You’ve heard the saying “everything in moderation.” You might even have used it as a justification for indulging in an unhealthy habit from time to time. But is this statement really true? How much of a bad thing does it take to tip the scales in favor of disease?
Will one soda a month or the occasional slice of white bread or sweet treat cause you to pack on the pounds? How often do we need to be exposed to toxic environmental chemicals before we’re at risk for cancer and other diseases? In this article, we’re going to get to the bottom of whether “everything in moderation” is helping or harming your health.
How Much Soda Is Too Much?
Plenty of research shows drinking soda is linked to diabetes, heart disease, strokes, weight gain and rheumatoid arthritis.1-4 The Nurses Health Study even showed that postmenopausal women who drink soda are at an increased risk of hip fractures.5
But how many sodas do you have to drink to put yourself at risk for disease? One group of researchers answered that question when they reviewed studies published in the medical literature and found that in a total of 310,819 subjects, people who drank one to two servings per day of a sugar-sweetened beverage (soft drinks or fruit drinks) were 26 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to those who drank less than one serving per month.2
The same was true for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors for heart disease that includes high blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides levels, as well as weight gain around the abdominal area and low levels of HDL cholesterol. People who drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day were more likely to develop metabolic syndrome compared to people who drank sugar-sweetened beverages less than once per month.2
Drinking one soda per day means you’re getting 150 calories from the soda combined with 40 to 50 grams of sugar, most likely in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. If you add these calories to the typical diet that most Americans are eating—without lowering caloric intake from other food sources—the extra calories alone from one soda per day would result in a weight gain of 15 pounds per year. Drink one soda every other day and you’ll pack on an extra 7.5 pounds per year. Over time, this will add up.6
And you’re not off the hook if you drink diet soda, either. Studies have found that diet soda doesn’t keep the pounds off and might actually encourage weight gain, as well as increase your risk of stroke and diabetes.4,7 Even drinking diet soda occasionally is linked to gaining some weight. In a nine-year study, the waist circumference of people who never drank diet soda increased by an average of only 0.8 inches. However, people who drank diet soda occasionally gained an average of 1.83 inches around their waists. Drinking it every day resulted in an average of 3.16 inches of extra padding around the waists. People who were already overweight were even more likely to pack on the pounds after drinking diet soda regularly.3
So how could diet soda cause you to get fat? The artificial sweeteners reduce the brain’s ability to regulate calorie intake. In other words, they don’t fool your brain into thinking you’re eating sugar, and therefore cause you to crave and eat more high-calorie, sweet foods.
The bottom line: Drinking soft drinks or other sugar-sweetened beverages two or three times a year might not harm you, at least if you’re healthy to begin with. Of course, you’re better off choosing unsweetened iced tea or pure, filtered water, but if you do indulge in a soft drink on very rare occasions, the studies mentioned above should ease your worry.
Limiting Refined and Fried Foods
In this case, it’s the total burden that’s important. If you eat refined white bread, baked goods and fried foods every day, you’re putting yourself at risk for some life-threatening conditions. Eating two or more slices of white bread every day compared to one or less slices per week increases your risk of becoming overweight or obese.8 That means that eating just one sandwich made from white bread every day could cause you to pack on the pounds.
It’s similar with fried foods. Eating fried foods two times to more than four times per week is linked to developing hypertension. People who consumed fried foods less than two times per week didn’t have the same elevated risk of high blood pressure.9
Scarfing down too many French fries might also put you at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And the more servings of fried food you eat per week, the more your risk of these diseases climbs.
Eating fried food less than once per week results in a lower risk, while indulging one to three times per week, four to six times per week or seven or more times per week results in a progressively increasing risk, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.10
The bottom line: If you’re healthy, you can probably handle eating a slice of bread from your favorite bakery or nibbling on some French fries once a month. These still aren’t the best food choices for many reasons, but indulging in these foods on rare occasions at least shouldn’t cause you to pack on the pounds.
On the other hand, if you already have heart disease or diabetes or you’re obese, no one knows for sure how many refined or fried foods it would take to throw your body off balance enough to cause a heart attack. There are a lot of individual factors to think about that contribute overall to disease, such as how much exercise you’re getting or whether you’re under stress (which creates inflammation in your body that can worsen the effects of eating or drinking a sugary or deep-fried treat).
Yet, it’s almost impossible to stay away from refined or fried treats all the time. During occasional indulgences, consider taking a chromium supplement to help balance blood sugar. Chromium also helps reduce carbohydrate cravings. Taking a cinnamon supplement is another good option since studies in animals and humans have shown it can balance blood sugar.11 Since eating fried foods is known to cause inflammation,12 taking an anti-inflammatory supplement such as turmeric also is a good idea. One study showed that turmeric could stop the decline in working memory that normally occurs in prediabetics when they eat white bread.13
You’ll also be less tempted to indulge on temptations when you venture out into the world if you eat a healthy snack before you leave your home or office.
A Little Sugar Can Do a Whole Lot of Harm
If there’s ever a time when “everything in moderation” does not apply, it’s when you have food addictions. If you suffer from food addictions, even eating a little sugar or desserts can cause you to crave more. The same is true with anything that raises your blood sugar levels like white bread, pasta, pizza and rice. And once you start eating, you might not be able to stop.
Food addiction is a very real condition. Scientists have discovered that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.14 When animals are given access to sugar, they develop symptoms similar to drug dependence.15-16 Eating sugar causes your body to produce opioids, natural feel-good chemicals that act similar to addictive drugs. And like addictive drugs, sugar consumption also releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is another feel-good chemical produced when your body feels as if it is receiving a pleasurable reward.16
When it comes to food addictions, there’s no such thing as moderation. Eating just a little of something will likely lead to you eating more and more of it. And your weight and health will suffer.
What About GM Food?
GM food is often sprayed heavily with glyphosate (Roundup®), an herbicide linked to infertility and cancer in a number of studies. As far as glyphosate is concerned, there’s a whole lot of controversy surrounding what is considered a “moderate” and safe amount of this chemical.
The FDA considers the amount currently sprayed on crops to be perfectly safe. Yet, the FDA doesn’t take into consideration the cumulative exposure of people who are eating more than one food sprayed with glyphosate. The FDA also has not paid attention to studies that show when GM food is fed to animals during pregnancy, the mothers have offspring with birth defects.17-18
In addition, glyphosate blocks the activity of an enzyme our bodies need to detoxify cancer-causing chemicals.19 If you regularly eat fruit and vegetables sprayed with glyphosate, it may weaken your body’s ability to detoxify the brew of other toxic chemicals you’re exposed to daily.
No one knows exactly how much GM food you would need to eat to contribute to disease. Still, it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid it. Whether you like it or not, you’re being exposed to a lot of GM food, not just in moderation, especially if you don’t regularly eat organic.
And glyphosate, the herbicide sprayed on GM food, is found in much of the water supply. One study found glyphosate and its main metabolite AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) in rivers, lakes, streams, rain, soil, sediment, ditches, drains and groundwater in U.S. water systems in 38 states. Even if the GM labeling laws are passed so that you know what you’re buying in the grocery store, when you eat out or have a drink of water, there’s no guarantee you’re going to avoid genetically engineered foods or the herbicide sprayed on them.
The bottom line: For now, your best bet is to make sure that everything you eat at home is either organic or a type of fruit or vegetable that isn’t genetically modified. When you eat meat, grass-fed beef is the best way to go, since conventional cattle are fed GM food. Because GM foods are everywhere, you’re going to have to pay attention to your food choices in order to eat them in moderation. Unless you’ve actually cooked the meal, you have no way of knowing exactly how many genetically modified ingredients are on the menu.
There are no studies in humans to show whether eating GM foods in moderation is safe or not. If the studies in animals are any indication, however, eating GM foods—even in moderation—is cause for concern.
What’s Lurking in Your Soup and Beverage Cans?
Nearly every moment of every day we’re exposed to toxins in our homes and offices and whenever we venture out into the world. Even though we’re exposed to small amounts of these toxins at a time—in other words in moderation—there’s a very real possibility that these toxins team up to cause cancer and other diseases.
One study found that when 11 endocrine-disrupting chemicals were used in combination at levels that are individually considered to have no observable effect, the chemical combination resulted in strong estrogenic activity. In other words, when these chemicals are used alone, they don’t raise estrogen levels. But when they’re used together, they result in a dramatic rise in estrogenic activity.20 This estrogenic activity is blamed for the development of many forms of cancers, as well as infertility.
I’ve already mentioned the example of how glyphosate blocks the activity of an enzyme our bodies need to detoxify cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, when glyphosate is combined with surfactants, like it is in Roundup, its toxicity is increased.21-22
Other surfactants used in other herbicides have been blamed for harming the powerhouses of your cells known as the mitochondria and for stimulating breast cancer cells in cell culture experiments.23
But even short-term exposure to a small amount of one chemical can cause health problems. In one study, adults 60 years old or older drank the same beverage either from glass bottles that did not contain BPA or from BPA-containing cans. BPA levels skyrocketed by more than 1,600 percent soon after consuming canned beverages compared to drinking the beverage in glass bottles. What’s more, systolic blood pressure increased by about 4.5 mm Hg after drinking only two beverages from BPA-containing cans compared with drinking beverages from two glass bottles.24
In another study, Harvard researchers found that eating soup that came from a BPA-containing can raised BPA levels by 1,221 percent in only five days compared to when the subjects ate fresh soup.25 That means that eating canned soup for less than a week can cause your levels of BPA to soar.
Bottom line: Is exposure to BPA or other chemicals in moderation really safe? The fact that drinking even two BPA-containing beverages may cause blood pressure to spike suggests that even a little of this chemical isn’t a good thing. Of 115 animal studies in which scientists investigated the effects of low-dose BPA, 94 of the studies found harmful effects of this chemical even at these smaller doses.26 If you’re pregnant, staying clear of BPA is even more important, since unborn babies are more sensitive to environmental toxins.
The problem is there’s no way to know how much BPA you’re exposed to daily. Not only in food but it’s in many cash register receipts and dental sealants. If you eat food that was stored in a BPA-containing can just once a month—in other words, eating it in moderation—the question is how much BPA were you exposed to from other sources? When you eat at home, by avoiding canned food, plastic water bottles and food stored in plastic containers, you’re at least minimizing your exposure where you have the most control over it.
Escorting Chemicals Out of Your Body
BPA and many toxic chemicals build up in fat, which means that each time you consume these chemicals, more and more become stuck in your fat tissues.27 Exactly how much ends up in your tissues can depend on how well your body’s detoxification mechanisms are working. People who have detoxification systems that are working well can be exposed to more of a toxin without it causing as much harm as it would in someone with a weak detoxification system. This is why it’s important to detoxify your body.
To rid your body of toxins, first and foremost, eat lots of fiber and consider taking a fiber supplement. Fiber is necessary for bile to be escorted out of the body. If you don’t eat enough fiber, the bile goes back into your circulation, picking up more toxins along the way.
Taking a supplement that contains chlorella and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is another way to detoxify your body. Chlorella is known for its ability to detoxify heavy metals like mercury, but recently scientists have discovered it may be able to protect against BPA, too. In a cell culture study, chlorella was able to completely block BPA’s estrogenic activity.28
NAC has protected against the toxic effects of malathion in animal studies. Malathion is a pesticide used on agricultural crops, on golf courses and to kill mosquitoes and Mediterranean fruit flies. Exposure to it can cause a spike in blood glucose and insulin levels as well as insulin resistance, a condition where the body starts ignoring insulin’s signals to lower blood sugar, ultimately leading to diabetes. NAC protects against this prediabetic effect of malathion.29 NAC also is able to stop malathion from harming the liver.30
Finally, arm yourself with a bottle of resveratrol if you want to protect yourself against toxic chemicals. Normally, BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause ovarian cancer cells to multiply. But in one cell culture experiment, when ovarian cancer cells were treated with BPA or other chemicals and then exposed to resveratrol at the same time, the cancer cell growth was blocked.31
Resveratrol may protect against other toxins, too, such as phthalates, toxic chemicals found in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos and conditioners and many personal care products. In an animal study, resveratrol reversed the damage caused by phthalates.32
People who have food allergies will need to stay away from the offending item or risk going into anaphylactic shock. But if you are intolerant to a particular food, it’s a different story.
Food intolerances have more subtle symptoms than food allergies. In food intolerance, symptoms also often are delayed, occurring hours to even a couple days after eating the offending food. Symptoms of food intolerances can include runny nose, cough, fatigue, bloating, headaches and migraines along with other symptoms that often aren’t obviously connected to the foods you’re eating. Your doctor can test you for food intolerances by taking a blood test.
If the test reveals you’re intolerant to a particular food or foods, the strategy is to eliminate that food or foods from your diet for two weeks to two months. After that time, you might be able to eat the offending food once every week or two without any symptoms. Eating smaller amounts of the offending food also is helpful.
The bottom line: When it comes to food intolerances, “everything in moderation” is a good approach.
Everything in Moderation—It Depends
The saying “everything in moderation” depends upon what you’re talking about and how healthy you are. For example, drinking a soft drink several times a year might not do you any harm—if you’re not overweight and don’t have heart disease or diabetes.
With foods that contain pesticides and toxins, the issue is more complicated. For most people, the best bet is to make sure that the majority of what you put into your body is healthy and free of toxins. Save the treats for special occasions.
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- Krüger M, et al. J Environ Anal Toxicol. 2014;4:230.
- Institute of Science in Society website. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Goats_Fed_GM_Soybean_Produce_Abnormal_Milk.php.
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