Later this month, Madison will be home to the 11th Annual Food for Thought Festival. In spirit with the Festival’s goal to improve our health and environment by eating and growing better food, we bring you this article about eating clean.

Eating clean is about how to choose foods that reduce stress on your body from toxins, toxicants and the often-overlooked residues of everyday food. When you eat chemical-free food and you choose foods that help keep your body clean, you reduce the likelihood of health issues and disease for you and your family through daily choices. For routine maintenance, the occasional food-based cleanse can help you clean any toxins and acids built up in your system.

Our bodies experience stress from a variety of sources. Eating clean will help you stand strong against them. Acid-forming foods, occupational stress, pesticides, mold and fungal toxins, phthalates, VOCs, heavy metals, and chlorine, are a few of the chemical stresses we encounter everyday. A large body of epidemiological and experimental studies demonstrate that your nutrition plays a pivotal role in the occurrence of various degenerative diseases. The idea that a diet rich in fruits and veggies protects against a wide variety of human diseases now has strong scientific evidence as documented by the European Journal of Nutrition and popular authors such as Michael Pollan. Such a diet provides a high intake of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, secondary plant metabolites, and fiber. For the sake of brevity, I present two different examples of stress to show you how to eat clean: 1) the stress from synthetic chemicals and 2) stress from the acid-residue foods. I provide suggestions on how to eat clean to reduce the load of stress to your system, and since most of us already have toxin and acid stress, how to eliminate those residues from your body through regular cleansing. Of course, there are other aspects to eating healthy, including antioxidants, enzymes, and probiotic foods, and these will be addressed in future articles.

Stress on our bodies from synthetic chemicals

Synthetic chemicals are now pervasive in our environment. While most people suspect that manmade chemicals have adverse effects on our health and cause disease, including cancer, until recently, our understanding of the associations between synthetic chemicals and disorders has been limited. However, reproductive effects of chemicals in wildlife are well established, and combined with recent discoveries with human populations, we understand that synthetic chemicals become stored in our fat cells where they disrupt our hormonal balance and can lead to breast and testicular cancer, infertility, and other disease according to a review in the British Medical Journal. Although we cannot avoid exposure to many chemicals, we do have control over our food and lifestyle choices that, when made wisely, can strengthen our immunity and our ability to eliminate toxins, thus lessening their effects. Taking steps to avoid synthetic chemical intake is especially important for pregnant women, young children and adolescents who are at higher risk of developing disorders based on exposure.

Reduce your intake of synthetic chemicals

  • Tip #1: Simplify your bodycare and household products. Select products with fewer ingredients and no synthetic fragrance or dyes, and use fewer products overall in order to avoid byproducts such as formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane. I’m not kidding when I say we just use plain old water to wash our new baby—there’s really no need for soap or shampoo with her pre-crawling lifestyle and there’s low risk for chemical exposure this way. When she needs a topical nourishment for the skin we use organic olive or jojoba oil. One of my naturopathic mentors always said, “If you won’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin!” and I advocate using this approach when selecting toiletry and other housecare products because most are readily taken into the body through skin and breath.
  • Tip #2: Eat organic. According to an article in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2003, higher pesticide residues were found in the urine of kids who ate conventional versus those who ate organic demonstrating that conventional foods carry a higher risk of synthetic chemicals. I often encounter families that are eating organic produce but not organic dairy, eggs and meats. Organic animal foods contain 1500-2500% more synthetic residues than fruits and veggies so it is arguably even more vital to choose organic when selecting animal foods according to Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods.
  • Tip #3: Choose fresh (think Farmer’s Market) instead of bottled and canned. BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical used in many plastic bottles, the lining of food and soda cans, and even in baby food jars and infant formula cans. BPA mimics estrogen and is linked to breast cancer and other diseases in over 200 studies.

Stress on our bodies from everyday foods

Stress from the acidifying effects of food poses a threat to your health as well. All foods have a chemical impact on our bodies. Once eaten and absorbed, foods affect our pH, a chemical measure of the acid to base ratios in our bodily tissues and fluids. Foods can either be acid- or base-forming. Research presented in the Journal of Gerontology and the European Journal of Nutrition demonstrates that low-grade “metabolic alkalosis” is the optimal state for our bodies (obtained by eating a majority of foods that are base-forming) and diseases are correlated with “metabolic acidosis” (caused, in part, by foods that are acid-forming). One example of the need to reduce your acid-forming foods is that a slight level of acidosis from the diet leads to greater loss of bone mineral and increases potential to fracture.

The bottom line is that you need to eat an abundance of base-forming foods: fruits and vegetables. Keep your acid-forming foods in check: cereal grains, protein, sugar, man-made foods and food additives, and preservatives. Why? These foods generally add acids to the system while fruits and vegetables add bases. (The acidic or basic nature of the food depends on its metabolic byproducts and is different than an acidic taste or quality. For instance, a lemon has an alkaline residue because of the minerals your body gains after absorption). However, the role of protein in the system is a little complicated; while we understand that protein is acidifying, a modest amount of protein in the diet actually improves the elimination of acids, so while you don’t want to overdo it, the right amount of protein is good for you. Protein has other important roles in the body such as building and repairing tissue, supporting the immune system, and building hormones.

Remember that eating whole grains, like a bowl of brown rice, is substantially better than flours, bread products, pastas, etc. They are important for many body systems, including the nervous system. My best advice to you is to enjoy whole grains with a lot of vegetables. The key is “moderation.” Eating fats is equally important. Fats are vital to the endocrine and nervous systems and help transport toxins out of the body in the digestive tract. Both saturated and unsaturated fats have beneficial properties for the body, but should be kept to modest amounts and taken with plenty of vegetables.

Reduce your intake of acid-forming foods

  • Tip #1: When you are making meals for yourself, the majority of the meal should be fruits or vegetables. The minority of the meal should be the building foods: protein, whole grains, or fats. Use this guideline for a meal: at least 60% fruits or veggies, 40% grains, protein, fats. The days of having just a “side” of green beans or salad are over. Instead, reduce your carbs and protein and proportionately increase the fresh fruits and veggies, especially the vegetables because they are lower in sugar.
  • Tip #2: Look at what you’re drinking. Instead of coffee (both decaf and caffeinated have acid residues), black tea, or soda (diet soda doesn’t cut it, sorry), try water, or water flavored with a slice of lemon or cranberry juice, or peppermint or nettle tea.
  • Tip #3: Look at your snacks (yes, this includes late-night). Instead of popcorn, ice cream, and cookies, how about cherry tomatoes from the garden, a tart apple, or matchstick cuts of kohlrabi? Oftentimes just being more mindful of snack-times will make a tremendous change. Believe me, I grew up eating ice cream and popcorn, but can now say I have a higher level of vitality, am less moody, and have more energy by choosing healthier options.
  • Tip #4: Are you good about the meals, snacks, and water but fall off on dessert? Sugar is acidic and addictive, plain and simple. Evaporated cane juice is not much better in terms of its high sucrose content and addictive nature. If you are addicted to sweets, then you need to make a change for your own sanity and your body’s health. Try herbal tea sweetened with a little raw honey or stevia, have a piece of fruit (berries or medjool dates) or make a fruit smoothie instead. Our favorite summertime treat is to press frozen bananas through a Champion Juicer to make “banana ice cream.” Instead of reaching for a chocolate bar, try the chocolate LaraBars that have no sugar (they’re in the checkout lane).

Regular food-based cleansing

There is no way to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals and other toxins in this day, and unless you are extremely unique in your food choices, you’ve probably consumed copious amounts of acid-forming foods. The body has natural ways to detoxify and eliminate: tears, sneezing, mucus, sweat, menstrual blood, urine and feces. I wish eating healthy was enough but even with a pretty good diet, the accumulation of metabolic waste and environmental toxins exceeds the body’s ability to eliminate them. Not to mention that the current level of toxic load we face surpasses that which our bodies have ever before faced. The toxins and acids become stored in our cells. One role for food-based cleansing is to eliminate the stored acids and toxins.

If you want to proactively improve or maintain your health in a simple, cheap, and natural way, then I suggest occasional food-based cleansing. Food-based cleansing will detoxify the toxins and acids from your system through the body’s natural avenues for elimination. Cleansing supports the digestive tract, skin, kidneys, lungs and liver in their jobs of elimination and detoxification. When you cleanse, you eat lighter foods, and your body takes the extra energy that it is not using for digestion, and delivers metabolic waste to the detoxification pathways. I prefer food-based cleansing to liquid fasts because people typically feel better. You will need plenty of water, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats for the basis of a nutritious cleanse that can last anywhere from 3-40 days. One of the benefits of a food-based cleanse is that you get the benefit of elimination while also getting accustomed to preparing and eating fruit- and vegetable-based meals. A stack of recipes is a must. Learning how to regularly enjoy the fruits and vegetables makes it a lot easier to abstain from sugar, refined carbs, stimulants and to avoid over-eating the acid-forming foods once you add them back in. Think of it as “boot camp” for your taste buds. (Disclaimer: Such a “boot camp” may not be appropriate for everyone such as pregnant women or those undergoing intense physical training).

When you eat enough fruits and vegetables, you get fiber that helps “sweep out” waste from the digestive tract, water-filled foods to support the kidneys in filtering the bloodstream, and you also support lymphatic movement. You eat less heavy foods and this takes a load off of the liver/gall bladder so that they can better break down synthetic items (drugs and chemicals), better metabolize food, help regulate your endocrine system, and keep a steady flow of bile to promote healthy digestion and elimination in the intestines. As a result of cleansing, people remark that they think more clearly, sleep better, feel lighter, and see a reduction in pain, inflammation, and other health issues.

There are many different cleanses designed for specific organs. They can be called “the kidney cleanse” or “liver/gall bladder cleanse” or “digestive cleanse.” They consist of taking herbs and foods known to benefit the body system. For guidance on specific cleanses for you, please seek the advice of a health care practitioner that is knowledgeable about food-based cleanses.

Eating clean is about supporting health by avoiding and eliminating toxins and acids from the body to reduce chemical stress. We covered two examples of how food choices can influence the stress you experience: 1) Make careful selection of foods, body and household items to avoid stress from synthetic chemicals; and 2) eat more fruits and vegetables to increase the base-forming components in your system and avoid too much stress from the acid-forming foods. Since most of us have accumulated chemicals and acids in our systems already, food-based cleansing is an important activity for supporting the body’s natural detoxification.

Katy Wallace, exclusive nutrition consultant to Willy Street Co-op, is a traditional naturopath and yoga instructor at Human Nature (www.humannaturellc.com). She offers private consultations and Body Tune-up workshops to help you eat clean.