot cure and so they go on a hunt for solutions beyond the guidelines they currently follow. Dr. Perro, for instance, started to look at food in relation to health because of patterns she was seeing in her clinic, coupled with her own son’s ailments. Her attempt to sort out his problems led to her finding alternative approaches to his treatment. At the same time, she was exposed to some of the science that linked exposure to pesticides to many chronic ailments. Things all came together for her then.
Good clinicians everywhere do or want to do much of what Dr. Perro does. What separates her from some other physicians is her willingness to think beyond the conventional repertoire she was taught in medical school. She uses tests that are often only being used in science laboratories and in integrative clinics. She also uses homeopathy, a several-hundred-year-old medical specialty founded by German pharmacist Samuel Hahnemann. Based on the principle that “like cures like,” homeopathy offers a wide pharmacopeia of “low toxicity” remedies that are administered in very low doses to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself. Few doctors believe that homeopathy has any proven efficacy, and even those who will say they have seen it work are at a loss to explain why. Dr. Perro looks beyond diagnoses that fragment the body’s ailments into discrete diseases and tries to look at the overall pattern, starting with the most basic of triggers for health and disease.
More than anything else, what makes Dr. Perro appear somewhat radical as a clinician is her willingness to focus so much on food, and on the possibility that even some of the so-called healthy foods our kids are eating are making them sick in a variety of different ways. Her belief in the benefits of organic, and the dangers of nonorganic, foods might be shared among many physicians, but few would emphasize it as a treatment program. This makes her unusual in mainstream, but not integrative, medicine.
The chips are stacked against the kind of medicine Dr. Perro practices. Food-focused medicine has never been mainstream, despite the fact that medical schools do not entirely ignore food, at least in the sense of nutrition. But there are larger reasons for the resistance to making food a centerpiece for clinical treatments.
The oversized presence of pharmaceutical and biotechnological solutions has long crowded out the more simple (and affordable) promise of food in diagnosis and treatment. Even if doctors want to pursue these pathways, there are obstacles that come from health policy, health insurance plans, evidence-based medicine, and the temporal demands of health care delivery, all of which impact the logistics of clinical practice. We also know that food solutions require behavior modification in patients, and this is often a paralyzing challenge for clinicians. All of these things make it harder for doctors to think outside the box.
Still, we think the time is right for turning our attention to food. In the effort to go beyond the Band-Aid to get to the root cause of our kids’ chronic health problems, we think it is imperative that we reexamine our present food supply and its links to chronic illness. Recognizing this connection is, in part, what food-focused medicine accomplishes.
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