The Sunscreen Debate

Yes, so what did I say in my first article? Go out in the sun. But what does that mean?

I was asked to write a little about whether there are healthy kinds of sunscreen. So I obligingly sat down to compose something that laid out the situation, and then realized that I really had no idea what to say, though I had a vague, peripheral sensation that there was a controversy about this. Having since done some research, I now have a very solid view of what I think is going on, and of what I recommend.

Most people in this country use sunscreen. I grew up having it applied to me whether I liked or not, and never really thought about it until college, when I was taking trips to the beach and was just too lazy to apply any. Sometimes I got a little burned, but largely I did not. I would wear a shirt when I felt the sun was getting too strong, but of course I didn’t wear one while swimming. My experience led me to wonder why it was necessary at all. What did people do before it first became widely promoted in the fifties?

Sunscreen contains synthetic chemicals that are capable of absorbing one frequency of the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun (UVB rays), thus blocking them from damaging your skin. Sunscreen makers claim that this radiation is responsible for the skin cancer epidemic that we suffer from in America; that is, that people who do not use sunscreen are not only in danger of getting a burn, but, well, dying. However, it is possible, and has been asserted, that the synthetic chemical compounds in sunscreen are absorbed by your skin and generate copious amounts of free radicals, thus doing more to cause cancer than the sun itself. Is this true? To my knowledge, no scientific study has been carried out to determine the harmful effect of sunscreen on humans, though some have been done on animals. However, I don’t like to resort to scientific studies to make a point, since every article you read has an arsenal of them and it often amounts to simply an argument from authority. Instead, I’d like to call attention to a few things that should be pretty obvious to us all.

The skin is both an organ of elimination and absorption. This is why many medicines and herbs (such as Arnica) can be applied both orally and on the surface of the skin. You are, in a sense, eating a little of anything that you apply to your skin – usually about thirty-five percent. This includes sunscreen. The synthetic chemicals in sunscreen are toxic to the body – not only can they generate free radicals on exposure to the sun, but they are very hard for the body to eliminate, and may get stored away in places that will eventually become tumors. By eventually I mean if you’re slathering it on a lot, every day – I don’t mean to be as alarmist about sunscreen like sunscreen makers are alarmist about the sun. But some people do overdo it, and that could be part of the reason why even though everyone uses sunscreen, skin cancer rates have dropped…not at all.

Another point is that while getting sun is very important for your health, getting sunburned a lot will damage your skin and eventually cause photoaging (that wrinkled, leathery look). Gradually building up to a protective tan (please, not at a tanning salon!) while wearing clothing most of the time is a better idea. Using an organic sunscreen without any reactive chemicals, or coating your skin with olive oil or coconut oil before going to the beach also seems to me like a safer alternative (though it’s true that these substances are not as strong). The process should be even more gradual if you are fair-skinned and have the genetically low melanin levels of a Scandinavian. But all this is aside to the real point: why do most people get so sunburned all the time? You may already know the answer. It is poor nutrition. Yes, your diet!

For most of human history, we were out in the sun a lot, so our bodies adjusted and evolved, and adapted to this circumstance on many different levels. But we also weren’t eating trans fats and refined, processed foods. While it’s true that the sun does do some damage to the skin after lengthy exposure, people who have large numbers of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in their diet will have not only beautiful skin but a system equipped to repair the sun’s damage quickly and efficiently. Some sources of the fatty acids: fish and fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, chard, and parsley, any animal product from an animal that has been grass-fed (such as cow’s milk from grass-fed cows and beef from grass-fed beef), pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Antioxidant foods (the ones that stop free radicals) include dark green leafy vegetables (again), sprouts, berries, sea vegetables, and really any food that contains high levels of vitamins E, A, C, and B.

In a nutshell, then, my advice is: don’t get burned; don’t use commercial sunscreen; but eat well, gradually work up to a tan, apply an organic oil or sun block to your body, and not only will you be healthy, but all that sun will ratchet up your serotonin levels and you might find yourself quite a bit happier, too!

Eating Affordably

This is a topic I’ve been struggling with ever since I started paying for my own food a few years ago. When I was a kid we would sacrifice new clothes to help us pay for organic food, which, in a way, made sense: healthy bodies are a much more valuable investment than almost anything you could spend your money on. The only reason this is an issue, however, is because of the curious fact that a very healthy diet is often seen as prohibitively expensive. This is not just due to the emergence of Whole Foods (sourly nicknamed Whole Paycheck by those who compare it with conventional supermarkets); even the little co-ops and health food stores of the past 25 years have always been somewhat costly. I think that there are a variety of reasons for this situation. There is a smaller market for organic, locally grown food, than there is for conventional food. A few major consolidated food companies still dominate what Americans eat – and this dominance enables them to sell food at lower prices. But perhaps more importantly, by virtue of the same manufacturing and processing shortcuts that decrease the quality of the food and differentiate the food from organic food – for example, stuffing thousands of chickens or cows in a big shed rather than giving them space to roam around, or growing mass quantities of one crop in the same place year after year, or cramming snack foods with ingredients made from heavily subsidized crops like soy, corn, and wheat – these companies can charge a lot less. Using technology to diminish the amount of labor required is not necessarily bad, in my opinion, except in those cases where the nutritional value of the food – i.e. the very thing for the sake of which we’re eating it in the first place, so that we can survive – is sacrificed.

Proponents of especially expensive health-food diets like the raw food diet (which certainly isn’t locally grown and advocates exotic health foods like raw cacao, goji berries, noni juice, algae, reishi mushrooms, and other foods that would probably not be sustainable if we were all to eat them) say essentially that you should just suck it up and absorb the price because it’s worth it (Whole Foods reps have been known to say something similar). I don’t believe this is the answer. Ironically, once upon a time, the healthy food choices were those available to the poor. Processing rice to make it white, for example, was a privilege the rich could afford, but not the poor (I’m particularly fond of the scene in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai where the besieged peasants are described as so poor they can’t even eat rice – they have to eat millet. Yes, millet – that delicious whole grain I was just recommending for summer eating a few pages ago). Common workers were more likely to be strong and healthy (until they finally deteriorated from backbreaking labor, of course), while the royal family was susceptible to being weak, frail, and wasting away at an early age – despite, or because of, their access to whatever food they wanted.

Now, however, the poor are more likely to be found at McDonald’s, buying cases of coca-cola, junk food, candy, and generally suffering from diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health problems. And others of us – like the many college grads who subscribe to this newsletter – aren’t that bad off, but still can’t go to the health food store and just buy whatever we want. Nevertheless, we don’t want to cash in our health if we can help it. I am of the opinion, personally, that it will not always be like this. The rate of growth of the organic and health-food industries suggest that the time will come when Americans demand reasonably priced health food and the government subsidies will be readjusted so that you can buy an organic cantaloupe for less than a Snickers bar.

So, as I said, I’ve been working on this issue for a few years now – so what do I do to eat affordably? My general schema is a refrain that is going to sound familiar if you read this newsletter a lot. Some of the advice, though, may seem surprising. As for the format in which it will be presented, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with something I always considered fairly…hackneyed. Yes, you are about to hear my “Top 5 Tips” for eating inexpensively. Oh my god. Well, let’s just move on and get it over with. One caveat, though: unless you are really trying to spend as little as possible, you don’t need to totally adopt these suggestions – just try to follow them when you can, and you will end up saving more. If you really would like to drastically cut your food bill down but still continue to eat healthy, delicious, filling meals, send me an email and I’ll get more specific with you. I usually help people plan this kind of thing out over time in my program, but nevertheless I’ll try to be as detailed as I can without turning this article into War and Peace.

1. Eat whole foods. Didn’t I say something about this last time? Yes, but that was just for your health. Now it’s for your savings. It turns out that the foods that are the best value are vegetables, whole grains, and beans (in bulk). Part of the reason for this is that they take more preparation, though with a little practice you can introduce these foods into your diet without introducing a lot of extra cooking time into your day. I’ll give one example – oatmeal vs. boxed cereal. Organic oatmeal is about .90¢ a pound. A pound of a boxed cereal like Kashi’s heart-to-heart cheerios is about $3.00. I won’t even mention how oatmeal is so much better for you. Now, you do have to take about five minutes to prepare it and wash the pot afterwards. It might be worth it, though, if you knew you were also cutting your food bill by two thirds. The exception here is fruit – it can be ridiculously expensive. Having some of it in your diet every day is a good idea, especially in the summer, but you only need a little. Stick with what’s in season because it will usually be the cheapest.

2. Eat three meals a day. Now let’s talk about some of the most expensive food in the store (and when I say most expensive, I mean cost divided by nutritional value + quantity of healthful calories): snack food. Yes, we all love snack food…I admit it…sometimes I go to the store and just want to buy nothing but snack food because I feel like I’ve been deprived of it for so long. So I do, but then after two days suddenly I need to go shopping again – and I think, What happened to all that food? Oh yeah…I snacked on it. Well, of course. That’s what it’s for. But snack food is really what happens when you missed a meal, or you’re doing something you don’t want to do, or you’re not doing anything and feel somewhat bored, or you’re too tired to prepare something. But the idea of snack food is not that it’s really supposed to satisfy you. The food you get at the rest stop is only supposed to get you to the next rest stop. If you arrange your life so that you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at specific times each day and have enough at each meal to help you last until the next one, not only will you save a ton of money but you might even lose some weight as well, if that’s what you’re interested in. And don’t hesitate to eat all the food you want during those meals – just don’t eat between them.

3. Pack a lunch. Eating out is just simply much more expensive than making your own food. That’s not to say that I never do it, but for me doing so is largely a social occasion – the food I make myself usually tastes better. When you make dinner, I suggest making enough to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. You’ll be amazed at how much extra money you save just by coming prepared.

4. Make one trip to the store per week. From my own personal experience, I know that every time I go shopping for food I pick up something that is not on my list, not something I really need, and is something that will probably make me feel slightly sick later. Yeah. What works for me in solving this problem is making a list ahead of time of everything I’ll need plus a little, just so I don’t run out. If you get into a habit of spending fifty dollars every time you go to the store, whether you need more food or not, that can be a problem. And if you do run out of food before the end of the week, well, many health gurus are huge advocates of fasting. (That’s mostly a joke. Fasting can be good sometimes, but I don’t recommend starving yourself to save money).

5. Eat balanced meals. Many people spend a lot on food because of daily cravings. An obvious example is the wild success of Starbucks. The truth is that if the food you eat, or the events in your life, do not satisfy you, you’ll be looking for additional sustenance. When I talk about eating three meals a day, make sure that there is enough food to fill you up! Many dieters go hungry because they don’t get enough healthy sources of fat in their diets; the same thing happens to junk food vegetarians. Some people buy a lot of food because they’re using it to make themselves feel better about something that’s not food-related (what am I saying, some people? Everyone does this. Especially the health counselor). But when I say “balanced meals,” I mean it’s not enough to have a certain volume of food, but also to ensure that you have variety – enough protein, carbohydrates and fat (especially fat – it’s filling and good for you. I suggest olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, organic animal fat (butter, milk, cheese, eggs, meat), fish and fish oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, etc. Not margarine, and not trans fats (see: anything that says “partially hydrogenated.”)). Other ways of balancing the meal: taste (salt, sour, sweet, pungent, bitter – this goes back to the 5 element system listed above) and color.

As I said above, you do not need to follow all these different tips rigorously – just see if one or two of them work for you, and let me know how it goes.

More on Seasonal Eating (and Living)

Here’s an update on what’s growing right now in the Northeast: almost everything. This can be a bit overwhelming, but if you can find a way to fit snap peas, beets & beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, corn, cucumbers, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, chard, turnip greens, blueberries, cherries, peaches, raspberries, and plums into your diet, you’ll probably be feeling extremely good. You could live solely on the abundance of fruits and vegetables available now and actually, that might not be such a bad idea. If you work in a freezing air-conditioned office it gets confusing (you might be craving hot soups, hunks of meat and fried food from 9 to 5), but anyone spending any time outside would benefit from eating fresh, raw plant food. Even the harder root vegetables can be juiced or sliced up very thin for a salad. Of course, I recommend getting most of this food locally grown if you can – that’s really the whole point.

What I’m interested in talking about this month, however, is not just food but also other aspects of seasonal living. This will require me to write a little about the Five Element Theory, which is an integral part of the ancient Chinese medical system. Essentially, the theory states that all energy or substance can be categorized according to the above-mentioned five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), each of which has its own unique characteristics. For example, the five seasons (spring, summer, late summer, autumn, and winter) correspond to the elements above. Summer, being aligned with the Fire element, is naturally the hottest month. The system expands to include bodily organs, colors, foods, sounds, tastes, directions, phase of development, and emotions. The theory comes from centuries of observations of relationships between nature and the physical body, and is applied clinically in traditional Chinese medicine. For example, the wood element, linked to spring, is also the element of anger, the sour taste, the tendons and sinews, and the liver and the gallbladder as well as the eyes. This means that a person suffering from bloodshot eyes or with a lot of otherwise inexplicable anger might be in truth suffering from a stressed liver.

I’ve mentioned this because when I write about the given season we’re in, I’ll sometimes refer to other things that share the same element. The season we are in now – summer – is closely associated with the emotion of joy. This means that summer is really the season when doing things that make you joyful is especially recommended. It’s also the time to take care of the small intestine and the heart, the organs belonging to the fire element, and the time to sweat a lot of things out (each element is also paired with a bodily fluid). It’s no accident that summer is when a lot of weddings happen (a topic that’s been on my mind lately). Some things you can do to be more in tune with this season: wake up early, spend time out in the sun, cook a variety of brightly colored food (but lighter food – for example, if you eat whole grains, try summer grains such as millet or corn rather than wheat, rice, or buckwheat), set up some flowers in your home, go to the beach, play with your friends, watch heartwarming comedies while eating popcorn (don’t microwave it, though). You can make up your own list of things that make you joyful – then go out and do the things on it! And if you are confused about the dangers of being out in the sun – read the last article.

There’s a lot more to the five element theory than what I have space to go into above – but if you’re interested in hearing more, let me know. Paul Pitchford’s book Healing with Whole Foods has probably the best analysis of it that I know, and Annemarie Colbin’s Food and Healing also has a good treatment (aren’t these book titles sounding a little redundant?).