How To Thrive In A Toxic Food Environment


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We live in a food environment that is truly toxic for diabetes and obesity. It relentlessly encourages bad choices in just about every domain. It ingrains bad habits from an early age and reinforces those habits through the 6,000 food ads children 2-17 years old see each year. Even at diabetes and obesity conferences – where the frontline medical professionals are learning cutting-edge science – junk food is abundantly served (see my chronicle on twitter at #ConferenceFoodFail). Though I’ve always recognized this fact, I recently saw food writer Michael Pollan speak in San Francisco, read one of his terrific books, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and watched the compelling documentary Fed Up. All pointed to the same conclusion – each of us is fighting a major uphill battle to make healthier eating choices every single day.

With this in mind, I thought I would share my own personal strategies for navigating our modern day food system. I recognize that many of these rules are quite strong, fervent, and they are absolutely not for everyone. This is just what works for me, but I thought sharing it might be useful. Here goes!

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Avoid processed foods and sugar whenever possible – that includes soda, fruit juice, desserts, candy bars, chips, crackers, etc. (what Michael Pollan humorously terms, “Food-like substances”). I find a black-and-white rule like this is much easier than, “I’ll buy chips and candy but hide it in the pantry, and only eat it at certain times in moderation.” No! My brain is hardwired to love and crave sugary processed foods. Some research suggests sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine. I find it’s easier to just stay away from it altogether. Of course, I do recognize that having these items on hand for hypoglycemia makes sense, but resisting the temptation to eat/overeat them is often incredibly hard. That’s why I use glucose tabs when I’m low – they may not taste great, but I certainly won’t eat a pile of them either.

Choose natural, whole foods as much as possible. Fewer ingredients is always the way to go. Even things as simple as bread these days have 40+ ingredients – like Michael Pollan urges, I try to stick to food items that look, sound, and feel like “real food.” Single ingredient items are my goal at every meal – fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, and seeds.

Cook at home whenever possible. One of my favorite things to do at restaurants is to look at nutrition information – it’s truly astonishing how many unhealthy added calories are embedded in what seem like “healthy” foods (e.g., Cheesecake Factory’s Chicken Caesar Dinner Salad is a mind-blowing 1510 calories!). Rather than try to navigate these dark and murky waters, I find it’s just easier to sail home and cook in my own kitchen – I can control exactly what’s in my food and count the carbs accurately. Plus, I find it’s a lot of fun.

When shopping, don’t bring temptation home. A great way to eat better is simply not to buy junk food in the first place – if it’s not in the pantry, you automatically prevent yourself from eating something damaging. When you’re hungry at 11 pm and all you have are whole foods in the kitchen, you’re much more likely to make a good choice.

When you do eat out, prepare for war! You must be strategic to avoid a menu of land mines. Here are a few tactics:

  • Substitute vegetables for high-carb restaurant side dishes. Even nutritionists cannot correctly guess the carbs in that pile of rice or potatoes. I certainly can’t either, so I just steer clear of it.
  • Don’t eat the bread. In fact, I often don’t even let them bring it to the table.
  • If you order a salad, get the dressing on the side. Those calories are empty and add up FAST. Balsamic vinegar and/or olive oil are my default options.
  • Avoid white foods, especially potatoes, French fries, rice, and white bread.

When desiring something sweet, eat fruit. I opt for lower glycemic index fruit whenever possible – berries are my go-to (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries), since they raise glucose slowly, are super filling and tasty, and can be purchased frozen. I always steer clear of dried fruit – it’s a sugar bomb and spikes my blood glucose very quickly.

When traveling and in need of a snack, nuts or a salad are a safe and healthy go-to. You can generally always find these in airports, convenience stores, or gas stations. I’m always guilty of overeating the calorie-heavy nuts, so I try to buy unsalted options and smaller packs. As noted above with salads, I get the dressing on the side and avoid anything crouton-like.

Always ask myself, “Am I really hungry?” Often, I find my brain is craving food, but I am not truly “hungry” in the stomach-grumbling sense. Being more mindful of how I feel is an ongoing learning process, and a huge asset when I get it right. Certainly, it prevents me from overeating right after a meal and in between meals.

Know my weaknesses. What food can I not stop eating once it’s in front of me? Goldfish crackers. The best way I’ve learned to combat this is to never buy them or eat them. Period. I know that’s what some might consider extreme, but I absolutely prefer to give up Goldfish crackers than to deal with the nightmare blood sugar consequences of eating multiple cups of them.

When in doubt, follow Michael Pollan’s seven-word maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These seven words are what he calls “the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.” We all can remember seven words!

Editor’s Note: Adam is a patient with diabetes and not a healthcare provider. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet, insulin, or medication regimen.

This article originally appeared on

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Adam Brown joined diaTribe in 2010 as a Summer Associate, became Managing Editor in 2011, and now serves as Senior Editor. Adam brings nearly 15 years of experience with type 1 diabetes to all of his work at diaTribe, especially in testing out new technology like glucose meters, CGMs, insulin pumps, automated insulin delivery, and mobile apps. Adam also writes an acclaimed column for diaTribe, Adams Corner, which focuses on actionable tips for living well with diabetes. Through his work at Close Concerns and diaTribe, Adam has brought a patient perspective to numerous venues, including FDA meetings, scientific and industry conferences, and patient events. Adam graduated summa cum laude from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 pursuing concentrations in marketing and health care management & policy. He is passionate about exercise, nutrition, psychology, and wellness, and spends his free time cycling in San Francisco.