The Unhealthy Truth: A Review

I just finished reading Robyn O’Brien’s book, The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply– and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself. It’s incredibly eye opening. Nothing I’m learning is a surprise, rather it confirms so much of what I’ve learned over the past couple of years.

I think what is so frustrating about this particular issue is that I feel so duped — duped by the food industry and the government agencies that are charged with keeping us safe but end up being so heavily influenced by the special interests groups and the food and drug industries that they have sorely neglected their duties, and now we have two entire generations suffering for it.

In her book, Robyn shares her story of discovery. After one of her children is diagnosed with a food allergy, she asks the questions that I hear so often, “What is causing this food allergy epidemic?” and “Since when did food become dangerous?”

As a mother of a child with food allergies, I get these questions a lot. There are many theories, but unfortunately no definite answers. But Robyn wasn’t satisfied with that. In fact, she puts me to shame, because I found myself in her shoes — not once, but twice, I sat in a doctor’s office with a child diagnosed with a potentially deadly food allergy. And it never occurred to me to find out why. I just treated it as advised by my doctor and went on about my life. I guess I figured if the doctors don’t know, then how do I expect to figure it out.

Robyn, however, wasn’t satisfied with this. A former equity analyst, she immediately put her skills to use and set out to discover why food allergies are suddenly so pervasive in our society. What she learned about the food industry shocked and horrified her. Much of it is not new to me, but some of it is, and as I read her book, I find myself getting downright angry.

How is it that the very institution designed to protect us has been so manipulated and influenced by corporate interests?

I love it when Robyn says, “I was raised on capitalism and the Wall Street Journal.” I think this is why I regard her work so highly. She is a mom, like me, who trusted and revered her government, like me, and found herself and her children victims of the corruption and greed that all too easily transforms a noble institution. Suddenly all is not well with the world. And Mama Bear is rip-roarin’ mad.

Melodramatic? Maybe. But wait till you read this book.

It took me several weeks to read her book, because I had to stop every once in a while and walk away and take time to digest the information and get over my astonishment at much of it. It’s a fascinating read because she takes us along in her journey, telling her story infused with what she learned along the way.

She shares stats on the rise of food allergies in the past 20 years and the correlation between allergies, asthma and eczema. She lists the various hypotheses and why she believes it is the changes in our food system that are primarily to blame for this huge rise in allergies over the same time period. Food simply isn’t the same as it was when we were growing up — even processed foods have been changed for the worse.

She goes into how these food changes happened and why they only happened here in America. Yes, you read that right. Perhaps the most shocking and sickening bit of information she uncovers is how food companies like Kraft and Pepsi actually formulate foods differently for other countries because those countries don’t allow artificial colors and growth hormones in their food supply, and what genetically modified ingredients are allowed must be labeled as such.

She explains GMOs and growth hormones and how they were allowed into our food supply and why we should be wary of these new technologies.

She talks you through the complicated relationship between non-profits and food corporations and the FDA, and you realize that there really is no one who is unbiased in this system, not even those who you may expect to be.

She explains how most studies are usually funded by the groups that stand to gain the most from the approval of the product, which is why so many hot button issues appear to be inconclusive when you look at the “evidence.”

Knowing her limitations as a scientist, Robyn consults with various experts and backs up her claims with statistics and facts, and she is careful in the way she words her assumptions versus the facts available. This isn’t the be all end all in the food allergy debate, but she makes a good case for taking precautions with the food we eat and feed our kids.

First and foremost, she is a mom. She is not afraid to say, “I used to look at people who were particular about their food like they were crazy.” She is not afraid to say, “Now I wish I had been more understanding and compassionate because now they look at me that way.” (Those aren’t direct quotes. I can’t locate them to reference exactly what she said.)

I can so relate to that.

I liked myself better when I was the laid back mom — the one who didn’t mind if my kids pigged out on junk and let them buy from the ice cream truck every time it came around the block. But the more I know, the more I feel that I have to protect them from the establishment. If I won’t, who will?

I won’t lie. There were times when I found this book horribly discouraging. But Robyn doesn’t leave us hanging. She goes into ways we can all contribute to the change that must be made if we’re going to turn the health of our nation’s children back around and going in the right direction. And just her own tenacity with her message is an encouragement in and of itself.

At the end, she details how she changed the food she fed her family for each meal and snacks. The one thing I took away from this section is, everyone has to start where they are. I know that some of you read about the way we eat in my house, and you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Um yeah, NOT happening.” Okay, fair enough. But that’s no reason to bury your head in the sand. Everyone has to start where they are.

When I discovered Michael Pollan and Nina Planck, we already ate a fairly healthy diet — by U.S. standards, anyway. My family was used to eating whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables. I can count on one hand the times in my life I bought Pop Tarts or Lunchables. I understand that going from Lucky Charms to homemade granola is a stretch, but it’s like I always say — it’s not all or nothing.

Robyn is fond of saying, “No one can do everything, but everybody can do one thing.”

Her other mantra is, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”

I think it’s really important to keep that perspective; otherwise we’ll get discouraged and give up.

While I highly recommend Robyn’s book for anyone because of the plethora of information she shares, I particularly recommend it for those who want to eat better but aren’t ready to opt out of the grocery store or spend hours in the kitchen. Robyn explains how to get the chemicals and artificial colors and hormones and GMOs out of your food without being an accomplished chef or even leaving the grocery store.

The hope is that eventually, consumer demand will be such that these companies will change how they formulate our foods too. Of course, you know me. I think we’re better off eating as little industrially processed food as possible, and I’m inherently wary of anything that comes in a box with an extended shelf life. For optimal nourishment, our diets should be made up primarily of whole foods. But since processed foods are undoubtedly here to stay, the least we can do is clean them up and make them safe.

I applaud Robyn and her diligence in researching these issues and bringing this information to light. This book is one that I wish every mom (and dad) would read, but it really is a must for anyone who has a child with food allergies, eczema, autism, ADHD, and wants to know why these issues are on the rise and what we can do about it.