Going organic: worth it?

 

 

 

Does it pay to spend more on organic produce? Nitpicking classifications of food as organic or non-organic aside, let’s look at the state of the science as it stands.

First, let’s address the main putative arguments for consuming organic food:

  1. It contains more micronutrients, and is therefore healthier
  2. It has less pesticides and unhealthy chemicals that might damage your health

 

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It contains more micronutrients

This is something that has been looked at in the research, and we have a couple of reviews available to us on this claim. Williams et. al. conducted a review comparing the nutritional value of organic vs conventionally-grown foods and found that there was insufficient evidence to make a strong argument either way.

Previous research has noted that there are probably very few compositional differences between the two. Additionally, to address the question of the impact of eating organic foods on health – there is barely any evidence available that looks at the potential effects of organic foods vs non-organic in animal and human models.

Attempting to compile and compare the data that is available is a difficult task given the intricacies of nutrient interactions and the lack of longer term controlled studies.

This brings us to the next claim.

It has less pesticides and unhealthy chemicals that might damage your health

The main argument against this claim is that – again – there is simply not sufficient data.

Secondly, it is a well-known adage that the dose maketh the poison. The actual levels of contamination in conventionally-grown produce has been consistently shown to be very low, and so in the same way that eating apple seeds (which contain cyanide) has no insidious effect, the low doses of pesticide residues are not dangerous.

Some studies from Japan show that washing vegetables will significantly reduce pesticide residue. Simply washing your vegetables thoroughly may significantly mitigate any potential risk associated with pesticide ingestion.

It should also be noted that plant foods in particular may have compositional differences associated with less pesticide use. The idea is that the use of less pesticides may result in the production of defensive compounds by the plant, some of which may be either beneficial or toxic to humans depending on the dose (smaller doses of these compounds can cause a health promoting response in the body, the same way exercise induces damage and inflammation that allows healthy adaptation to take place). Depending on the context this may be beneficial or detrimental.

Protein Power!

In my opinion, the first thing anyone looking to lose weight or pack on muscle should be doing is sorting out a minimum amount of protein intake daily. Yeah that’s right – if you want to get leaner, you NEED to pay attention to getting in enough protein before worrying about anything else.

Think about this for a second – muscle is the most energetically expensive tissue (aside from the brain – so keep reading) in the body to maintain. So more muscle = more energy used = the more food you can eat without getting fat. Adequate protein intake allows retention of muscle mass, especially when in a caloric deficit (ie you’re eating less to lose weight).

​Not to blow my own horn, but my level of muscle mass in the past allows me to eat around 3500 calories a day and keep a 6 pack. Let me tell you, it’s way easier to manage portion sizes when you don’t have to worry about every little thing that goes into your pie hole pushing you over your measly 1800 calorie a day allowance.

A focus on high protein intake allowed me to diet down and maintain my muscle mass without feeling hungry

In my experience, women are particularly prone to eating too little protein. If this is you, pay attention to the following research: at the University of Illinois, Layman et al compared the current RDA 0.8g/kgbw to 1.6g/kgbw. Compared to the RDA group, higher protein group lost more fat and retained more lean body mass. In addition, their blood lipids and blood markers for glucose improved to a greater extent. The same researchers later repeated this research, adding exercise conditions to account for the potential confounder. The outcome was similar.

​A calorie deficit requires greater protein intake to retain lean body mass. One study supporting this comes from Mettler et al, who found that 2.3g/kg prevented LBM loss in athletes far better than 1.0g/kg. Even the higher protein group still lost a significant amount of lean mass in this study, however, which indicates that depending on your degree of training and the size of your calorie deficit, even higher protein intakes might be ideal. This is certainly anecdotally pursued by bodybuilders dieting for contests.

So it seems the old broscience recommendation of 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight is pretty much spot on for most people - and this is actually really close to my blanket recommendation of 2g/kg of bodyweight for people without any specific context.​

Higher protein intakes can even improve sleep (hint: sleep is #1 -> blog post on this coming next week) and enhance immune function... in other words your recovery goes through the roof in many different ways if you eat enough protein!​

If you want to work out how much protein you should be eating and what types – start with focusing on animal protein sources like lean meats, and eat them in at least a couple of meals a day.

​Of course, there are many contextual factors that need to be taken into account when designing a solid nutrition plan, so protein needs are variable within and between individuals.

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