12/20/2010 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Afraid to Eat: Can Food Kill You?

I write a lot about intuitive eating and the psychology of food choices and habits. Lots of people in the intuitive eating world focus almost exclusively on why you eat, exploring the reasons behind food choices rather that the foods themselves. The idea is that if we remove all good-bad labels and judgment from food, and we're in touch with our bodies, we'll naturally make the healthiest choices. That's a valid approach, if one were eating within the context of a natural and unpolluted food supply.

But that's not the case. Our food supply is so troubled, we no longer have the luxury of being cavalier with our choices. An estimated 87 million people per year get food poisoning, and our food troubles go way beyond pathogens in our peanut butter. The stuff we eat is riddled with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, endocrine disruptors, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, synthetic colors, chemical flavorings and trans fats. Between scary reports about cancer-causing additives and life-threatening pathogens, eating seems like a frightening proposition. You'd think we're better off starving.

What's safe, clean and healthy? In general, of course, the best advice is to eat an organic diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, with some grains and limited animal protein. Some details follow:

Fruits and vegetables. They have more disease-fighting potential than any other category of foods and, since they're at the bottom of the food chain, the lowest concentrations of environmental toxins. That doesn't mean they're exempt from pathogens; remember the E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks traced to spinach? Thoroughly wash even organic produce before you eat it; you can also use a Clorox bath, recommended by Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D. (add a teaspoon of Clorox to a gallon of water, soak food for 15 to 25 minutes, and rinse thoroughly). Other than that, you can eat most organic plants with abandon.

Meat. If you eat meat, it's imperative that you buy high-quality products. Get flesh foods from local producers whenever possible, and choose lean cuts of grass-fed meat; they're lower in saturated fat and calories than grain-fed, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid with cancer-protective and anti-obesity effects. If you can't find local meat, has a list of suppliers. There's no scientific formulation borne out by research studies, but a 3-ounce serving of meat is plenty, and a few times a week is enough for most people.

Dairy. Milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products most likely to come from cows that have been treated with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone); this means they contain higher levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor one), which increases the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer. The label "rBST-free" is an unverified claim; organic dairy comes from animals that are certified to be free of rBST (you'll also avoid antibiotics and pesticides). Grass-fed dairy has the best ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. And goat milk products contain less lactose than cow's milk and an easier-to-digest protein molecule.

Eggs. If they're conventionally raised, they may contain pesticide residues and antibiotics, and probably come from chickens that have been raised in horrifying living conditions. The "cage-free" and "free-range" designations mean little; land even organic eggs may come from chickens that have spent most of their lives indoors, in crowded conditions, eating grains--which dramatically lowers their nutritional benefits. If you eat eggs, seek out pasture-raised eggs from local farmers--like grass-fed meat and dairy, they have higher omega-3 and vitamin E levels. If your store doesn't carry them, check with your local farmers' market, or visit for a list of local producers.

Fish and seafood. You'll take your chances with mercury, dioxins, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). To avoid contaminants, choose wild or sustainably-farmed seafood (the organic label isn't approved by the USDA); avoid the skin, since it's a main storage area for toxins; stick to smaller or lower-toxin varieties like shrimp, scallops, mussels, wild salmon and sardines; and vary the types of seafood you choose. The Environmental Defense Fund has a full, updated list of safe seafood choices.

Legumes. They're generally safe and nutritious, but soy may be an exception. More than 90 percent of soy crops are genetically engineered, and while some studies have suggested that soy reduces osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer, many have shown the opposite. Soy contains hormonally active compounds that can either inhibit or stimulate the growth of certain kinds of cancer, depending on dosage and individual genetic makeup, as well as compounds that block mineral absorption and hamper the action of enzymes that digest protein. If you do eat soy, eat it in moderation; choose traditionally fermented forms like tempeh and miso; stick to whole forms, instead of highly processed products like soy cheese; and stay away from soy protein isolates.

Grains. About 85 percent of corn contains GMOs, and many people are sensitive or outright allergic to it; some suggest that's because it's so prevalent in our food supply. Additionally, gluten in wheat, barley and rye are difficult for many people to digest, and any grain has a greater impact on blood sugar when it's processed and finely ground into flour. Choose whole, gluten-free grains, like oat groats, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth, and if you eat corn, always buy organic to minimize the potential for GMOs.

Nuts. They're high in healthy fats, but peanuts are heavily sprayed with pesticides, susceptible to salmonella, and may to be contaminated with aflatoxins, which can be carcinogenic. If you do eat peanuts, buy vacuum-packed varieties, to lessen the amount of exposure the nuts have had to air, thus limiting the potential for molds to form; buy them as close to your home as possible, or at least on the same continent--the less time peanuts spend in travel and storage, the less chance there is for molds to grow; and buy organic, to avoid pesticide exposure.