Interview: Robyn O’Brien, Author of The Unhealthy Truth (Part I)

This is a guest post from my husband, Jason Leake, and is part of his interview series for the blog. To learn more about Jason check out our team page.

The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O'BrienRobyn O'Brien on 100 Days of Real FoodIs your child one of the 33% who suffer from asthma, allergies, ADHD, or autism? If so, you will not want to miss this post today. Robyn O’Brien, a.k.a. “the Erin Brockovich of the food industry,” believes that our kids are the “canaries in the coal mine” and that the sudden rise of these childhood ailments, especially food allergies, might be a warning sign to all of us that something in our food system is very wrong.

In her book The Unhealthy Truth, Robyn takes you along for the ride as her extensive research reveals “One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply – and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself.” I was on a flight when I hit chapter 3, which is when the pages really started flying (no pun intended, I swear). At one point my jaw dropped; later I let out an audible gasp. I found myself writing interview notes even though at that point in time I had no interview gig. Fast-forward to now, and here I am talking to Robyn O’Brien. Who knew?

The Unhealthy Truth speaks to you on two levels:

1) If your child suffers from asthma, allergies, ADHD, or autism (1 in 3 American children does) or even other less severe ailments like ear infections, runny nose, or eczema, you’ll gain insight into how our food system could be affecting them and how cutting out processed foods – or specific food groups – may help. It’s a little painful to read along as Robyn discovers the food she was feeding her children was literally putting one in danger and causing very uncomfortable symptoms and behavioral changes in another.

2) If you want a peak behind the curtain on how food politics works in this country and the power of virtual monopolies like Monsanto, buckle up. You might want to put on your American flag pin and pour yourself a stiff drink first though.

We actually had so much ground to cover that I’m breaking up the interview into two parts. But before you read on, I recommend you first set the stage by watching Robyn’s TEDx video below and by reading her about page.



Robyn O’Brien Interview, Part I

1 What sparked your investigation into America’s food supply?
Business school. I went to work as a financial analyst on a portfolio management team and was assigned to cover the food industry. I met management teams from Kroger, Costco, Whole Foods and more, learning the industry and how margins were managed and profits generated. When I traded the briefcase for a diaper bag, I thought I’d put it to rest for a few years. But in January 2006, our fourth child had an allergic reaction to some everyday foods, and it threw me into the research again. What exactly was going into our food, how had it changed since we were kids?


2 What are the differences between food allergies and food sensitivities?
The best way to think about this is a food allergy (what we tend to hear about in the news…a girl kisses her boyfriend after he ate some peanut butter and she goes into a reaction) is an immediate food allergic reaction. Symptoms can range from hives to runny nose to something life threatening called anaphylaxis. A food sensitivity is a delayed food allergic reaction. The symptoms can be everything from a runny nose to behavioral issues to dark circles under the eyes and can appear up to 36 hours after the food is ingested. I go into more detail in my article Food Allergy or Sensitivity? What You Need to Know.


3 You said you were astounded when you first learned “…many common childhood ailments may result from diet, including chronic ear infection, coughs, runny noses, and headaches; eczema and itchy skin; and frequent sleepiness, listlessness, crankiness, or sickness.” I think most parents can relate to these! How does diet influence these symptoms?
Diet is not one-size-fits-all, so different foods will affect people differently. But in certain cases, diet can trigger these symptoms if the person is sensitive to these foods. The symptoms can appear within an hour or up to a day later with dairy and gluten often being the most common triggers. How these foods can trigger symptoms is listed in this article on my blog. Also Mark Hyman, MD is a great resource for not only parents, but also for anyone concerned about chronic conditions.


4 If a person or their child is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, what should they do first? How should they go about determining if the symptoms are food related?
Always speak with a medical professional first. Try to find a doctor that is open to discussing food sensitivities AND food allergies and the powerful role that diet can play in either triggering or addressing symptoms. Work with the doctor to determine if certain trigger foods, like dairy or gluten, should be eliminated for a short period of time to determine whether or not they are triggering symptoms. The answer can be identified fairly quickly.


5 What do you feel is the most powerful and immediate change Americans should make to their diets (regardless of allergies) and why?
Eat less fake food. Our food supply has become overly processed, engineered and modified and now contains ingredients that are simply not food, but rather ingredients that have been engineered in a laboratory to either lengthen the shelf life, enhance marketability, or fatten the margins of the companies using them.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Simply try to do one thing at a time – opt out of artificial dyes (they have been removed from kids foods in other countries due to concern over their link to hyperactivity) and look for products that do not contain high fructose corn syrup, an artificial sweetener that is a cheap, synthetic substitute for sugar that also serves to enhance the shelf life of products that it is used in. Swap out that snack pack for a piece of fresh fruit. Baby steps. We don’t potty train kids over night or wean them from a sippy cup over night. Take it at a pace that you can manage.


6 You say food allergies and related issues “Don’t just affect the children who have them – they’re a warning sign from our kids’ immune systems that something is wrong with our food supply.” What has changed in our food supply, and how do you determine causation as opposed to just correlation?
Great question. So much has changed in our food supply in the last 20 years, from the introduction of the artificial growth hormone rBGH – the US being the only developed country in the world that has allowed this hormone to be inserted into cows to help them make more milk – to our soy and corn being genetically engineered to withstand increasing doses of synthetic chemicals and weed killers. And surprisingly, a lot of these changes were introduced without any labels on foods, so consumers had no idea that they were happening. You can learn more in my article Food Looks the Same Today, But Is It?

Unlike the U.S., most countries either did not allow these changes or labeled these ingredients (so that consumers could make an informed choice) because there were no long-term human tests – no allergy tests to determine if a child was allergic to conventional soy or to soy that was genetically engineered (and introduced into our food in the 1990s), no prenatal test and no pediatric tests. And because correlation is not causation, the industry, without these tests or this data, is able to claim that there is no evidence of harm. But no evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of no harm. And the declining health of America’s children merits the labeling of these ingredients so that consumers (parents) can make an informed choice when it comes to feeding their families, in light of all of the conditions we are now seeing


7 You determined that your son Colin’s issues – eczema, persistent cough, frequent ear infections, subdued personality – were the result of a dairy allergy, but our daughter’s mild asthma dramatically improved when we cut out processed foods in general, despite not cutting out a specific food group. Do you think simply cutting out processed foods could have an effect on allergies and/or asthma?
More importantly than what I think is what the research is showing, and that is that weaning children off of a processed food diet, full of artificial ingredients, and replacing those foods with whole, less processed foods can have an impact on everything from asthma to diabetes. A study out last week highlighted the role that fast food might play in allergy and eczema.


8 Do you believe food allergies allergies are reversible? If so, how?
Again, more importantly than what I believe is what the medical research and clinical evidence is showing. According to Dr Kenneth Bock, author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma and Allergies, diet modification can help some people. Another great medical resource is Dr. Joel Fuhrman who authored the books Eat to Live and Disease Proof Your Child. Mounting scientific evidence continues to show the role that food and the non-food substances and synthetic chemicals now found in our food supply can play in these conditions.


9 What are some specific examples of meals you feed your family?
I try to feed my kids foods with ingredients that I can pronounce. Foods that my 101 year old grandmother might recognize or have fed her four children. Less fake food, more real food. Instead of snack packs, we grab an apple. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, real sugar. Instead of artificial dyes and colors, again, real ingredients, but always mindful not to make “the perfect” the enemy of “the good.”

Some examples are eggs and toast, fresh fruit, or yogurt. We make pancakes with the basics. Some mornings we throw some sliced up potatoes into a frying pan and serve them up with eggs and salsa. We keep it simple.

We eat pizza made on English muffins or grilled cheese sandwiches and carrots. Sometimes, the kids will make burritos with refried beans, salsa and other ingredients. We grill veggies or roast them in the oven, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Again, not complicated, keeping it simple keeps it manageable. This roasted broccoli recipe is always a hit. We make chili using beans and rice and other dishes that are simple and can involve the kids. We cook with a lot of rice, potatoes and noodles which can be cooked for dinner the night before and then reheated and tucked into thermoses for school lunches.

The kids love kale chips (this still is unbelievable to me), roasted potatoes, noodles with grated cheese, and meat free of antibiotics and hormones. And we do dessert because it’s all about teaching them balance. Baked potatoes are great as the family gets to load themselves with ingredients they’ve helped chop or grate. Giving the kids a role, some ownership, in the meal creates such a sense of pride in their work. One of the boys loves to chop and sauté onions, so he will jump at the chance to scramble eggs or make some guacamole. And thankfully, one of the girls loves to bake and can be found making apple pies or cupcakes. She has taught me how sometimes our biggest hurdle is that naysayer that says we can’t do this. Kids love to just jump in, get dirty, roll up their sleeves and try!



Tune in next week for Part II of this interview, where we’ll discuss GMOs, industry funded research, The Allergy Kids Foundation, and what we can do to drive change in our food system. In the mean time you can catch more from Robyn through her book, blog, website, and Facebook page (I liked her on Facebook a long time ago and look forward to her updates).

And, as always, I’m curious who you want to hear from next – please leave any suggestions for future interviews in the comments below.

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  • Comments

    1. Angela |

      Yes, thank you for this post! My son was diagnosed with allergies to wheat, soy and dairy last May. It has been amazing to see the things that have cleared up since we took out those things. He suffered from eczema so bad when he was a baby he would scratch himself til he bled, he always looked like he got in a fight with a cat. He had tubes in his ears at 13 months because of too many ear infections which were caused by a runny nose he seemed to have since birth. Most importantly his diarrhea cleared up. To be honest, having a almost 2 year old was like having an infant where diapers were concerned. He also just seemed to look more healthy, less lethargic and more of a happy child in general. I will gladly tell anyone our story just to get the word out there about all of the crap that is being put in our food. Really makes you wonder if everything they are doing to food has really messed up our kids.

    2. Sara |

      Really informative

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