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We're constantly bombarded with ever-changing diet recommendations and the latest diet crazes - Paleo, Keto, Whole 30, Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and the list goes on. Eggs are bad one day and good the next. Kale is good for you today. Tomorrow it contains high levels of thallium and is toxic to your thyroid gland. How do you know what to put on your plate that will bring you toward greater health and wellness? Who and what do you trust?
Because we all live in our own silos, we seldom interact with people far different from us--we are tribal, after all. But we all know that you learn more by opening yourself up to people with different perspectives. What if you could listen in on a conversation between two experts from extremely different backgrounds doing extremely different things while they learned from each other? That's the premise of BEYOND LABELS: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time.
In this post, the two authors, Dr. Sina McCullough and Farmer Joel Salatin give you a flavor of not only the format, but the theme of this book that in the words of Andy Snyder, founder of Manward Press, "has the power to reshape America's declining health."
JOEL: As a regenerative farmer, my life revolves around trying to heal the land while healing people. My family owns Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, servicing some 5,000 families and 50 restaurants with pastured meat and poultry. I spend a lot of time interacting with concerned moms who aren't sure about the integrity of labels, food claims, supplement claims--it's really overwhelming. Sina, how about you?
SINA: I spend a lot of time helping people reverse and prevent disease. Unlike Joel, who was groomed his entire life for his current role, my awakening occurred because of debilitating health challenges.
For most of my life, I ate the way I was raised, which was based on the Standard American Diet. I consumed mostly processed foods, was addicted to sugar, and chose meat based on fat content and price, which means I only ate conventional. I didn't even know the difference between organic and conventional, which is crazy because my PhD is in Nutrition! But we weren't taught that type of practical information. So, I completed graduate school not knowing how to navigate a grocery store.
Then, in 2015, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease - an advanced stage of Rheumatoid Arthritis in my 30's. It was accompanied by muscle wasting, arsenic poisoning, leaky gut and deficiencies in 15 nutrients that were so severe, I was borderline for pellagra and beriberi.
I sought help from western medical doctors for 20 years and underwent so many tests that I lost count. Nobody had any answers, except for prescription drugs. I refused to take the drugs. And, when the last medical doctor said my symptoms must be in my head, I knew that if I had any chance of healing, I had to find a different path. So, I broke out of the box of conventional medicine.
I took responsibility for my own health by creating my own healing path. I challenged every nutrition and health "fact" I was taught in school, listened to hundreds of hours of online health and spiritual summits, scoured the scientific literature for clues, and eventually developed my own healing protocol. That was over 4 years ago. Today I'm disease free and have no pain!
JOEL: So with your biochemistry and nutrition background, your search for healing led you to some pretty basic rules in food decision-making. I grew up on the farm and have enjoyed robust health most of my life--and I'm a lot older than you. But I deal with many people struggling with health issues and looking for the right kind of food. How did you discover the right kind of food?
SINA: Now I listen to my body to know which foods it needs in any given moment. But it took time to reach that place where I could trust myself and effectively tap into the innate intelligence that we all possess. I started my healing journey by learning how to read labels, which was more challenging than I could have imagined. I spent countless hours reading articles, scientific studies, government documents, and company statements. I quickly realized that the ins and outs of our food supply are complicated, especially when it comes to labels. In fact, the more I learned about our food, the more I didn't know who to trust or what was true. And, I'm still learning! You taught me a lot while writing this book - like it's nearly impossible to find truly pasture-raised eggs in the grocery store.
The bottom line is that you have to learn to read beyond the label in order to truly understand what's in that box of cereal or package of cookies. Going beyond labels is what ultimately led to my full recovery.
JOEL: What an amazing journey. We all start from somewhere, don't we?
SINA: Yes, and because we each walk our own path, it's important to accept others where they are and gently encourage them to take the next step when they are ready. That's why the backbone of BEYOND LABELS is a continuum, or road map, with maximal health, happiness, freedom, trust and personal responsibility on one side and the opposites - sickness, sadness, dependence, lack of trust, and victimhood - on the other side.
The beauty of this road map is that you get to choose where you want to be. We provide practical, budget-friendly tips to help you move along the continuum, but you choose your own path and move forward at your own pace. It's similar to a "choose your own adventure" book. In that regard, we meet you where you are, which sets you up for success.
JOEL: This continuum you mention is real. Whether you're eating from the gas station or your own garden, you're somewhere on a path that hopefully leads to more vibrant health. Sometimes, though, we feel like we're in bondage to a system too big to figure out, too controlled by government and corporate interests, and too demanding of our time.
SINA: Exactly! That's why freedom is at the heart of BEYOND LABELS. We teach you how to free yourself from the bondage of the grocery store labels and then show you how to move beyond those labels - to a place where you will find foods that truly heal. During our journey together, we also strive to help you free yourself from the many labels we have adopted in our lives.
JOEL: We live in a world of labels, don't we? Even as children, we're labeled as precocious or reserved, as artistic or practical, as remedial or gifted; goodness, guidance counselors give us career tracks based on aptitude tests and we're labeled under-achievers if we don't go to college. We grow up in this titular soup of labels and acronyms.
SINA: Whether it's your job title, political affiliation, gender or age, labels exist in all areas of our lives, including health and nutrition. For instance, in the quest for optimal health and healing, it's common to turn to diets such as Paleo, Keto, Whole 30, or Specific Carbohydrate Diet. But those diets are another type of label that promotes conformity over individuality. If you lock yourself into one type of diet, you can become more focused on adhering to that man-made construct than listening to your body's innate intelligence. By outsourcing your authority to the "expert" who created that diet, you silence your instincts. In essence, you become a slave to the confinements and limiting beliefs of that dietary protocol. Instead of living inside that box, we encourage you to harness your power by teaching you how to listen to your own body, so you become your own expert.
It can be tricky to identify labels because they can be sneaky. Have you ever heard someone say, "My arthritis is acting up again" or "I have cancer?" A medical diagnosis is a label that you carry around with you for the rest of your life; it becomes part of your identity, hence the use of the words "my arthritis" or "I have cancer." Once you identify with a disease, you keep yourself sick because every cell in your body responds to what you think, what you believe, what you feel, and what you say. If you believe you are sick, and you are constantly reinforcing that limiting belief, you will stay sick.
JOEL: Sickness is in fact often a physical manifestation of bondage. Getting freed from that is not just about food; it's about your whole lifestyle and includes mental, spiritual, and physical nuances.
SINA: Yes; that's why one of the goals of BEYOND LABELS is to help you identify and change your limiting beliefs so you can shed those labels and move into a space where true healing occurs. It's not just about understanding the labels in the grocery store; optimal health is also about freeing yourself from the labels we have allowed to define us.
JOEL: Breaking out of this label frenzy requires knowledge about complexity and how things really work. Not what grabs headlines, but the story behind the story. And that behind-the-curtain discussion is what powers BEYOND LABELS. For example, Sina, I could scarcely believe the truth when you unwrapped the whole story behind the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) program. Please enlighten us.
SINA: It's crazy when you stop and think about how many chemicals most of us eat every day. There are roughly 10,000 chemical additives in our food supply and unless you are trying to avoid them, you're likely consuming multiple chemicals in every meal. Most of them have not been safety tested by the FDA and most are not even regulated by the FDA. We don't know how those chemicals affect our long-term health. And, we have no idea what happens when those chemicals are combined. For instance, what happens when the brominated vegetable oil in Mountain Dew® is combined with the disodium inosinate in Doritos®? Nobody knows.
This regulatory loophole started in 1958 when Congress passed the Food Additive Amendment. The purpose was to test chemicals for safety before adding them to our food. But that amendment contains the GRAS exemption.
When a chemical is declared to be GRAS, it means the FDA does not test that chemical for safety, nor does it regulate the use of that chemical. The company who makes the chemical determines if that chemical is safe for you to eat. All they need is an "expert" to declare the chemical to be GRAS. Usually the "experts" have financial ties to the company. Even worse, once a chemical is declared GRAS, the company can immediately begin adding it to your food. And they don't have to notify the FDA! The notification process is voluntary.
If the FDA does not have to be notified when chemicals are added to our food, how can the FDA notify you if there is a problem with an ingredient, or if there's a recall? More importantly, how can the FDA ensure your food is safe if they don't even know what's in it?
But, here's the kicker: Guess who made the notification process voluntary? The FDA!
The GRAS loophole carries severe consequences for the health of humanity. Not only have chemicals been declared GRAS that were later discovered to be carcinogenic, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) made it to your dinner plate largely because they were "presumed" to be GRAS.
When you take a deep dive into labels, including the food regulations that shape those labels, you realize that most do not protect the consumer; they are not keeping you safe.
JOEL: That's exactly right. Another example of what's behind the curtain is the story behind eggs. What does Grade A mean on a carton of eggs? Most folks think it means someone checked them for safety, like they don't have salmonella. However, Grade A has nothing to do with pathogens; it has to do with cosmetic appeal, shell soundness, air cell size and viscosity of the albumen. None of these elements has anything to do with safety. Egg shells are slightly porous and when laid at body temperature, the warm liquid contracts a wee bit, leaving a small air cell in the blunt end (that's why all eggs are packaged with the pointed end down). The older the egg, the larger this air cell and the thinner the white. While this can all indicate an egg that's not fresh, it has nothing to do with safety. A lot of labels are like that.
In BEYOND LABELS, we talk at length--just like what you're reading here--about wellness and immunity. We finished the book just before the coronavirus pandemic hit and we couldn't have imagined the timeliness of this discussion.
If we spent as much time building immunity as we did searching for a vaccine, perhaps we wouldn't have to worry about the virus. And worry is a kind of bondage too. It drops our serotonin and makes us vulnerable. Stress is horribly debilitating.
SINA: Every disease is fueled by stress, whether chronic or acute. That's why it's so important to get out of fight or flight and into a state of rest and repair. For example, stress lowers your immunity, in part, by negatively changing your microbiome. And, since your microbiome helps regulate practically every pathway in your body, many of the tips in the book are designed to help you build a robust microbiome through food choices, stress management techniques, teaching you how to eat, and helping you shed the labels that are limiting your potential so you can move into a space where you feel "good enough" - where you feel worthy and loved.
The theme of building a robust microbiome is so pronounced that one reviewer declared BEYOND LABELS to be "a survival guide for the war on our gut microbiome."
JOEL: So this isn't a diet book. It's not a recipe book--although we do have several in here. It's a "how to think about food decisions" book to empower readers to feel confident in their food choices. Make changes, yes. Forgive yourself, yes. Don't depend on government experts to choose for you, yes. Beat up on yourself, no. Blame bad genes, no. The goal is to move toward a better place, with grace and gratitude.
In truth, neither Sina nor I have achieved food and life nirvana. We're still trying to do better, know more, and be better stewards of our lives and families. If our optimum health goal were easier than sickness bondage, we'd all be there by now. But we work at it, incrementally, bite by bite. We welcome and invite you to travel with us. Enjoy the book.