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25 Problem Foods (+ Healthier Alternatives)

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Today's article is all about MY top 25 problem foods plus healthier alternatives.

Put simply, some foods and beverages are healthier than others. To heal and promote long-term, sustainable health, it’s important that we reduce or limit our intake of inflammatory, allergenic or otherwise unhealthy items. Some of these items may include…


Tap and fluoridated drinking waters. Problematic chemicals here include PFAS, nitrates from agricultural run-off, chlorine and fluoride. [1-6]

Quote on dangers of fluoride

Healthier choices here include fluoride-free filtered/purified waters and certain spring and mineral waters.


Gluten or gliadin-containing grains. Gluten and gliadin are proteins found in wheat, spelt, rye and barley. For individuals with gut inflammation, gut lining hyper permeability and/or gut dysbiosis, these proteins are often problematic and can contribute to tissue inflammation and immune system reactivity. Some research also points to persistent pesticide residue (ex. glyphosate) as contributing to reactivity in certain populations. [7-9]

The problem with wheat gluten glyphosate

Refined flours. These are white flour products where the nutrient-dense bran and germ has been removed, often with the use of bleaching and/or bromating chemicals. [10]

Non-organic corn. Genetically modified (GM) crops were introduced in the 1990s, and now more than 90% of corn grown in the US is a GMO (genetically modified organism). A 2009 review stated that “The results of most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters.” On the other hand, because no RCTs or placebo-controlled human studies have been performed involving the consumption of genetically modified products like corn, conclusive evidence linking consumption of GM corn to health problems is lacking. [11-12]

Healthier choices here include quinoa, oats and brown rice.


Soy. As is the case with corn, more than 90% of the soy grown in the US is GMO soy. However, allergic reactions to soy (whether GM soy or not) are much more common than allergic reactions to corn. Soy foods are problematic for some individuals, in part due to their relatively high levels of plant-based phytoestrogens. Certain soy foods may be less problematic than others, such as organic versions of naturally fermented soy such as tempeh, tamari and miso. [13-14]

Non-organic peanuts. Peanuts, being grown in the ground, may be more prone to mold, and many peanut fields are sprayed with fungicides that themselves are neurotoxic to humans. [15]

Healthier choices here include lentils, peas and all other beans besides soy.


Cashews, pistachios, pine nuts. As members of the poison ivy family, cashews and pistachios (more specifically, their shells) contain the allergen urushiol. A 2021 study found that pine nuts (along with pistachios) were the two nuts and seeds with the highest levels of toxic elements. [16-17]

Almonds (which includes almond butter, protein bars using almond butter, almond flour products & almond milk). Personally, almonds may be my favorite nut. They’re delicious, high in fiber, high in vitamin E and are super versatile (which is why many low carb items use almond flour). That said, they’re also 1 of the 2 foods highest in oxalates (spinach is the other). Oxalates can cause problems for those with sub optimal kidney functioning (<75 GFR). As such, for those with GFR levels below 75 I generally suggest limiting or even eliminating almond products while monitoring GFR levels (via CMP blood test). [18-20]

Brazil nuts. Selenium is an essential trace mineral that’s needed in small amounts (100-250mcg/day) for thyroid and immune system health. However, amounts over 250mcg/day may slow the thyroid gland and contribute to sluggish metabolism, low energy and weight gain. The average American consumes around 100-160mcg of selenium each day. Brazil nuts are exceptionally high in selenium. The typical Brazil nut contains 70-90mcg. What this means is that regular consumption of >2 Brazil nuts a day may contribute to hypothyroidism. [21-24]

Healthier choices here include walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. With nut milks, healthier choices include coconut, flax, walnut and hazelnut milks.

Food allergy statistics


Mangoes. As with pistachios and cashews, mangoes are also members of the poison ivy family. The skins of mangoes can contain notable amounts of urushiol, the chemical responsible for adverse reactions in humans. [16]

Nightshade vegetables. This group of vegetables can be problematic for those with inflammatory conditions (ex. arthritis). Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are included in this group, although in my experience eggplant is generally the most problematic, peppers and tomatoes are less problematic, and potatoes are rarely problematic as an inflammation-triggering nightshade. [25]

Spinach. Like almonds, spinach is very high in oxalates and may prove problematic for those with sub-optimal kidney functioning (GFR <75). [18-19]

Healthier choices here include all other fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned). More caution is advised with dried fruits, as they tend to be more prone to mold, and their lower water content may cause issues to those dealing with certain common GI conditions (ex. candidiasis/candida overgrowth).


Shellfish. Shellfish includes all shrimp, crayfish, crab, lobster, clams, scallops, oysters and mussels. Some of the reactivity here is likely due to tropomyosin proteins. Reactivity is likely exacerbated by the rudimentary digestive systems and respective diets of shellfish. [26]

Pork. Pork products (especially conventional pork products) generally have a higher likelihood of containing a significant parasitic load in its muscle meat when compared to other commonly consumed meats (ex. beef, poultry). [27]

Certain types of red meat. Much of the problem here centers around how “feedlot cattle” are raised and brought to slaughter (i.e. an unnaturally high carb/starch diet, use of bovine growth hormones, antibiotic use/overuse, crowded and unsanitary living conditions, high stress butchering, etc.). Certain cuts of red meat can also be difficult to digest (tenderizing and marinating techniques can greatly improve digestibility). Cover fat (as distinct from marbling/intramuscular fat) should also be avoided. [28]

Non-organic eggs. Reactivity with conventional eggs may be due to proteins like albumin. Organic eggs and eggs from hens raised on pasture typically carry less of a risk of allergy than conventional eggs. [29]

Farm-raised fish. Unlike most wild-caught fish, farm-raised fish (ex. tilapia, farm-raised salmon, etc.) are generally more susceptible to parasites in muscle meat, due in part to fish farming conditions. [30]

Processed meats. Processed meats include ham, sausage, bacon, bologna, salami, pepperoni and hot dogs. Two separate meta-analyses showed that higher mortality was associated with high consumption of processed meats but not with high consumption of unprocessed meats. [31]

Healthier choices here include organic or pasture eggs, wild-caught fish (ex. wild-caught salmon, wild-caught whitefish, etc.), poultry (chicken or turkey) and grass-fed red meat (beef, bison, lamb).


Most cow’s milk products: Problems here tend to center around lactose (a milk sugar) and casein (more specifically, a slow digesting protein called A1 beta-casein protein). Reactivity issues here are possibly exacerbated by animal husbandry and food processing issues such as an unnaturally high starch diet, use of GMO grains, bovine growth hormone and antibiotic use, as well as pasteurization and homogenization methods. [32]

Healthier choices here include organic/grass fed butter (no lactose, no A1 BCP), most hard goat or sheep’s milk cheeses (no lactose, no A1 BCP), organic cow’s milk cheese (no lactose, some A1 BCP), and organic plain Greek yogurt (low lactose, some A1 BCP).

Dairy problems center around lactose and A1 beta casein protein


Cane sugar and refined sweeteners. High intake of cane sugar and refined sweeteners (as is common in the US) can contribute to blood sugar and insulin imbalances, diabetes, obesity, inflammation and glycation, which can damage soft tissues. [33-34]

Sugar consumption in the united states since 1820

Artificial sweeteners. There are 6 FDA-approved artificial sweeteners on the American market, including aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet 'N Low) and sucralose (Splenda). Studies have linked consumption of these zero calorie sweeteners with cancer, weight gain, diabetes and adverse changes in gut flora. [19]

Study on artificial sweeteners and health risk

Healthier choices here include honey (raw, manuka, etc.), maple syrup and zero calorie natural sugar alcohols such as stevia, monk fruit and erythritol (generally derived from corn).


Canola oil. A GMO hybrid of rapeseed oil, Canola (which stands for CANada Oil Low Acid) contains erucic acid, a compound that’s toxic to animals (studies on humans are limited). That said, the erucic acid content in canola oil is <2%, whereas rapeseed oil generally contains 30-60% erucic acid. As such, canola oil is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by most government health organizations. [36]

Hydrogenated oils/industrial trans fats. There are natural and artificial forms of trans fats. Natural trans fats (for example- conjugated linoleic acid or CLA) are found in meat and dairy products from ruminants like cattle, goats and sheep. Studies have shown that these kinds of trans fats have beneficial health effects. However, other studies have shown that artificial trans fats (i.e. industrial trans fats or hydrogenated fats) are hazardous to your health. [37]

Healthier choices here include extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, avocado oil, and grass fed or organic butter (or ghee). I’m also partial to grass fed organic heavy cream and organic canned coconut milk (or coconut cream).


Certain kinds of alcohol. Problems here can center around added sulfites/sulfur dioxide (found in many conventional wines), pesticide residue (including Roundup/glyphosate) and high amounts of gluten (as is found in wheat beers). [38-39]

Healthier choices here include organic red wine (free of added sulfites). Honorable mentions include mezcal, hard kombucha and gluten free beers.

Ultra processed foods. These are packaged foods that have been made using several manufactured ingredients (often including artificial colors and preservatives) rather than actual whole foods. Another definition is “industrial formulations with 5 or more ingredients.” Items here include most conventionally produced chips, French fries, cookies, ice cream, hot dogs, jelly beans, fried chicken products, Infant formula, soft drinks, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals, white bread and candy bars (among other items). Dozens of studies have linked high consumption of ultra processed foods (UPF) to several common diseases, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, stroke, depression, diabetes, cancer, IBS and asthma. There is also a strong positive correlation between UPF consumption and all-cause mortality. [40-41]

12 of the most common problem foods


Cutting out or drastically reducing intake of every potentially problematic food can be overwhelming! I’d suggest 3 action steps here to help simplify this process…

1. Focus on reducing or eliminating these 4 things…

* gluten

* excess grains

* problematic dairy and

* cane sugar/refined sweeteners.

In my experience, reducing or eliminating these 4 groups (gluten, excess grains, problematic dairy and cane sugar/refined sweeteners) will solve the majority of most people’s food allergy and intolerance issues.

2. Don’t buy the problematic item or bring it into your home (or workplace). To start, this may involve a pantry/refrigerator clean out session for you.

3. Simply your diet by choosing only a few “safe” foods to eat. This might look like choosing 4-5 foods from each of the macronutrient categories (low calorie, high protein, high fat and high carb). For example, you might choose…

BEVERAGES: Water, coffee or tea (<400mg/day caffeine) and organic red wine (1-2 glasses/day, max)

LOW CALORIE VEGGIES: Romaine, broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts & onions

HIGH PROTEIN ITEMS: Organic Greek yogurt, pasture eggs, wild-caught salmon, chicken & grass-fed beef

HIGH FAT ITEMS: Butter, olive oil, avocado oil, avocados and goat milk cheese

HIGH CARB ITEMS: Carrots, honey, fruit, sulfite-free red wine and beans (non-soy)

Lastly, remember that healthy nutrition is not just about WHAT you eat and drink, it’s about WHEN and HOW MUCH.

For example, consuming an over abundance of even healthy food just before bed isn’t going to promote the best sleep quality.

And you can eat very “clean” and still have a major macronutrient imbalance (macros = water, fiber, protein, fats, carbs) that’s working against you achieving your health goals.

This is yet another reason why working with a qualified nutritionist, health coach, naturopath or nutritionally-informed physician is so important when it comes to healing and optimizing your health!


1 (2018; nitrates in municipal water from agricultural chemicals increases specific cancers and birth defects)

2 (2003; ingestion of chlorinated drinking water increases risk of bladder cancer)

3 (2022; “Excess amounts of fluoride ions in drinking water can cause dental fluorosis, skeletal fluorosis, arthritis, bone damage, osteoporosis, muscular damage, fatigue (and) joint-related problems”)

4 (2021; study of 100 elementary students found that “the IQ level of the students (with high fluoride intake levels) was found to be lower compared to the students who lived in the area with low fluoride level.”)

5 (2019; fluoride exposure during pregnancy adversely effects children’s IQ scores)

6 (2018; “Lately, major concerns about excessive fluoride intake and related toxicity were raised worldwide, leading several countries to ban fluoridation.”)

7 (2021; “The gluten free diet (GFD) remains the primary treatment for celiac disease and may work in other health conditions… Patients with d-IBS and IBD experience relief in gastrointestinal symptoms following treatment with a GFD. Patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity experience similar improvements following the diet.”)

8 (2018; “Emerging evidence shows that gluten avoidance may be beneficial for some patients with gastrointestinal symptoms, such as those commonly encountered with irritable bowel syndrome.”)

9 (2013 study highlighting health problems associated with gluten and glyphosate)

12 (2009; “The results of most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters.”)

14 (2009; concerns over the amount of soy ingested by Americans and potential negative health effects)

15 (2019 study on allergy issues related to peanuts)

17 (2021; toxic elements in nuts & seeds; highest amounts were found in pistachios, pine nuts and peanuts)

19 (2019; dietary oxalate & kidney stone formation)

20 (2022 study on plant based milk alternatives; coconut, flax and oat are better choices due to low oxalate content)

21 (Europe setting new upper tolerable limit for selenium at 255mcg/day)

22 (average American adult consumes 100-160mcg/day)

23 (on average, 70-90mcg selenium in each Brazil nut)

24 (2018; Brazil nut intake associated with sub clinical hypothyroidism)

26 (2015 study on shellfish allergy)

27 (2013; pork and human parasite infection)

28 (2010; review on growth hormones and antibiotic resistance in meat)

29 (2011 article on egg allergy)

30 (2005; comparison between farmed and wild caught salmon)

31 (2016; “A meta-analysis of 9 cohort studies observed a higher mortality among high consumers of processed red meat but not unprocessed red meat. Similar associations were reported in a second meta-analysis.”)

32 (2015; cow’s milk intolerance due to lactose and A1 beta casein protein)

33 (2019 article on health effects of sugar and sugar substitutes)

34 (2022; natural sweeteners preferred to refined sugars for health reasons; “Evidence has shown that sugar causes many health problems including obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, dental caries, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure and might even cause cancer. It could also contribute to impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance, which have been associated with cognitive impairment.”)

35 (2018; artificial sweeteners and adverse health effects)

38 (2018; possible allergens in wine)

39 (2019; glyphosate found in 19 of 20 popular beer brands)

40 (2021; systematic review of 23 studies; “the highest UPF consumption was associated with a significant increase in the risk of overweight/obesity (+39 %), high waist circumference (+39 %), low HDL-cholesterol levels (+102 %) and the metabolic syndrome (+79 %)…Increased UPF consumption was associated… with a worse cardiometabolic risk profile and a higher risk of CVD, cerebrovascular disease, depression and all-cause mortality.”)

41 (2020; “Of 43 studies reviewed, 37 found dietary UPF exposure associated with at least one adverse health outcome. Among adults, these included overweight, obesity and cardio-metabolic risks, cancer, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, frailty conditions and all-cause mortality. Among children and adolescents, these included cardio-metabolic risks and asthma. No study reported an association between UPF and beneficial health outcomes.”)

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