The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick -- and What We can Do About It“Suddenly our fourth child went into a life threatening reaction [to eggs], and I was thrown into this condition, and I began to pull the numbers because that’s what I like to do,” explains Robyn O’Brien, a former financial analyst and mom of four. Her pulling the numbers led to the website as she set out to educate herself on how she could protect her child. She decided to share her knowledge with other parents through Allergy Kids.

The more she learned, the more she realized that modern developments in our food system very well might be the reason that so many children in the United States are disproportionately sick. Her findings led her to dig deeper into the changes in our food system over the past couple of decades. What she learned is now in her book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick – and What We Can Do About It (Random House, May 2009).

In the few weeks since the book has been published, O’Brien has been seen on The Today Show and Good Morning America. People magazine has done a Q&A with her about the book. She also agreed to give us an interview here at MNN. I asked her why there has been so much interest in what she has to say.


“Interest is generated because we are a disproportionately sick population,” she told me. She went on to state startling statistics on diabetes, autism, asthma, ADHD, allergies and cancer in the U.S. Statistics like those in a 2008 CDC report that cited there has been a “265 percent increase in hospitalization for food allergies” or that today’s African American 9 year olds have a 50 percent chance of being insulin-dependent as adults.

As O’Brien gathered statistics like these, she began to research what changed in the food supply.

“In the beginning of the 1990s, we began to engineer food products to enhance profitability for industry … In the U.S. food additives were allowed without testing.” She was surprised to learn that many European countries did not embrace those same food additives, and products such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are made differently in the U.K. because of the uncertainty of the safety of these ingredients.

As the “list of chronic diseases that is hammering this generation of children” grows, O’Brien sees these children’s illnesses as modern day “canaries in a coal mine.” The chronic diseases that are growing rapidly -- diabetes, asthma, ADHD, obesity, allergies -- are telling us something. In the book she says she believes they are “warning signs from our kids’ immune systems that something is wrong with our food system.” And that something needs to be fixed.

She sees some promise on the horizon as companies such as Dannon and Yoplait are “voluntarily moving ahead of legislation here in the U.S.” by using rBST-free dairy products in their yogurts. Companies like these are beginning to realize that “even though the FDA is saying, ‘according to the FDA there is no difference [between dairy products that use the hormone rBST and those that are rBST-free]’ the FDA is using dairy industry funded data” and that data could very well be skewed.

These are just a few products, however. I asked O’Brien what she suggests consumers and parents do to reduce exposure to these additives in the foods that seem to be making us sick. She gave four suggestions.

1. Cut the colors. Cut out as many artificial colors in foods as possible.

2. Reduce exposure to synthetic hormones. Buy rBST-free milk and other dairy products so they don't contain artificial growth hormones that make the cows produce more milk but could be wreaking havoc on our immune systems and our children’s development.


3. Get back to eating stuff you can pronounce. Eat more like our grandparents ate.

4. Find a friend to do it with. “There will be plenty of people who will be rolling their eyes at you” when you make these changes. It will be much easier if you have support.

In her home, her family tries to follow the “80/20 rule” when it comes to eating. 80 percent of the time they do the best they can, and the other 20 percent of the time she just lets it go. Kids “are going to go to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and they are going to want to have a hot lunch at school.” You’ve got to let them have these things once in a while or you will “make perfect the enemy of the good, and that just doesn’t work.” She advises to pick something your family can realistically start with. In her home it’s 80/20 but perhaps in someone else’s home it’s 50/50.

What does 80/20 look like? At school, it might look like this. “There are five days of school lunches. Four days a week pack the good lunch and one day a week let your child buy hot lunch and do what their friends are doing.”

Another way to practice 80/20 is to make sure that four out of the five items you are having for dinner are doing a good job at reducing your family’s exposure to the additives in foods and “give yourself a break” with that fifth item.

Robyn O’Brien is currently on a book tour to promote The Unhealthy Truth. She also is on Twitter and gives frequent updates to her tour and information related to her book.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

'The unhealthy truth'
Our food blogger sits down with the author of a new book about how our food is making us sick –- and what we can do about it.