We think of nature as wild, green, vegetated landscapes untouched by human influence and quiet places we need to travel long distances to if we want to escape civilized, urban environments devoid of what is beautiful or spiritual. We assign qualities, values and characteristics to each side – in nature we find purity, beauty, morality, peace, order and balance, while cities are decadent, noisy, hostile, competitive and stressful places. We separate aspects of reality into opposing ideals of nature and culture, creating a duality that exists in our minds as real, but is simply two parts of a greater, whole truth.
The concept of yin and yang in Eastern philosophy is expressed as a circle consisting of masculine and feminine energies appearing to be opposite, but which are in fact complimentary. The energy of one contains elements of the other; the parts cannot exist in isolation. While nature can be serene and life-giving, it can also be destructive and brutal – think cyclones, hurricanes and earthquakes, or a relationship between predator and prey. While our cities can be competitive and violent, they can also be beautiful – think art galleries, urban gardens and social order.
The idea of nature as we tend to conceptualize it today is sold to us as the normal, rightful, pure, unadulterated state of our lives and health and the goal we must all aspire to achieve. But life today is becoming completely sanitized, sterile and homogenized. We have lost the rawness and richness of a life that embraces both sides of what it means to be human, with the highs and the lows, the happiness and the joy, but also the pain, the grief and the loss, a life that is full, whole and complete. Life cannot exist without death.
In this post, we will explore the many ways nature is marketed to us, using language and new age-y buzzwords, to convince us that the natural way (as opposed to the synthetic, artificial way?) is better for us and the Earth. I will preface my discussion with a disclaimer that I sometimes fall victim (like all of us) to a dualistic way of thinking. I favour a more ‘natural’ approach to life. I use the word ‘natural’ in inverted commas because not everything is ‘natural’ about the way I live, in the context of how the term is used today.
My soul is drawn more to a raw, organic and grass-roots life, rather than to a clinical, artificial and synthetic one (whatever that means). Even though I try to take a rational, evidence-based approach to life for the most part, I am deeply spiritual, and sometimes tend to rely more on my heart than my head, on feeling than on intellect. I can’t help it – it’s the way I’m built. I also know these words and descriptors are simply labels, and I don’t take them too seriously. I am what I am, and I like to embrace a holistic life.
So here is a brief analysis of some common terms in popular usage today, words that have become part of the vernacular of health, fitness and lifestyle bloggers who abound on the internet today, and words that are sometimes manipulated in a particular way to ‘market’ to us a preferred approach to life.
I consulted the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary for this list of meanings for ‘natural’:
- Existing in nature or produced by nature – not made or caused by people
- Not having any extra substances or chemicals added
- Not containing anything artificial
- Usual or expected
- Based on an inherent sense of right and wrong
- Living in a state of nature untouched by civilization and society
- Closely resembling an original – true to nature
- Marked by easy simplicity
- Growing without human care – not cultivated
- Possessing or exhibiting higher qualities of human nature
Being natural is defined as the normal situation, without any artifice. Simplicity is natural, but excess is not. Positive emotional qualities are normal, but negative, lower emotions are not. Human beings are excluded from the definition of ‘natural’. But if human beings (subject to the forces of evolution as any form of life is, with our carbon-based bodies that decompose back into the earth when we die) are not ‘natural’, then what are we? The debate about whether the current definition of ‘natural’ should be expanded to include human beings is beyond the scope of this post, however.
Many so-called health products claiming to be ‘natural’ are often heavily processed, with a long list of ingredients, wrapped in plastic packaging. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because a food item is labelled ‘natural’ you are getting a ‘natural’ product. Nature’s packaging is best – think banana peels and watermelon rinds, or edible packaging – the luscious skin of a ripe peach. In this article, food writer Michael Pollan, says: “The most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.”
We tend to think that if something is ‘natural’, it must be good for us. Most ingredients in conventional cleaning products are potentially toxic, suspected carcinogens – synthetic fragrances, bleach, ammonia, solvents and detergents. I think it’s wise to ditch these and use alternative ingredients (lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar). But not all ‘natural’ ingredients are harmless. Consider the substance d-Limonene, found in citrus-based cleaning formulations marketed as ‘natural’ alternatives to conventional products – exposure may cause allergies and skin rashes. Citrus essential oils like bergamot are photo-toxic, yet fruit is considered ‘natural’. Natural doesn’t always mean harmless.
There are many substances occurring naturally on Earth that are not good or safe for us. Some elements in nature have a definite positive influence on health and wellbeing, like trees, fruit, water, rain, clouds and sunlight. We say something is good for us because it’s natural. Yes, fruit and sunlight are natural, but so is uranium, mercury and arsenic. Arsenic is a ‘naturally’ occurring element in air, soil and water, so a small amount does find its way into food and water. If you eat fish, you are ingesting the mercury stored in the tissues of the fish.
Sunlight is a ‘natural’ substance that is good for us. Good for us, yes, in moderation. But a ‘natural’ substance can be bad for us, depending on how much or how little we get of it. We know too much sunlight may cause skin cancer, but too little may result in Vitamin D deficiency. We must avoid dualistic thinking. We must move away from this ‘black-and-white’ and ‘either-or’ way of thinking. I prefer to take a more spectrum-based approach to life, trying to find that middle way between the two extremes of opposing and often contradictory ideas and viewpoints.
There is no such thing as chemical-free. This should be obvious to anyone (everyone!) with even a rudimentary understanding of science and chemistry. Is there a difference between a chemical made by nature and a synthetic chemical made in a lab?
It’s a gray area, according to Scientific American guest blogger, Dorea Reeser:
“Natural chemicals are produced by nature without any human intervention. Synthetic chemicals are made by humans using methods different than those nature uses, and these chemical structures may or may not be found in nature … a synthetic chemical can be made from a natural product…”
We trust a chemical made by Mother Earth, but not one made by a scientist in a white coat. Again, we separate human beings from nature.
The terms ‘chemical’ and ‘poisonous’ have become interchangeable but using the phrase ‘chemical-free’ to describe ‘natural’ products is misleading and confusing. Even some fruits and vegetables contain ‘natural’ chemicals (or should that be chemicals) known to be toxic to human beings, but these chemicals are present in very small amounts not considered to be harmful. The founding tenet of toxicology is the dose makes the poison. If we ingest a poisonous substance in an amount that has not been shown to cause any harm, then it should be fine to consume that amount of poisonous substance, right?
But what happens when we consume a small amount of a toxic substance continuously over time? I’m concerned about cumulative effects of toxic substances, particularly those suspected of being carcinogenic. Even if a substance is considered safe at low doses, does the level of that substance increase in the body every time we ingest that substance? A one-off dose within a safe threshold may be fine, but what about the levels accumulated through long-term exposure? Do these substances leave the body, or are they stored in tissues and organs?
To a scientist, a toxin is a disease-causing agent or harmful substance derived from, or made by, plants and animals, or found in the environment, including mercury in fish, or PVC in yoga mats (yes, really). Our bodies excrete toxins every day through normal functioning. According to this article, the ‘toxins’ lifestyle bloggers talk about are found in food, and can be removed through sweating or other detoxification methods, which simply isn’t true. This bears further research. I know how fantastic I feel after a hot yoga session, and if I’m not sweating out toxins, what exactly is happening?
The normal elimination pathways the body utilizes to deal with toxins involve the liver and kidneys. The liver detoxifies harmful substances and the kidneys excrete nitrogenous waste through the urine. Do special diets or periods of fasting intended to cleanse and purify the body work? Professor Donald Smith, of The University of California, Santa Cruz says the basic principles underlying these ideas may be sound. Eating well does reduce uptake of toxins. But there is no evidence that sweating through exercise rids the body of toxins. Fasting may be effective if done properly, and regular fasting may promote longevity.
Non-organically grown green, leafy vegetables concentrate high levels of pesticide residue, so is this why incorporating organic green, leafy vegetables in our diets can assist in mopping up excess toxins in our bodies? I couldn’t find any conventional scientific evidence to support this (the topic is too complex to be discussed here), but there is ample information available from a non-conventional perspective. Organically grown fruits and vegetables do taste better, and evidence does exist that non-organically grown fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of pesticide residue. The organic versus non-organic debate continues – I’m on the organically grown side.
Clean eating essentially means foods such as organic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins and fats are clean, while non-organic fruits and vegetables and processed foods are dirty. Unfortunately, foods containing gluten and dairy have become excluded from the ‘clean’ list.
Forget about the label, if your diet consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, high quality proteins, dairy products from grass-fed cows, pastured eggs, essential fatty acids from butter, avocadoes, nuts, seeds, and sea salt, with the occasional indulgence, you’re doing fine. The closer a food is to its whole state the better it is for us.
Eat alkaline – this is the message. The acid-alkaline diet theory classifies foods as being either acid-forming or alkaline-forming depending on their effect in the body. Fruits and vegetables are considered alkaline, while meat, eggs, dairy, white flour and sugar are considered acidic. We are told the alkaline state is better for us. But excess alkalinity is just as harmful as excess acidity in the body. Our bodies do benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables for their high-water, high-vitamin and mineral, and high-fibre content, but we also need concentrated foods in our diet to provide bulk, texture and satiety.
Here’s an interesting environmental story about the effects of high alkalinity. Ocean acidification is a serious issue, and we will lose the Earth’s beautiful corals if the oceans become too acidic from absorbing carbon dioxide, but what happens in an environment of high alkalinity? Lake Natron in Tanzania, Africa has an extremely alkaline pH of 10.5, nearly as high as ammonia. Few species are adapted to such a harsh environment. Other species die when they enter the water, their tissues corroding and calcifying from the high alkalinity, their bodies preserved as if made of stone.
Raw foodists believe cooking food above 118°F destroys valuable vitamins and minerals. But the nutritional profile of some vegetables improves with heat. Cooking tomatoes increases the lycopene, making this powerful anti-oxidant more bio-available. Cooked carrots contain more anti-oxidants than raw carrots. Cooked vegetables are more palatable and easier to eat. Some vegetables are healthier raw than cooked. Eat your fruit and veggies, some raw, some cooked. Just eat enough of them. Have one large raw salad or two small raw salads daily. Fruit is best eaten raw, although the occasional apple pie won’t hurt you.
I’ve saved the best for last. The term superfoods is simply a marketing term applied to certain exotic foods that are particularly high in one nutrient, vitamin or mineral than other foods. That’s it. Again, ignore the label. Supplement your regular diet with these nutritionally superior foods as often as you can – kale, acai, maca, blueberries, quinoa, spirulina, chia seeds, goji berries and turmeric, etc. But remember even normal, everyday foods can be considered superfoods, including lentils, broccoli, sweet potato and yoghurt. More exotic foods can add variety, colour and nutritional value to a basic, everyday diet.
The bottom line is – don’t take these labels too seriously. It’s impossible to apply a purist approach to our life and health. It doesn’t work (and it’s not much fun). Although perhaps if we all ate an organic, clean, alkaline, raw, plant-based diet, we just might look and feel as great as nutritionist Kimberly Snyder does!