What's So Bad About Phthalates?

What’s So Bad About Phthalates?

I’ve done a bit of research about phthalates to know that they are bad, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to see just how bad and learn more about the possibilities for exposure.

My Health Journey

As a health conscious mother of four (soon to be five) and also on a pretty strict budget as a stay at home mom, I’m always trying to balance out health and cost. I first of all try to serve my children as much nutrient dense food as possible while at the same time try to eliminate as many toxins as I can. That being said, stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol which leads to inflammation, free radical damage, and a weakened immune system, so I try to avoid that by not getting too paranoid about things that can affect our health.

I believe the best health journey is one that is continuous and involves baby steps. Once, I tried throwing out everything processed and only purchased organic whole foods, but the cost was overwhelming and something we couldn’t support on one income. (Also, organic isn’t a magic label freeing us from all toxins.) So now, we do what we can, and I’m always trying to just focus on the next step rather than the final destination.

In this series of articles, I would like to explore some of the toxins that are lurking in our everyday lives, explain what they are, how they are hurting us, and discuss how they can be avoided. I hope that this research will serve our family as we continue our health journey, choose better and safer products, and try to live the best life that we can every day for both our current and future health.

What are Phthalates?

Most phthalates (pronounced f-THAL-ates) are plastcizers that are added to plastics (such as vinyl flooring, raincoats, shower curtains, plastic toys, and IV drip bag tubes) to make them more flexible and harder to break. They are also added as a dissolving agent (solvent) and fragrance carrier to many personal care products including soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and laundry detergents.

*On a side note, phthalates are not commonly found in things like plastic wrap, food containers, and water bottles…although these plastics do contain other dangerous chemicals that can leech into your food and beverages that I will discuss in future articles.

Finding Phthalates on Labels

If you’re a label reader (like me), the scary thing about phthalates is that under current law, they can simply be labeled as “fragrance”, even if they make up to 20% of the product.

If you’re looking at your labels, you may notice different acronyms and names:

  • DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) – used in nail polish and other personal care products
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate) – used in personal care products, such as deodorants, perfume, cologne, aftershave lotion, shampoo, hair gel, and hand lotion
  • BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) – used in vinyl flooring, car-care products, and personal care products
  • DMP (dimethyl phthalate) – used in insect repellent, plastics, and solid rocket propellant
  • DEHP (di-phthalate, bis-phthalate, or 2-ethylhexyl phthalate) – used as a softener in PVC products, such as IV bags, tubing, and other medical devices

*In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law calling for the phthalates DBP, DEHP, and BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate) to be banned in all toys (including teething toys) and bedding intended for children 12 and under. There are, however, no regulations on phthalates in toys made in China, and they have been tested to have very high levels (28%-38%).

Why are Phthalates Dangerous?

While most studies reflect the effects of phthalates on animals, the results have been disturbing enough for people to start taking notice. Most adults will metabolize phthalates through the digestive system and excrete them via feces or urine, but this isn’t really possible for fetuses in the womb and particularly dangerous for the immature digestive system of infants and young children, so they are most at risk.

While more research is needed, animals studies show that low exposure to DBP phthlates (found in most grocery store cosmetics) can damage the reproductive system of males and that DEHP (used to soften plastics) is toxic to the developing fetus (especially at high exposures such as experienced by those undergoing medical procedures). Other studies show that,

“there is a potential for phthalates to impact birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, fertility (lower sperm production), and anatomical abnormalities related to the male genitalia,” states Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and director of the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in New York City.

Phthalate exposure is also linked to asthma, the timing of puberty, childhood obesity, and other health conditions such as breast cancer.

How to Avoid Phthalates

While I don’t think it’s practical or possible in this day and age to chuck every man made material possession and move deep into the woods to be free from human influence or innovation, there are some ways that we can start to eliminate our phthalate exposure both gradually and practically.

  1. Look for phthalates or fragrance on labels. Avoid anything with “fragrance” or any mention of any type of phthalate. Instead of using air fresheners, just put a few drops of essential oils into a spray bottle filled with water.
  2. Look for phthalate-free labels. This may seem like kind of a no-brainer, but it is a pretty good way to find things that are free from phthalates. 🙂 Look for phtalate-free labels on cleaners and cosmetics especially.
  3. Check the bottom of plastic bottles and choose those labeled #2, 4, or 5. Avoid #3 and #7 because they may contain phthalates.
  4. Use a french press for coffee. The plastic tubing and high heat in coffee pots are a recipe for high phthalate exposure.
  5. Don’t buy plastic toys from China. If you buy children’s toys in the U.S. (made after 2008), they cannot contain phthalates, but even still, you might want to steer towards wooden toys like these wooden teethers that my friend makes! And don’t buy plastic toys from China (or other countries) where there are no regulations on phthalates.
  6. Know where your milk comes from. Even organic milk may have passed through plastic tubes (with DEHP) on the way from the cow to the bottle. The fatty acids in milk basically pull the the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk. We actually get raw milk from a farm (that we have visited) where the milking is done by hand and never touches plastic of any kind.
  7. Sweat more. Sweating helps your body to eliminate phthalates twice as effectively as elimination through urine. So, adults can exercise more or visit the sauna!
  8. Be careful when painting. Most paints have DBP to help them spread better, so make sure there are no children are around and the room is well ventilated, or look for natural paints without DBP.
  9. Choose non-vinyl options if possible. For example, you can check out these non-vinyl shower curtain options and these PVC and phthalate free raincoats at Puddlegear that will not produce chemical off-gassing bringing phthalates into your environment. *These options are expensive and things I would save for more advanced elimination.


The people most at risk from phthalate exposure are unborn babies and infants (especially males), so it’s especially important for pregnant mamas and parents of young children to be aware of things that contain phthalates. During human studies, women have tested higher for the type of phthalates found in cosmetic products, so women are typically at greater risk as well. So before slathering lotion on yourself or your baby, spritzing on some perfume, or washing your clothes, check your labels and know what you’re putting onto and into your body.

Like I said before, I don’t think it’s worth the stress to get super paranoid about every possible danger in life because we’re all going to die one day anyways, but by taking thinking of it as a health journey instead of a health destination, we can continuously choose one thing at a time to improve in our lives that will help not only our current health, but our future health, and the health of future generations as well.

Embracing Motherhood Do You Have Lead in Your Water?

Do You Have Lead in Your Water?

Ever since the Flint water scandal, my husband and I have both been a bit more concerned about lead being in our water. We are fortunate enough to live in a city that does not flouridate its water…check to see what’s in your city’s water here, and we’ve always used a simple faucet filter, but we wanted to learn a little more.


So we ordered these testing strips and learned that our water had no noticeable levels of lead, chlorine, copper, or bacteria. And when I tested the water that came through the filter, I got the exact same results, so guess what? We ditched our filter. 🙂 Our water did test at being very hard (which is probably why the previous owners installed a water softener system), but after doing some research, I learned that having hard water means that it’s full of a lot of minerals (like calcium and magnesium) that are very good for your body, but will clog up your coffee pot tubes, shower heads, and leave dirty rings in your tub and toilet. We have opted to simply clean things out a bit more and enjoy the benefit of the extra minerals!

In this article, I’d like to share what I learned about the Flint water scandal, what’s so bad about having lead in your body, how to detoxify from lead poisoning, how to know if your water has lead, the best filters to get lead out of your water, and other sources that might lead to lead poisoning, .

The Flint Water Scandal

Basically, Flint’s state appointed emergency manager, Darnell Early, was faced with the task of saving the failing city money and on April 25, 2014, he oversaw the switch from Detroit’s water supply (that drew from Lake Huron) to the Flint River (while waiting for their own regional water system connection to Lake Huron to be built).

The contents of the water in the Flint River are actually not to blame for all of the lead. Instead, the blame lies with the high levels of chloride ions (present from the over deicing of the roads which causes chloride ions to run off into waterways) that are really to blame. Nick Krieger explains in his article, “What Makes Flint Water So Corrosive,”

“The negative chloride ions are corrosive, so when the high-chloride water is pumped through lead pipes (or iron and copper pipes joined together with lead solder), lead leaches into the water.  It’s as simple as that.”

Flint could have added orthophosphate to neutralize these chloride ions for $100/day, but it chose not to. As a result, the lead pipes corroded and leached lead into the water. In addition, the corroded pipes allowed other contaminants such as bacteria from the soil that led to a spike in those contaminated with Legionnaires’ disease.

One of the most disturbing factors of the Flint water scandal were the people in charge who KNEW it was going on and yet did NOTHING!

On October 1st, 2104, 6 months after the switch to the Flint River, General Motors complained that its car parts were corroding when being washed on the assembly line, so they were quietly hooked back up to the Lake Huron Water. Meanwhile, residents complained about tainted, foul-smelling tap water and health symptoms such as rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it, but nothing was done for them. It took ONE YEAR of complaints, independent tests, lawsuits, national, and global recognition and FINALLY in October of 2015, the switch back Lake Huron through Detroit’s water system was made. (Read A Toxic Timeline of Flint’s Water Fiasco for a truly flabbergasting timeline of events.)

Now, under the public eye, Flint is faced with the insurmountable task of replacing all of the corroded lead pipes, which could take over two years and cost upwards of $60 million! And what are residents of Flint supposed to do in the meantime? You can only drink and bathe in bottled water for so long…and not only that, but plastic water bottles leach chemicals and endocrine disruptors into the water. (Which is why we try to stick with glass water bottles when we can!)

What’s So Bad About Lead?

Lead poisoning is especially harmful to children whose bodies and brains are still developing and growing. There are no levels of lead in the blood that are considered safe for children. While lead exposure can be stopped, the effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.

Even low levels of lead can cause the following side effects.

  • Nervous system and kidney damage
  • Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and decreased intelligence
  • Speech, language, and behavior problems
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Decreased muscle and bone growth
  • Hearing damage
  • Seizures, unconsciousness, and death

If adults ingest lead, 99% of it will leave in their waste in a couple of weeks. But with children, only about 32% of the lead taken in will leave in their waste. Under conditions of repeated exposure, lead (and other toxic metals…mercury, aluminum, cadmium) can accumulate in body tissues, even the bone. Even if you have removed the threat of lead, lead that has accumulated in the body can continue to do damage.

Get Lead (and Other Toxic Metals) Out of Your Body

If you’re worried that your child has been exposed to lead, go to your doctor (or free health clinic) to get a test done right away. They will be able to tell you after a simple finger poke if there is any lead present in your child’s blood and what the implications are. Lead that has accumulated in the body can take months or years to be expelled, so it’s a good idea to continue taking precautions to get rid of it long after the threat has been removed.

There are certain foods can help to get rid of lead accumulation in the body. The phytic acid present in all grains, seeds, nuts, etc. prevents our bodies from absorbing valuable minerals, but also chelates (binds to and removes) toxic metals from our bodies. One of the best sources for phytic acid is brown rice (that hasn’t been properly soaked and fermented to get rid of the phytic acid). Other sources would be any nuts, seeds, or anything “whole grain”.

Cilantro oil and chlorella are also really good at working in tandem to to eliminate lead (and other toxic metals) and they will actually add more vitamins and minerals to your body rather than leech them away! Get some cilantro oil here and some chlorella here. It’s also a good idea to take some really good vitamin c (not with ascorbic acid) to boost your immune system while you detoxify. *Check out some other great detox ideas here.

Check with your doctor or naturopath before starting a detox program with your child, but some general rules of thumb are to start with small doses using just a few drops at a time, and make sure it is really diluted with some other liquid.

Is There Lead in Your Water?

It’s not just Flint who has a problem with lead in their water source. In a Rolling Stone article by Tessa Stuart called, “It’s Not Just Flint: America Has a Major Lead-in-Water Problem” she explains that,

“There’s always going to be some amount of lead in some amount of homes — it could be from the service line, or from lead solder used as glue in some pipes, from leaded brass plumbing, or a myriad of other sources. “Most homes in the United States are going to have some form of lead-bearing plumbing,” Lambrinidou says.”

Check your water: You can go to the National Drinking Water Database, enter your zipcode, look for your city, and see exactly what they have found in your water.

Test your water: Or you can buy your own kit, like this, for $20 and it will test for bacteria, lead, pesticides, nitrites/nitrates, chlorine, hardness, and pH.

Best Water Filters to Get the Lead (and Other Toxins) Out

If you decide that you want to filter your water (probably a good idea), here are some filters you might want to consider. (FYI: Stay away from reverse osmosis filters because they filter out EVERYTHING including all of the good minerals that you want to keep!)

  • Radiant Life 14-Stage Biocompatible Water Purification System ($1,595) – This is WAY out of our price range, but if you’re looking for the best of the best…It gets rid of ALL toxins, and you can tuck it away under your sink. (Also, if you’re trying to convince your significant other that you want to buy a $120 water filter, give them a choice between the $120 one and this one. The $120 one will suddenly seem like a much better deal!)

  • Berkey Complete Water Filtration System ($289) – This system is incredible! Not only will it work on city water, but you can take it with you camping to use on some pond water! It will filter out bacteria, parasites, pesticides, nitrites, nitrates, and gets rid of 99.9% of heavy metals (including lead and mercury). This model also comes with flouride filters.

  • AquaCera HCP Counter-Top Filter System ($120) – This is cheaper than the Berkey and takes up less room on the counter (or you can get an under the counter version for $261). It filters out bacteria, parasites, 99% of chlorine, 99% of lead, 98% of other heavy metals, 95% of arsenic, 99.9% of glyphosates, 92% of nitrates, and gives an 85% reduction in flouride. It easily connects to a standard faucet with no tools and requires no electricity or permanent modifications to plumbing.

Lead Isn’t Just In Water

In 1978, the government banned the use of lead based paint in houses, so most homes built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead. When the paint chips and peels, children are especially susceptible to ingesting it because little fingers like to pick and peal and those little paint chips and then they don’t wash their hands before eating food. Not only that, but the dust from the peeling lead paint can be inhaled.

If there are no chips or scratches, you can paint over the lead based paint, and keep painting it every 4-10 years to prevent any from showing through. If there are, it’s best to call in a professional to remove the paint…or just move!

In Conclusion


The Flint water scandal was an eye opening headline that got everybody thinking about what is in our water. We bath in it, we cook with it, we water our garden with it, and we drink it…so it’s good to know what we’re taking in with our water. I highly recommend getting your water tested, and if you live in an old house, do some research about lead paint. I also highly recommend getting your children tested for lead poisoning if you have any doubt or even just to ease your mind.

Going Barefoot Will Improve Your Health

Earthing and Grounding: The Benefits of Going Barefoot

Why is it that our children always rip off their socks and shoes as soon as they get outside? Maybe they intrinsically know that going barefoot not only feels good, but it is good for us in so many ways. Going barefoot is so good for us in fact, that it has been studied extensively and given the fancy names of “Earthing” and “Grounding”.

What is Earthing?

Earthing (also known as Grounding) is when we connect with the Earth’s surface electrons by walking barefoot outside on grass, sand, dirt, or concrete. These are all conductive surfaces through which your body can draw the Earth’s energy. Wood, vinyl, and asphalt are not conductive surfaces.

The Earth’s Surface Has a Negative Charge

It is pretty commonly accepted that the Earth’s surface carries a negative charge, but there isn’t really a consensus as to why this occurs. Some say that at the inner core of the Earth, the temperature and pressure are so high that the atoms there are ionized which creates a positive charge, therefore the surface is negatively charged. Others explain that thunderstorms are an electrical generator pumping electrons from the air to the ground against the electrical field in the form of lightning.

Here’s how that happens: When frozen raindrops in thunderclouds move around and bump into each other, they create an electric charge. As the cloud fills up with electrical charges, the positive charges (protons) accumulate at the top of the cloud, and the negative charges (electrons) accumulate at the bottom of the cloud. Since opposites attract, this causes a positive charge to build up below the cloud. The charge coming up from the highest points eventually connects with a charge reaching down from the clouds, and ZAP, lightning strikes!

Lightning Strikes

Lightning Strikes (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Tó campos1, 2007)

Other generators in the global electric current are ionospheric dynamo and magnetosheric dynamo, which you can read about more here if you’re interested.

Basically, just know that the Earth’s surface has a whole bunch of extra electrons just waiting to be picked up by our bare feet.

How Electrons Act as Antioxidants (by Eliminating Free Radicals)

So now you understand (hopefully) that the Earth’s surface is flush with extra electrons, but why is that good? Well, these electrons act as antioxidants that eliminate free radicals in our body. Free radicals (which we get from exposure to X-rays, ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals) are atoms that have unpaired electrons in their outer shell. These unpaired electrons make free radicals highly reactive to other substances that can lead to mutations, cancer, and oxidative stress (where your body is literally rusting from the inside out). Antioxidants stabilize the free radicals by giving them the electron they need to calm down. In the process, the antioxidant sacrifices itself. What a pal!

This Free Radical is Missing an Electron Which Makes it Highly Reactive

This Free Radical is Missing an Electron Which Makes it Highly Reactive (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Healthvalue~commonswiki, 2012)

For more information about free radicals and antioxidants, check out my blog How to Stay on Top of Free Radicals with Antioxidants.

Benefits of Going Barefoot

So not only will you be boosting your immune system and overall health by getting rid of free radicals with the extra electrons that you accumulate from the Earth’s surface, there are a myriad of other health benefits as well. Studies have shown that earthing (or grounding) has so many health benefits, that it suddenly seems silly to wear shoes, especially plastic soled shoes that aren’t conducive to the Earth’s electrons like leather soled shoes are.

  • Thins the blood (lowers blood pressure)
  • Reduces risk of heart attack
  • Cardiovascular benefits
  • Lowers stress levels
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased depression
  • Sense of calm
  • Improved mental clarity
  • Fewer headaches
  • Better recovery from adrenal fatigue
  • Better sleep
  • Less phosphorus and calcium loss thus leading to a reduced chance of osteoporosis
  • Reduces inflammation (which leads to many chronic diseases)
  • Less chronic pain
  • Slows the aging process (by getting rid of free radicals)
  • Less muscle tension
  • Quicker healing from exercise-induced muscle pain
  • Faster immune responses
  • Protects the body from EMFs

How to Do It

It’s not rocket science really; it’s just a matter of going barefoot as much as possible on surfaces conducive to the Earth’s energy (grass, sand, dirt, or concrete). Or better yet even, take a nap the next time you are outside sprawled out in the soft warm grass or getting some sun at the beach.

Ophelia Playing Barefoot in Our Sandbox

Ophelia Playing Barefoot in Our Sandbox

In order to maximize on your grounding time when you’re inside, you might want to get an earthing mat like this that can be plugged in and placed on top of a desk under your keyboard and mouse or under your desk for bare feet contact. Or you might like something like this half sheet to place under your bottom sheet on your bed to get the full effects of grounding while you’re asleep. If you have sleep problems, I highly recommend this!

In Conclusion

So when you see our family playing at the park and all of our shoes have been cast aside, now you’ll know the reason why! And at the end of the day when my little ones are done playing outside and ready for pajamas, I’ll know that I did a good job if I can see that the bottoms of their feet are covered with well worn dirt. (And no, we don’t bathe everyday, but that’s for another post!)


How to Stay on Top of Free Radicals with Antioxidants

How to Stay on Top of Free Radicals with Antioxidants

I hear the terms “free radicals” and “antioxidants” thrown around a lot, but the extent of my knowledge was that free radicals were bad and antioxidants were good. I wanted to know more, so I researched it and synthesized my findings here. The information is quite fascinating.

Free Radical Test

If you want to see how much your body has been affected by free radicals you can do the following test: Hold out your hand with the palm facing down in a relaxed position, then pinch the skin on the back of the hand by lifting up the fold and releasing it. If the skin snaps quickly back into place, then you have minimal free radical damage. If the skin takes a few seconds to go back into place, then that is a bad sign and you will want to take immediate steps to adjust your diet to eliminate free radicals and incorporate as many antioxidants as you can.

What are Free Radicals?

Free radicals are atoms that have unpaired electrons in their outer shell. These dangling covalent bonds make free radicals highly reactive to other substances or even to each other. In our bodies, they can create abnormal cells that can lead to a growing list of diseases from cataracts to cancer and leads to oxidative stres (where your body is kind of rusting from the inside out). What’s scary about free radicals is that they are able to penetrate into the DNA of a cell and damage its blueprint so that the cell will reproduce mutated cells that can then replicate without normal controls.

But they’re not all bad. In his article on the Weston A. Price foundation, Staying on Top of Oxidative Stress, Stephen Byrnes, ND, RNCP, states that, “free radicals are involved in many cellular functions and are a normal part of living. When, for example, a mitochondria within a cell burns glucose for fuel, the mitochondria oxidizes the glucose and in so doing generates free radicals. White blood cells also use free radicals to attack and destroy bacteria, viruses and virus-infected cells. The detoxifying actions of the liver also require free radicals.”

Where Do Free Radicals Come From?

When the body is fed poorly, it slowly starves at the cellular level, all systems become weaker, and then these weak systems become prime targets for free radical attack. The major sources of dietary free radicals are chemically-altered fats from commercial vegetable oils, vegetable shortening and all oils heated to very high temperatures. Excessive sugar can also contribute to free radical damage. Stephen Byrnes further states that, “Free radicals are also released in the body from the detoxification of drugs (whether legal or illegal), artificial food colorings and flavorings, smog, preservatives in processed foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, chlorinated drinking water, pesticides, radiation, cleaning fluids, heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and assorted chemicals such as solvent traces found in processed foods and aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene and naphthalene (found in moth balls).” Even psychological stress can produce certain hormones that generate free radicals.

What are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are scavengers on the look out for free radicals. They stabilize the free radicals by giving them the electron they need to calm down. The also work to prevent free radicals from forming in the body. In the process, the antioxidant sacrifices itself.

How Antioxidants Diffuse Free Radicals by Donating an Electron

How Antioxidants Diffuse Free Radicals by Donating an Electron

Watch this video that shows a great explanation of how free radicals and antioxidants work.

Where Do Antioxidants Come From?

As people age, they are exposed to more and more free radicals, but the body has a wonderful way of repairing itself with cholesterol, which is a major antioxidant. This is probably why the serum cholesterol levels rise as people get older and why people with higher cholesterol live longer. Stephen Byrnes explains that, “the main antioxidants are vitamins A, E and C, betacarotene, glutathione, bioflavonoids, selenium, zinc, CoQ10 (ubiquinone), and various phyto-chemicals from herbs and foods. Green tea, for example, is rich in polyphenols–powerful antioxidants that help fight cancer.” Alpha lipoic acid is another amazing antioxidant that can help to reduce insulin resistance and helps to repair the body after a strenuous workout.


Glutathione is pretty much the most powerful antioxidant. It is found inside every single cell in our bodies. It is special because it helps to maximize the activity of all the other antioxidants. It is a complete amino acid (cysteine, glycine and glutamate), it removes toxins from our cells, and it protects us from the damaging effects of radiation, chemicals, and environmental pollutants. So where can we get glutathoine?

The best way to get glutathione is high quality whey protein. The best kind to get is cold pressed, from grass-fed cows, and free of hormones, chemicals, and sugar. I have a wonderful book that I enjoy reading called Trim Healthy Mama. In it, Serena Allison and Pearl Barrett talk about the amazing benefits of whey protein including how it helps stimulate the hormones that enhance fat burning, eliminate sugar cravings and hunger by promoting a stable blood sugar, boost serotonin levels, fight breast cancer, and is a great post workout boost. They say that instead of asking for Christmas or birthday presents, they just ask for whey protein! It also occurs in raw milk, raw eggs, and raw meat. *Consuming raw meat can lead to intestinal parasites, so I personally wouldn’t do it.

Fresh fruits and raw vegetables provide an excellent source of glutathione. This goes away once cooked, however. Spinach, potatoes, asparagus, avocado, squash, okra, cauliflower, broccoli, walnuts, garlic and tomatoes have the highest glutathione per serving. *The oxalic acid in raw spinach prevents the absorption of calcium.

In Conclusion

With all of the environmental toxins, poor dietary habits, and prevalence of diseases such as cancer, it seems like a good idea to do whatever we can (especially when we’re young) to eliminate things containing free radicals and to boost our intake of antioxidants.

My Sources


How Insulin Makes Us Fat…and What to do About It

Do I care that the obesity rates in America are soaring? Does it bother me that we went from 12% of Americans being obese in 1990, to 35.7% in 2010, or that 69% of ALL Americans are now considered overweight? Not really. If people want to be fat, then be fat, but what bothers me is when I can’t lose the last ten pounds no matter what I try, or that my husband’s weight, along with his blood pressure, keeps creeping up and up and up year after year.

For the first part of our marriage, we thought we were doing the “right thing” by following the government recommend dietary guidelines of a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet, but then I started learning the truth about fats and about  how we were duped into thinking saturated fat and cholesterol were bad in the first place, and in his book, Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes completes the picture for me by thoroughly explaining how it’s not fat that’s making us fat, it’s carbohydrates. He explains that it’s not as simple as “calories in, calories out” and that it doesn’t matter how many calories we consume, but what kind.

Not all of us get fat when we eat carbohydrates, but for those of us who do get fat, carbohydrates are to blame; the fewer carbohydrates we eat, the leaner we will be” (p.134).

So WHY DO carbohydrates make us fat, and why does eating a carbohydrate rich diet make us overeat and gain weight? In a nutshell, the answer lies with the hormone insulin. Insulin is secreted to help the body metabolize glucose that comes from the breakdown of all carbohydrates. The longer our insulin levels are raised, the less time we spend burning stored fat. If we want to lose weight and access some of the fat we’ve been storing, we HAVE to lower our insulin.

The problem is that over time, for a variety of reasons, we become insulin resistant. To be more specific, our cells become insulin resistant as they protect themselves from an onslaught of glucose. When this happens, insulin is coursing through our veins even when we haven’t eaten anything or worse, when we have eaten, but none of the glucose can get into the cells and so we STARVE at the cellular level. This makes us hungry and we keeping eating and eating and eating, but we aren’t getting satisfied.

And thus begins a vicious cycle where we’re not getting fat because we’re eating too much, but we’re eating too much because we’re getting fat.

Screen_shot_2012_02_10_at_08_3Here is a great look at how insulin makes us store fat. This diabetic man injected himself with insulin in the same spots on his lower abdomen for more than 30 years. As a result he got lipohypertrophy, which isn’t the result of “eating too much” but rather the insulin doing it’s job of storing fat in a central and localized area.

Are you curious to know how insulin works to make us fat? Read on to get a thorough understanding of the role insulin plays in our digestion.

1. The pancreas begins secreting insulin when we simply think about eating carbohydrates. We may not have been really hungry before, but once we start to think about eating a freshly glazed doughnut or a big plate of spaghettu, we realize that we are suddenly STARVING. The insulin is doing it’s job; it’s preparing our body for what we are about to eat.

2. As it is digested, all food can basically be broken down into three categories: glucose (from carbohydrates), fatty acids (from fat), and amino acids (from protein). The only thing that stimulates insulin production is glucose, but any fat or protein that comes into the body with the glucose, will be stored as fat and dealt with later because the glucose is much easier to metabolize and so it is taken care of first.

  • Carbohydrates are digested easily for quick energy. Enzymes from our saliva, pancreas, and small intestine work to break the carbohydrates down into glucose. Whatever isn’t needed for immediate energy is repackaged into larger bundles called glycogen and stored in the liver or muscles. The liver releases small amounts of glycogen over the next 8-12 hours as energy is needed. If there is still excess glucose after maxing out glycogen storage, it will be converted and stored as body fat.
  • When we talk about fats, there are two distinct kinds. First we have Long-chain fatty acids found in polyunsaturated fats like canola oil and monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados that take a long time to be metabolized. In order to metabolize these fats, they must be digested with bile acids from the liver and enzymes from the pancreas called lipases before they can be sent into the bloodstream. When you eat long-chain fatty acids with any carbohydrates, they will be immediately stored as fats, and if you are insulin resistant (which I’ll address later) or continue to consume carbohydrates, they will not be released from the fat cells. Then we have Short- and medium-chain fatty acids found in saturated fats like coconut oil and butter that are digested easily and can be used for quick energy. They break down without any help from bile acids and are sent directly to the liver where they are metabolized for quick energy. If you were to eat short- or medium-chain fatty acids by themselves, it is virtually impossible for them to be stored as fat. When eaten with carbohydrates, say on a piece of bread and butter or in raw cookie dough, this becomes a bit of a gray area and depends on
  • When protein is digested into amino acids, these building blocks are used to build and repair tissue. They can be used as energy if there’s no other source of energy. If eaten with carbohydrates, they will not be stored as fat.

3. So as ANY carbohydrates enter the bloodstream and are converted to glucose, insulin is secreted and starts doing its job.  Now there are only two things that bring blood sugar down: one is physical activity that will drive sugar from the blood into the muscles where it will be burned as fuel and the other is insulin. When insulin is released into the bloodstream, it is like a traffic cop directing glucose to the cells to be used as energy, to the liver or muscles to be stored as glycogen, and once the glycogen stores are full, to the fat cells to be stored as fat.

4. While insulin is busy shuttling glucose around, it is also stimulating the lipoprotein lipase (LPL) enzyme that pulls fat from the bloodstream into the fat cells. Insulin just wants us to survive. When there is a lot of glucose coming in, it is like a squirrel storing away nuts for the winter, and it tries to store away whatever glucose isn’t immediately being needed elsewhere. When insulin is present, more LPL enzymes are stimulated to pull fat into the fat cells.

5. At the same time, insulin is also suppressing the hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) enzyme which is responsible for making fat leave the fat cells. When there are individual fatty acids in the bloodstream, they are small enough to pass back and forth through the cell membrane. But once a glycerol molecule binds together with three fatty acids, it forms a triglyceride, and a triglyceride is too big to leave the fat cell. The only way a triglyceride can be broken down is with the help of HSL. When insulin is present, it prevents the HSL from breaking apart the triglyceride and thus the fat remains trapped inside the fat cell, and we are unable to use it as fuel.

6. Once our blood sugar levels begin to decrease, the insulin levels will also decrease (in a normal functioning metabolism). When this happens, any fat that was ingested with the carbohydrates can now be burned as fuel.

7. If insulin levels don’t decrease however (because the body is becoming resistant to insulin), then the fat that was eaten with the carbohydrates cannot be unlocked for use as fuel, and so we get hungry again before we’ve even burned all of the calories we’ve consumed. So what leads to insulin resistance?

  • Insulin resistance starts in the womb. As the pancreas of the child develops, it must secrete more insulin if the mother has high blood sugar. When it is born, it will have a tendency to over secrete insulin, become insulin resistant, and then become fat as it gets older. Gary Taubes points out that, “in animal studies, this predisposition often manifests itself only when the animal reaches its version of middle age” (p. 132).
  • The bottom line is that too much glucose over a long period of time is too much for our bodies to handle. Too much sugar is toxic not only to the blood, but to the cells as well. In his article on the Weston A. Price Foundation website, “Treating Diabetes: Practical Advice for Combatting a Modern Epidemic“, Tomas Cowan, MD, explains that, “The cells build a shield or wall around themselves to slow down this influx of excess sugar. Insulin resistance is a protective or adaptive response, it is the best the body can do to protect the cells from too much glucose.” When insulin remains elevated, the fat in the bloodstream, the fat stored in the fat cells, the protein stored in the muscle cells, and the carbohydrates stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle tissue cannot be used as fuel. As a result, the cells find themselves starved for fuel and we get hungry…starving in fact. Either we eat sooner than we otherwise would have or we eat more when we do. Meanwhile, our bodies are getting bigger because we’re putting on more fat, and we’re also building more muscle to support that fat. Gary Taubes explains that, “As we fatten, our energy demand increases, and our appetite will increase for this reason as well – particularly our appetite for carbohydrates, because this is the only nutrient our cells burn for fuel when insulin is elevated” (p. 126). And thus, we’re not getting fatter because we’re eating more, we’re eating more because we’re getting fatter.
  • Just getting older makes us more insulin resistant. As we age, we secrete more insulin, which results in more calories being diverted to fat and fewer calories being left to fuel the body. This leaves the cells to generate less energy. So we’re not getting fat because our metabolisms are slowing down, our metabolisms are slowing down because we’re getting fat. As we become insulin resistant, a whole host of other problems start to arise: our blood pressure goes up, our triglyceride levels go up, our HDL cholesterol goes down, and so on. Tomas Cowan, MD, explains that, “Having a chronically elevated insulin level is detrimental for many other reasons. Not only do high insulin levels cause obesity (insulin tells your body to store fat), but they also signal that fluid should be retained, leading to edema and hypertension. Chronic high insulin provokes plaque development inside the arteries and also suppresses growth hormone needed for the regeneration of the tissues and many other physiological responses.”

8. When either the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to deal with the incoming sugar or the cells have become resistant to the insulin over a long period of time, it can lead to diabetes.  25.8 million people in America have diabetes. That’s 8.3% of the population. Complications from diabetes can lead to heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system disease, and amputation. Gary Taubes explains how diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, cavities, appendicitis, ulcers, gallstones, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and constipation are common in societies that eat Western diets and are virtually nonexistent in societies that don’t. But it’s not ALL aspects of a western diet, as mainstream nutritionists and public health officials would have us believe, that lead to these maladies. It’s the sugar, carbohydrates, and how our body reacts to insulin.

  1. Treating Diabetes: Practical Advice for Combatting a Modern Epidemic“, Tomas Cowan, MD “Unless eaten to great excess, fats do not contribute to diabetes–with one exception. Trans fatty acids in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils can cause insulin resistance. When these man-made fats get built into the cell membrane, they interfere with the insulin receptors. In theory, this means that one could develop insulin resistance without eating lots of carbohydrates. But in practice, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are always used in the very high-carbohydrate foods–french fries, cookies, crackers, donuts and margarine on bread or potatoes–that flood the bloodstream with sugar. Trans fatty acids in modern processed foods present a double whammy for which the human species has developed no defenses.”
  2. “During the 1980s, researchers began to ask whether obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension and other common medical problems that occur together are really separate diseases, or manifestations of one common physiological defect. The evidence now points to one defect and that is hyperinsulinemia, or excessive insulin levels in the blood. Hyperinsulinemia is the physiological event that links virtually all of our degenerative diseases. It is the biochemical corollary or marker of the events described in heart disease.”

So now that we know what makes us fat (insulin), what can we do about it? In this scenario, I envision that there are three types of people in the world:

  1. People who want to lose weight (either a lot of weight or a little weight)
  2. People who don’t want to lose weight (either because they just don’t want to or they’re not fat)
  3. People who are growing (children, pregnant and lactating women, and people who need to gain weight)

For the people who want to lose weight, here is what Gary Taubes suggests that you do.

1. The first thing to understand is why the “calories in, calories out” theory is wrong. When we see ourselves putting on a little weight, there’s a little voice in our heads that tries to to motivate us throughout the day, “Just stop eating so much!” it says. But it’s not that simple.

  • Gary Taubes talks about a group of women who tried to do just that. In 1990, the National Institute of Health conducted a study that they hoped would answer whether low fat diets prevented heart disease or cancer. So they spent one billion dollars and had 20,000 women eat a low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. These women also cut their caloric intake by about 360 calories per day. After eight years, they lost an average of two pounds each and their waist circumference increased, meaning that the weight they lost was lean muscle. Also, they still got just as much cancer and heart disease.
  • We could cut calories to the point of starvation to try to lose weight, but our bodies would just adapt in other ways. Our body temperatures would decrease, we would expend less energy, we would be cranky, irritable, and not to mention STARVING, and then the only way we could maintain this weight loss would be to maintain a lifetime of starvation. Does that seem possible? I didn’t think so. So if cutting calories doesn’t make us lose weight, increasing calories shouldn’t make us gain weight.
  • That’s because it’s not about how many calories we eat, but what kind of calories we eat. Thinking that a person gets overweight because they can’t control their eating or that they should just be better at portion control is just plain wrong. Saying that a person gaining weight is a result of their immoral gluttony is like saying an alcoholic becomes dependent on alcohol because of the sinful act of drinking. It’s kind of like, well duh! But the real questions should be: WHY do some people overeat? WHY do some people store all of their incoming calories as fat? WHY so some people drink to excess? and WHY do some people become addicted to the altered state that alcohol brings? These questions will get us to the real root cause of the problem. If it were as simple as “calories in, calories out”, then the very act of eating one extra slice of bread over the course of twenty years would make us gain an extra fifty pounds, and conversely, we should be able to lose that extra fifty pounds by eliminating the equivalent of one slice of bread to see the pounds gradually waste away. But it doesn’t work like that.
  • Also, it’s helpful to think about growing children in this scenario. Children do not grow because they are eating too much; they start to eat more because they are growing. If you were to restrict a child’s calories, they would still grow, their growth would just come at a cost to their internal organs, brain functions, and growth quality. Children grow because of hormones. The hormones are telling their bodies where and how to grow. It is the same with adults. Male hormones tell a man to gain weight in his abdomen, female hormones tell a woman to gain weight in her hips, butt, and thighs, and the hormone insulin, stimulated by the overabundance of glucose, tells our body to store fat.

2. If you don’t want your body to store fat, then don’t eat sugar. It’s as simple as that. Sugar stimulates the “reward center” of the brain in the same way that heroin, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, and other addictive substances will. All food does this to some degree, but sugar seems to hijack the signal to an unnatural degree by flooding the neurotransmitters with an unparalleled amount of dopamine. You can quit eating sugar, but it will take the same vigilance as a drug addict trying to kick his or her drug habit. (Actually, according to a new study, sugar is more addictive than cocaine.)  When trying to decide between eliminating carbohydrates completely or simply limiting them, Gary Taubes explains, “If you continue to eat some of the fattening carbohydrates or allow yourself some sugar (or even, artificial sweeteners), though, you may always have the cravings” (p. ). When I was trying to quit drinking, I personally found it much easier to get rid of drinking all together, rather than trying to learn how to “drink in moderation” as I describe in my blog: Dealing with Addiction. I personally believe that having a few sweet treats (like homemade cookie dough with real butter, pastured eggs, and dark chocolate chips) is just fine every once in awhile, but only if you’re at your ideal weight. 

3. What about high fructose corn syrup? High fructose corn syrup is made up of about 55% fructose and 42% glucose. So when the glucose enters the bloodstream, it raises blood sugar, and stimulates insulin. The fructose, however, is metabolized almost exclusively in the liver. When the liver is flooded with that much fructose, it turns most of it into fat. Because insulin levels are raised from the glucose, the fat is immediately shuttled into fat cells. The more high fructose corn syrup we consume and the longer we do so creates a pattern that our bodies adapt to by converting the fructose directly to fat. Over time, this also creates a fatty liver and causes muscle tissue to become resistant to insulin. A very fascinating point made by Gary Taubes states that, “It’s quite possible that if we never ate these sugars we might never become fat or diabetic, even if the bulk of our diet were still starchy carbohydrate and flour” (p. 138). He explains further that this could be why some of the world’s poorest populations live on carbohydrate rich diets and don’t get fat or diabetic. I believe that two of the biggest culprits here are sodas and breakfast cereals. Eliminate these right away!

4. Next, cut out all carbohydrates (or greatly reduce them), and replace them with fats. And not just any fats…saturated fats.  (Read The Truth About Fats, How We Were Duped Into Thinking Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Are Bad, Benefits of Butter, and Choosing the Right Oil to learn more about eating the right kind of fats.) As we do this, we’re creating a radical shift in the fuel our cells will burn for energy. When we consume less than sixty or so grams of carbohydrates a day (a slice of pizza has 40 grams), our body will enter what is called a state of ketosis. Now instead of running primarily on carbohydrates, our body (and brain) must get used to running on fats…including the fat that has been stored in our body. The side effects of this transition could include weakness, fatigue, nausea, dehydration, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, and light-headedness. But these carbohydrate withdrawal symptoms are short lived and are far outweighed by the benefits of living a longer, leaner, and healthier life. (Read my blog, From Candida to Thrush to learn how cutting out carbs and sugar can help you get rid of both.)

5. What about hypoglycemia? Neither hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)  is good. When blood sugar dips too low, you can become disoriented, confused, shaky, jittery, anxious, and irritable, and if the situation persists, you can slip into a coma and die. The body reacts to low blood sugar by producing adrenaline and releasing the carbohydrates we’ve stored as fat called glucogen. As a person recovers from hypoglycemia, he or she may need to be very careful by gradually reducing carbohydrates to a safe level.

6. What about protein? One point of caution with this “Atkin’s diet” mentality is trying to eat too much protein without the accompanying fat. By keeping protein to 20-25% of the diet, symptoms like weakness, nausea, and diarrhea can be avoided. So eat the egg whites with the yolk, don’t drain the fat after browning meat, and cook your food in loads of butter and coconut oil.

7. What about vegetables? Vegetables are broken down into carbohydrates. It takes much longer for them to be digested because they contain more water and fewer digestible carbohydrates for their weight than starches like potatoes. As a result, they will have a minimal effect on blood sugar. But this effect, however small it might be, could still be a problem for some people with severe insulin resistance or diabetes.

8. What about fruit? Gary Taubes explains that, “If we’re predisposed to put on fat, it’s a good bet that fruit will make the problem worse, not better” (p. 136).

9. But if I don’t eat any carbohydrates, won’t I get constipated? Gary Taubes states that, “It is a misconception that carbohydrate-restricted diets cause constipation” (p. 222). By adding sodium back into the diet (I advice Real Salt or bone broth), he explains that this problem can be easily handled. If not, I recommend getting some psyllium husk.

10. Fasting for 18-24 hours might work to break through plateaus of weight loss, but achieving weight loss through semi-starvation can only be maintained if the dieter can keep eating less and less food. When the body is in semi-starvation mode, the fat cells will be working hard to recoup the fat they’re losing.

In conclusion, making a major change in diet after eating the same way for a really long time can create some radical changes in the body and being able to talk to a doctor or nutritionist during this transition is advised, but Gary Taubes points out that, “physicians who tell their fat patients to eat less and exercise more, and particularly to eat the kind of low-fat, high carbohydrate diet that the authorities recommend, will not be sued for malpractice should any of those patients have a heart attack two weeks or even two months later” (p. 216). It would be nice if doctors REALLY had our best interests in mind when “guiding us”, but they are compelled to repeat the same mantra that has misled our nation into rampant obesity, heart disease, and cancer. When it comes to the nutrition for me and my family, I prefer to be an advocate for our own health, do my own research, and whenever possible let FOOD be our medicine.