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'Brien

Robyn 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. I did a roasted broccoli recipe that 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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50 thoughts on “Interview: Robyn O’Brien, Author of The Unhealthy Truth (Part I)”

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  1. 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. I’ve only recently been educating myself on GMO’s, etc, even though I have been (mostly) successful at keeping my family away from processed foods for some time now. As my kids reached their late teens, I see myself growing a bit lax, but now I’m searching out more organics and non-GMO labels. With all the fuss over making affordable health care available to everyone, it sure seems we could put at LEAST the same energy and money into making real food affordable and available to everyone, saving in long-term health costs down the road.

  3. I love what Robyn says in her book and her blog about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We cannot perfectly protect our children. Our world is toxic and we cannot change it all. I keep my focus by doing what I can today. Small things. Lots of small things.

  4. This makes me really sad. I am so sad that the American government cares more about letting big corporations making the most money possible than about the health of their people. I am trying to change our diet, I am not as good as you all but we are working on it slowly.

  5. thanks so much for sharing! my 2 year old has a very long list of food allergies and sensitivities and you would not believe the changes since we have started following your blog. thanks for promoting this book … headed to the bookstore tomorrow to purchase.

  6. No matter whether your milk is organic or not, it still has copious amounts of natural hormones in it, from the cow being pregnant the entire time it is being milked. The cows are kept pregnant to ensure they continue to produce milk. These hormones enter the human blood stream, hence I strongly believe there is a link between dairy consumption and oestrogen based cancers such as breast cancer. Also note that cows milk has insulin like growth factor in it (google scholar it). Cancer promoting. Milk is not a health food and therefore neither is cheese. Eat it if you like it but don’t believe it’s good for you. Cow’s milk is specifically formulated by nature to grow and nurture a baby calf, not humans.
    The comment about humans having canine’s is silly, horses have canines and don’t eat meat. That argument is so out of date for any person who has educated themselves about human diet. I’d love to see a human get out there and catch some wild animals with their canines!

  7. Thank you for posting this interview, but more importantly the TedX Talk. I have shared the link to this post on my Facebook page, along with my own comments, in hopes that many of my friends will “wake up” and realize what is happening with our food system.

    I too am a Texan and educated at one of the leading Agriculture schools in the country with a degree in AgriBusiness. It took me several years to come to terms with the things Robyn is talking about…of course rBGH is safe, the FDA wouldn’t allow it if it weren’t…among many other realities.

    Our country needs to open their eyes to the realities at hand…our food supply is making us sick!

  8. We cut out processed food and noticed a huge difference in not only our children, but also in mine and my husbands energy levels. It’s also quite fun to make homemade muffins, granola bars, etc. with my children for their lunches (quality time and quality food)!

  9. I first read Robyn’s book about four years ago (it had just come out)and it changed our lives. We began changing the way we eat, and it progressed to avoiding plastics, and changing what we put on our skin. My second child has allergies to eggs, milk, and flax, and I think a sensitivity to wheat. Robyn’s book made me feel like I wasn’t “crazy” for wanting to treat her by changing our diets. Thanks to Robyn (and to you Jason for the awesome interview!)for all the work she has put in to this. It has changed my family’s life!

  10. My son at 16 months had an anaphylactic reaction to eating peanut butter for the first time. Since then I have been an avid label reader. As I started to read every single ingredient on a label, I began to realize that 1) many of the foods I was buying had too many ingredients 2) I couldn’t pronounce some of the ingredients. So I decided to make a change. We started eating real food with less ingredients. I also looked into CSA farm shares and I found a farm that has a winter and spring veggie and meat shares. I live in Vermont, so getting local, organic veggies through the winter and spring along with local, hormone and antibiotic free meat has allowed us to eat local (and organic) year round. I suggest that everyone explore their local farms to see if CSA farms shares are available.

  11. Great interview. I love the almond cheese. We also have stopped eating anything with gluten and have managed fine without it. We have been eating this way for 8 months and can really tell a difference.

  12. I will be interested to read this book. I have two children with food allergies/one w/ asthmatic symptoms/2 w/ eczema… but both were diagnosed w/ food allergies BEFORE they started eating “real” foods. They were strictly on infant formula (Enfamil Nutramigen) then tested to be allergic to potato, egg, dairy, oats & nuts….so in my case, we can’t blame the foods they did not have prior to being allergic…

    1. These are the ingredients of this formula: Corn Syrup Solids (47%), Vegetable Oil (Palm Olein, Soy, Coconut and High Oleic Sunflower Oils) (24%), Casein Hydrolysate (17%), Modified Corn Starch (7%), and less than 2% Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D3, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin K1, Thiamin Hydrochloride, Vitamin B12, Niacinamide, Folic Acid, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Ascorbic Acid, Choline Chloride Inositol, Calcium Citrate, Calcium Hydroxide, Calcium Phosphate, Magnesium Oxide, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Sodium Iodide, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Citrate, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Selente, Acetylated Monoglycerides, L-Cystine, L-Tyrosine, L-Tryptophan, Taurine, L-Carntine.

      1. I cannot breast feed due to health concerns. My 4 month old is showing signs of severe allergies(in my opinion my damn dr won’t test) This concerns me so much, do you know any alternatives that would be better? I honestly think he may have a corn allergy and I am having no luck finding anything without the damn corn syrup. It breaks my heart that I am not breastfeeding so I really don’t need to hear it from the internet. Please help me help my baby.

      2. The Weston A Price Foundation has a recipe for homemade formula. I would absolutely use it before I used a store bought formula. Google it- there are many bloggers out there who have used it and tell their stories.

  13. wow….thank you for this, we stop eating process food almost a year ago and as a mom iam still learning a lot by reading blogs like this one. my daughter suffers asthma and even by cutting out process food it did not get any better but recently change from regular organic whole milk to raw organic whole milk and since then her asthma has improved that she actually hasnt used her inhaler.

      1. you’re welcome. I will say that at first they didn’t like it, but we thought the health benefits were too important to give in right away. We stuck it out and after a week, they wouldn’t have anything else. It’s cow’s milk tastes “yucky” to them now.

  14. For many years,I have been a firm believer that many ailments and health issues are directly related to our environment. There are so many chemicals out there from the food we eat, water we use, to the air we breathe. It is mind boggling how big corporations have so much power. I grew up in South America and we never had all the processed food we eat here. We ate rice and beans, green veggies and meat everyday. My grandmother cooked everyday with lard. But even in South America the food is changing. You see so much processed junk and people are not as healthy anymore. My grandmother has been told she needs to use vegetable oil to cook. She hates it and always complains that it is unhealthy. I hope we can change our food supply and our way of life. It may be more convenient to get things done in less time but at what cost?

  15. I’m confused about so much rice..Is it white or brown? If it’s white is it rinsed off first before cooking? I’ve herd so many negative things about rice, I just avoid it altogether.

    1. Rice is one of the interesting whole grains because the nutritional difference between white rice and brown rice isn’t that great, say unlike wheat. White rice has less fiber, a little less manganese and b vitamins, but not enough to really matter. Eat rice, white or brown. Whole societies use that as the foundation of their diet (and its typically white rice) and they are a healthy society as a whole, think Japan, Korea….

      Chances are you should rinse your white rice before cooking. This has nothing to with nutrition, just making better tasting rice.

  16. Hi Lisa! Can I just say that this made my day…my week…my 139 days!!! I cannot wait to go out and get Robyn’s book. Eliminating processed foods has changed my family’s life and your post today will help spread this information to more Americans…I have become a Food Patriot too (a very unlikely one also as Robyn so candidly describes herself as in her video). Now that I know, I can’t just sit with it either…:) Thank you so much for having one of the best clean eating blogs out there, you were one of my first that helped me and continues to help me with every sweet post. All I can say is REPOSTING!!!!! I hope this starts to seep and seep and seep until it’s one big waterfall that can’t be dammed anymore:) Can’t wait for tomorrow’s part 2! xo

  17. I love that this author relies on research, and I’d love to get a lost of more of her sources. So frequently I find myself trying to defend my beliefs about real food but unsure what unbiased research I can point naysayers to. I’m also curious about what English muffins she uses! I love English muffins and haven’t had any luck finding a “real” version. I tried making my own, but it took all day, and they turned out more like pizza crust than English muffins.

    1. I have not tried them yet but I saw in Publix that they carry Food For Life (Ezekiel Bread) English muffins. In the freezer section. I love their tortillas. Sprouted and organic. Yummy.

  18. Now that our family is on the path of eliminating processed foods and GMO’s from our diet, I love any and all information I can get my hands on! Thanks for sharing another amazing crusader in this journey! Can’t wait to read her book. Love your blog!

  19. I am so excited to see this and hope it becomes a best seller.

    My son was kicked out of two preschools for ADHD and defiance and having trouble at the third until we did the Feingold Diet ( which eliminates all food dyes and artificial preservatives, among other things. His behavior was so dramatically turned around in one month that I would not have believed it had it not been my kid.

    Since then I’ve become much more aware of the poisons that we feed our kids as we try our hardest to be good moms. It simply amazes me that it is legal.

  20. Thank you for sharing this. She explained it in a way that was very easy to understand. We have been making the switch from proceed to real food since August. After eating at a friends house this week both my son and I had a allergic reaction to the processed food. I love you sight and use lots of your recipes.

  21. I hope that the English muffins she served at lunch were either homemade or totally organic. Thomas’ English muffins are a chemical cocktail. My son has reactions to preservatives and food colorings so I know first hand about English muffins:(

  22. Thank you for sharing this! It is so scary to think that what we are feeding our kids is effecting them in a bad way! There is so much fake and processed food out there!

  23. John – I think you are confused. Humans are omnivores – not herbivores. Note the canine teeth. Animals food items can be a healthy addition to our diets if raised and cooked properly.

  24. I can relate to this. My son when he was 4 months old never smiled, wouldnt make eye contact and would go 10 or more days between dirty diapers.. and he was nursed! Turns out he was so allergic to dairy that the little that passed thru my milk was hurting him. A few months later it was time to try solids and he began bizzare vommiting episodes. Turns out he was also allergic to wheat! It took forever to figure it out because he didnt scream and cry liek a colicy baby. It was more like he simply couldnt be bothered to do anything, look at anything or play. all he wanted was me, now I know it was because his tummy hurt ALL the time. Within a week of removing dairy (and soy, tends to go hand in hand), and wheat from my diet he was a whole new baby! It took a year for him to catch up with the physical milestones he was delayed in since he didnt feel well enough to try. Now hes a happy healthy 2 1/2 yr old. Hes never had fast food, or most junky foods simply because at first he couldnt, and then by reading lables I realized what junk it all was. His favorite food is blueberries now

  25. I’d love to see you factor in how a probiotic-rich diet/lifestyle is an important component of healing the gut – which, of course, plays heavily into our immune responses.

    Our convenience-driven society simply lacks a basic understanding of how realistic it is to first learn about what it takes to understand probiotics, and how achievable it is to incorporate basic steps to make them a part of our daily lives.

    Thanks for this post! Looking forward to reading the balance.

  26. I was so happy to see you did an interview with this author! A good friend gave me this book when I was pregnant with my first child. It changed not only the way I view food and shop, but it also changed the waybI ate throughout that pregnancy and changed how I probably would have fed my children. I love your blog and appreciate all of the recipes, insight and information

  27. your comment about the grilled cheese being meat and hormone and antibiotic free is false. cheese comes from cows milk which they are fed antibiotics and growth hormones as well. so in turn your cheese is just as bad for you as eating the meat. if you really want to live and eat healthy you need to cut out all animal products. we as humans are not designed nor require to ever eat any product from an animal.

      1. THANK YOU, JASON. There are PLENTY of hormone and antibiotic free choices out there for meat and dairy! Even some in mainstream grocery stores! Not everyone wants to be a vegetarian or vegan, and it’s our right to choose what we want to eat and thankfully there ARE healthy choices out there.

    1. not totally true John. You can buy organic cheese- made from cows not given antibiotics and hormones. same with meat…organic is always more expensive though, but worth it

    2. Having some hormone and antibiotic-free meat can be a good addition to the diet.. It is VERY challenging to get adequate protein, iron, and B12 on a vegetarian and vegan diet- it can be done with supplementation, but it requires a lot of vigilance.

    3. Humans are designed to eat animal products, although probably not in the large quantities most Americans do. You need B-12 to survive, B-12 is found only in animal products. Without B-12 over time neurological damage will result (it takes a long time for this to develop) and it is irreversible. Although one could argue that people aren’t meant to eat animal products if you follow it by we aren’t meant to live past 40 years old.

    4. John, try doing some research before posting incorrect information. Obviously you’re a vegan and good for you, but many people choose a different lifestyle and don’t deserve to be insulted for it. Comments like these are what give Vegans a bad name.