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#29 – Food Safety, Vanity Culture, The 90/10 Rule, And The Wisdom Of Epigenetic Eating With Mareya Ibrahim

In today’s episode of the podcast, we are joined by Mareya Ibrahim. Mareya is an author, entrepreneur, and holistic nutrition expert who overcame an eating disorder to become one of the most influential voices in health and wellness.

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This Episode Covers:

  • Mareya’s struggles with an eating disorder and how she healed [4:45];
  • Mareya on Los Angeles vanity culture and social media [11:00];
  • The importance of food safety and rethinking factory farming [18:00];
  • Developing a food safety product with her father [26:00];
  • Should we eat farm raised fish? [35:00];
  • The joy of locally sourced, high quality meals [42:30];

Transcript:

Mareya: The CDC just came out with a report, even despite the efforts to help reduce bacteria on our food, our numbers are increasing. So, every year there are over 48 million reported cases of foodborne illness in the USA alone.

John: How often does it get on the food that reaches us on our tables when we’re at home?

Mareya: A lot.

John: Really?

Mareya: You know, and it’s something that we don’t see.

John: Welcome to the “Gene Food Podcast.” I’m your host, John O’Connor. Hey, everybody, before we get into today’s episode, I wanna bring your attention to our custom nutrition plan product. At Gene Food, we have an algorithm that will score you into 1 of 20 diet types based on your genetics. We offer analysis of 23andMe and ancestry data, as well as our own DNA diet test kits. We have a lab that is CLIA-certified in San Diego that is open during the pandemic, because it is an essential business. We don’t keep or sell your genetic data ever. If you use the service with your 23andMe data, we delete it the same day that we process the plans. And if you order one of our test kits, we leave it on the server for a little while in case you wanna access your raw data. But after that, your data is scrubbed. So we take privacy and security of your genetic data very seriously. And I think, especially if you’re eating at home quite a bit, as we all are during this coronavirus era, having some new strategies for eating at home and trying to have a diet that’s tailored to your individual specificities can be of enhanced value, so I hope you will check out that custom nutrition plan product from Gene Food. That is at mygenefood.com.

Now to get into today’s episode, we’re very lucky to have Mareya Ibrahim on the show. Mareya is a TV chef, nutrition coach, author. Her book that’s still somewhat new is “Eat Like You Give a Fork,” which is a guide to practical and nourishing nutrition strategies. She’s a holistic nutrition expert. She lived in all sorts of different fun, health and wellness meccas like Boulder and Los Angeles. And we have a wide-ranging conversation with her today about food safety, about balancing diets, about the 90/10 rule. We talk about how she overcame an eating disorder to come to a balanced place in her own personal life with her nutrition decisions, and just generally discuss her nutrition philosophy, which is unique, and I think will be valuable to many of our listeners. So without further ado, I hope you enjoy today’s episode with Mareya Ibrahim. Here we go. So we have Mareya Ibrahim here with us, very excited to have you on the show.

Mareya: It’s great to be here.

John: I owe you plenty of pontification time seeing as I came on your podcast and kind of just went off on some caffeinated sort of rant, so I’m gonna give you just plenty of space here to say whatever you would like in whatever fashion.

Mareya: Oh, I thought it was great, John. I thought that… You know, you’re so knowledgeable and you have such a great understanding of the genetic markers that identify, you know, what we should be doing. And I think it’s just good to alert people to the fact that there is no one size fits all in their scientific data to support that. So I love it. I geek out on it too.

John: Well, very much appreciate you getting nerdy and inviting me on the show. And we wanna give our audience kind of your background. You’re a prominent commentator in the health and wellness world and have done a lot with food, and definitely have a perspective on the whole world of nutrition, which is why we wanna have you on. So, how did you get into health and wellness and into the food world?

Mareya: Well, it really started early in my… You know, I graduated college at 21, and kind of was like, “All right, I’m a communications major, but I really love food and I wanna figure out how to use food.” But I had grown up in a Middle Eastern household. And food is a big part of our culture, as with so many other ethnic groups. You know, you’re eating breakfast and you’re thinking about what you’re gonna have for lunch and you go to the market every day and shop. And so I grew up in this atmosphere of really loving food, but also having sort of a love-hate relationship with it because there was almost so much attention put on it, too much attention, I thought. And also this idea that you could never eat too much. And I’m a petite person. You know, I’m 5-foot-1 on a good day. And, you know, to sit down and eat, like, a lot of food in one sitting just never sat well with me. So I wanted to do something with food, but I really wanted to find out how I could do it in a way that felt good and not felt full of guilt and not felt like it was all-consuming. I struggled with an eating disorder for many, many years, I think, because of that. And so my journey was really about healing. And I went to cooking school, I went to France and studied French technique, and realized that that definitely wasn’t gonna work for me. Using a lot of butter, and flour, and fat was not sitting well with me. And I really found out quickly that even though I’m not vegan, I can’t eat a lot of red meat.

So there’s just certain things that I kind of automatically found out within myself from trial and error. So I went into the realm of holistic nutrition. And that’s really where I found my sweet spot. And I started my career in the natural foods industry in Boulder, Colorado, which was, like, the epicenter of food at that time. And I ran the culinary and cooking program, demo programs for a chain of grocery stores called Alfalfa’s Market. And at that time, they were really, you know… They were kind of, like, doing it. You know, they were the unique player around where you could go and you could find fresh produce that was sourced locally from farmers where they would tell their stories on little storyboards in the produce departments, so you knew exactly where those cherries that you were buying came from. In the meat department, they were carrying, again, you know, Niman Ranch and, like, locally sourced meats, like, way before anybody even knew about that stuff. So it was really up my alley, you know, understanding where food came from. I was going out and interviewing farmers for our monthly magazine. I was experimenting with flavors and really, like, letting the flavor and the freshness, the seasonality of the product dictate how we were going to teach people to prepare it. And that was different.

Nobody else was really doing that. At the time, you would walk into a grocery store… I mean, this was before Whole Foods. You’d walk into a grocery store, and you’d be like, “It’s so sterile and everything’s in packages,” and then you’d walk in Alfalfa’s, and it was just like the farmers’ markets that I grew up with. So it spoke to my heritage and, at the same time, I could teach people how to cook and heal themselves with this abundance that was also sustainable and healthy. And that’s really where it all began.

John: Yeah, that’s quite a journey. What was your protocol? You mentioned trouble with feeling a little bit of possibly cultural pressure for food and then also an eating disorder. What protocol did you use? What combination of resources did you use to climb out of that and get to the place where you could then kind of be an advocate for a healthier approach to some of these issues.

Mareya: You know, it’s interesting because I don’t think there was any formal protocol that I used. When I look back and I have had friends who have had kids that have eating disorders, and they ask me, like, “What should I do? How can I support them?” And I kind of think back to what I did. And, I guess, the big pivot point was that I had to hit rock bottom. You know, I was having panic attacks, hair was falling out in clumps, friends started to comment, my family was really concerned. And then I had to go to the hospital because of a bad panic attack. And I came out of that just going, “This is not gonna work. This is not sustainable.” And I think what really healed me was this journey back to what food is supposed to do. And I really started educating myself, you know, learning sound nutrition, going back to textbooks. You know, this was even before the internet. So I would go to the library and pull out books and study. I studied Larousse’s encyclopedia of food. I started reading Julia Child’s books. I really got into Julia Child. She’s still a heroine of mine.

But I just read from the perspective of the masters. And then coupling that with nutrition and I kind of just fell in love with food again, the nuances of it. Instead of eating from a place of craving, I ate more from a place of, what do I need to heal myself? And unlocking that really early on in my life, in my early 20s, made such a huge impact on me because I think I was going to a place that would have been very scary. I was going to a place that was really self-hating, and almost self-sabotaging, and always feeling like I was comparing myself to others and, you know, never being able to look at a magazine cover the same way. I was just, like, very judgmental and, quite honestly, very hypocritical in the sense that I was like this person who was supposedly, like, healthy and doing good things, but I wasn’t really walking the walk. So what’s funny now as I look back, and I’m 51 now, I look back on where I was in my early 20s, and I can tell you, I’m a stronger person and I’m about the same weight. So it’s just really about perception and how you see yourself.

John: And you and your family are now located in the Los Angeles area. Is that right?

Mareya: Yes.

John: Yeah, I spent some time in LA, maybe a year and a half ago now. And I mean, Los Angeles is such a cool city. Lots going on, lots of different industries, the downtown seniors [SP] is coming back. And this is obviously not the full focus of the city. But speaking to your recovery and feeling better, you talked about magazine covers and comparison. Then when I was there, you can almost feel that vanity culture vibe in the air, especially in West LA. How do you feel about the social media culture, the culture of comparison, living up to these standards now in a city that’s kind of known for that?

Mareya: Yeah, I mean, we’re a little bit outside of, you know, the downtown area. We’re more in the valley. And so we’re kind of, like, removed from that. But, you know, I interact with it a lot. I mean, I get invited to, you know, parties and I get invited to events where the vanity culture is really, really strong. But you know what I find is that when you’re comfortable in your own skin, you just stop comparing and you can start celebrating others. Like, I make it a point now, instead of looking at people and going, “Well, who does she think she is?” To complimenting people and saying, “Wow, that’s a great outfit,” or, “You look amazing, what’s your secret?” And it is so disarming for people. And I’ve made a lot of really great friends that way, you know, where I can feel like there’s no shortage of blessings and there’s no shortage of good that can come about. So if I see somebody who is obviously taking care of herself and looks great or just exudes, like, a great personality that I wanna applaud, I’ll do that for male or female. And so I feel just because, in my own skin, I’m so much more comfortable… And there is a lot of truth to when you feed yourself well, you also are regulating your hormones and you’re modulating your own moods. So, instead of feeling threatened by it, I just feel like I wanna spread good stuff about it, you know?

John: Yeah, that’s very cool. Just some friends of mine, especially younger women that just…but not just younger women, actually, men too. I mean, people do feel a lot of pressure, I think, nowadays in this industry. And that’s a great approach. That’s a really beautiful approach. Thank you for sharing that.

Mareya: Well, it’s really cute when you will, like, compliment, like, a younger person and you’ll be like, “I love your style. Your style is, like, so cool.” And they look at you almost like, “Wait, are you kidding? Like, somebody is complimenting me in LA?” But you won’t believe, like, I’ll see their faces light up. Because, think about it, people do wanna be noticed. I mean, let’s face it, you know, we wanna do it for ourselves to feel good, but people will have a certain style and they wanna show that style and actually have people receive it. So when you compliment them or you say, you know, “That’s a great jacket,” or, “Wow, your hair is amazing,” like, it just puts that kick in people’s step, and I think if people are just happier, then we have a better, well-adjusted world, you know?

John: Yeah. So embrace it, dabble with it, and just, basically, just celebrate people and their talents alongside your own, I think it’s not zero-sum. I think that’s a great perspective. So you mentioned this whole idea of developing this healthier relationship with food and using food and nutrition as something that you enjoy but also something that really nourishes. And, you know, you kind of can’t escape it in today’s climate. Everybody is talking about, you know, the coronavirus, and people are very hungry for different perspectives on that issue, I think, because we’re all kind of still collectively digesting it. When we spoke before the show, you had a lot of interesting things to say about how we will or maybe should be approaching our consumption of animal products going forward. And it really resonated with me. So what are some of the opinions you’ve come to as a result of this huge disruption in our society about how it might impact food choices, especially animal products?

Mareya: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s not our first rodeo with virus of this strain. And when you look at the heritage of it, you know, the last century, most of the very disruptive and lethal diseases have been zoonotic, so the transmission of the virus from animal to human and human to animal. I think our dependence on animal and, you know, animal protein consumption is somewhat to blame. You know, it can be pretty… I think there will be very few people that will argue that this COVID-19 is traced to the wet markets of China. And I’m sorry if I’m upsetting anybody by saying that but, you know, fact is a fact. So, if we are relying on animal consumption or, you know, animal protein consumption, we better damn well take a good look at how those animals are being raised and what we’re eating. You know, from the CAFO farms raising cattle that are just seething with disease because of the cramped quarters and the use of antibiotics to chicken, you know, raising poultry and cramped quarters that are disease and filth-ridden. I mean, the zoonotic diseases that we’re seeing on a regular basis, Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, they’re also infecting our produce. And so, you know, by the nature that is this disease transmission, we have to really be aware of what we’re putting in our mouths and how we’re raising the animals, to begin with.

I think, you know, it’s something that I’ve been talking about for many, many years. And as soon as this outbreak happened, I turned to my husband and I said, “This has everything to do with food.” And the truth is, you know, I’ve been in this industry now for 27 years, I’ve had my product line of Eat Cleaner out for over a decade, and our product addresses all of that bacteria and virus that gets transmitted that ends up on our produce because of manure and fertilizer runoff, because of dirty conditions, avian, you know, droppings, which again, avian flu is just another example of these zoonotic diseases. You know, and then the handling of produce by hands that are dirty. So the combination of addressing how we’re raising animals, and eating them, and using them to food safety and how we’re practicing sound food safety habits, which is happening now. But hello, like, as consumers, we need to be so aware of that in our own home kitchens as well as when we go out to eat. Like, the coupling of those two things we have to put at the forefront of our… I mean, I think it’s a duty as consumers of food, not anyone of us is out of that frame of reference.

And as long as we pay attention to it, we can help to eliminate these things. But if we don’t pay attention to it, it’s just gonna keep coming back rampantly. I mean, we haven’t even been hit with a super bug that could decimate 100 million people like the Spanish Flu did, you know? I mean, we’re not even looking at numbers that could be just mind-blowing. I mean, I hate to see this and it’s gonna sound so bad, but we’ve kind of gotten off easy on this one. And with all due respect, every life is critical and every life means other lives are affected. I’m just saying that this is not our first time around with a zoonotically transmitted disease. So we’ve gotta pay attention in a better way than we ever have before.

John: Yeah, I was really fascinated to learn that in the late ’60s there was an avian flu, it’s called the Hong Kong flu that killed 100,000 Americans. And it was very similar in its template to what we’re seeing with the coronavirus. It killed 100,000 Americans. The people that were most vulnerable seemed to be age 65 and older. And there was a very severe second wave that came in the fall and winter after the first cases had been discovered. But I couldn’t agree with you more on this CAFO issue and on this issue of the potential for a super bug to come out of the rampant use of antibiotics in pork farming, chicken farming, beef farming. It’s not to say that people shouldn’t be consuming animal products. I mean, I respect vegans from an ethical standpoint, we’re not “a vegan podcast,” but I do think that you raised some really great points.

Mareya: And I’ll add, John, I’m not vegan either. You know, but I think all of this has to make us a little bit more painfully aware of what we’re buying and how we’re voting with our dollar. You know, if going and buying… And it’s becoming a lot more available to buy, you know, grass-fed and finished beef and to buy free-range, you know, bison products and free-range, cage-free poultry. But I think we also need to really understand and look beyond the marketing semantics because marketing gets misused a lot of the times to really know how that product is being raised. And I go back to my days at Alfalfa’s when we were, like, in communication with the farmer. I think it’s a beautiful time to really, like, get connected with your grower and provider to really know the story of how they’re doing it.

John: So not being vegan, how do you square these…? Clearly, we have this obvious ethical problem with factory farms, CAFO-raised animals, whether it’s cattle, whether it’s pork, I mean the issue with pork not having the waste treatment. So the pork growers in, for example, a state like North Carolina, they’re not obligated by law to treat the waste that’s produced by other farms, that just goes into the rivers. You’re talking about Listeria. We’re gonna get to your product here in a moment. But not being vegan, how do you square this issue ethically? We know the CAFO is out. But how do you square that…? How do, in your own mind, approach this ethically in terms of how and when you consume animal products?

Mareya: You know, I think everybody can make steps, you know. And I think steps make a big difference. I was vegan for about a year, solid. And then I was vegetarian for about five years. And what I find myself doing, just me and I’m just gonna kind of take my own case study here for a second, what I find myself doing with intuitive eating is I tend to cycle naturally anyways. I grew up Coptic Orthodox, and, on our faith, we fast, you know, almost 300 days out of the year. And that fasting is a modified diet. So I kind of grew up knowing what it felt like to be vegan a good part of the year anyway because of that, so it wasn’t, like, foreign to me. But what I do now is I willingly give it up at least two to three times a week. And I talked about it in my book. I talk about doing an intermittent vegan fast break for a number of reasons, not just ethical reasons, but to give your digestion a break, you know, to give your metabolism a chance to kind of, you know, modulate itself because there are days that I want people to eat more calories and days that I want them to eat less.

And I just really believe that if we all took some steps to eat less and to eat better quality in small amounts, that would be a huge step in the right direction. I also think that it’s important that people know how to cook it properly. You know, unlike with produce, if you’re gonna eat a salad, you’re not cooking anything, so there’s no kill step. So you really have to be careful when you’re processing it and cleaning it. But with animal protein, if you cook it to a certain internal temperature, that is usually an appropriate kill step for us to avoid disease. So for people to not know… You know, it might be nice to have a rare steak, but is it worth the gamble? You know? It might be nice to have a piece of sushi but unless you know that that fish was raised the way it was supposed to, like, just kind of think about that twice. And I think, you know, our motto is, “Think before you bite.” Everything is a calculated risk. And, you know, I think at the end of the day, there are certain risks that we can mitigate and other things that we just have to really, like, decide, “Okay, it’s not worth the gamble.”

John: Right. And, you know, speaking of the whole issue of foodborne illness and the potential for problems with food, I mean, for me, I tend to use what I think of as being a common sense approach to eating sushi. Like, if I’m, you know, visiting friends in somewhere very inland, that’s probably not where I’m gonna be most excited about eating sushi, even though I do recognize that they fly sushi all over the world that we talked about the environmental impact of that on another day. But you had a situation where this foodborne illness became very real for you, or the potential for foodborne illness became very real for you because of an illness that your father suffered.

Mareya: Yes.

John: So tell us about that and what was born out of that in terms of the products that you developed.

Mareya: Yeah. So about 15 years ago, my dad was diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer. My dad’s an environmental scientist and was a teaching professor for many, many years, Emeritus Professor. And, you know, for years prior to him getting sick, when I was growing up in the food industry, he would share things with me because he did a lot of work on the effects of toxins in the environment on human health. And he shared, you know, information about removing pesticide residue from produce when organic was starting to get really popular. And he shared with me how they were studying the effects of heavy metals on human health. And, you know, when he got sick, the doctor told him to avoid all raw food. So anything that was uncooked was to leave his diet because we had to have his bladder removed, so he uses a catheter. So his risk of foodborne illness is very, very high.

John: So the idea there is that he had a compromised immune system and that if there was any bacteria on the food, it could travel and make its way to the urinary tract and basically cause an infection?

Mareya: Yeah, you know, because of his compromised situation and even just the use of an external catheter, where he’s inserting it and removing it daily, you know, that introduction of bacteria just kind of exacerbates the whole, you know, compromised immunity. And so people who are diagnosed with cancer and different autoimmune issues are also told to be wary of raw food, too. And I found this out from when my dad got diagnosed with cancer. And with my holistic nutrition background, I just thought, “Wait, there’s gotta be a way around this.” Because getting raw enzymes, getting prebiotics and probiotics from raw food is so important and will be such an important part of his recovery process, and not to mention salads are his favorite food. So there’s gotta be a way for us to address this.

And so we started looking at some of his research after he, you know, was fully recovered, and thank God he’s still with us and doing well. We started working on different formulations to help chelate not only pesticide residue that can cause cancer and other issues that have been detected in kids especially. But we wanted to see how we could address these zoonotic bacteria transmissions like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. And we created, you know, after many trials and errors, nine different formulas. We patented our Eat Cleaner product. It’s the only patented wash on the market, and it removes up to 99.99% of that residue, so you can eat a salad safely.

John: Now does that remove glyphosate as well, roundup?

Mareya: We’ve never tested glyphosate specifically. We’ve tested other non-water-soluble pesticides and it’s been over 99.7% effective. So glyphosate is in a category of pesticide that is in the same category as some of the pesticides that we have tested. So we make assumptions and, you know, we will get into testing more different various strains of pesticides, but that it is effective.

John: So the issue here is, number one, the pesticides that are commonly used in mono-cropping and large farming and really just probably farming, in general, in non-organic farms. But then also the bacteria that is common because of the fact that we mentioned earlier, we’re not really treating the waste from our CAFOs and a lot of that bacteria gets on the food. I was shocked at… When I was in Telluride with a friend last summer, love Telluride, it’s a phenomenal place to visit at any time of the year, but they have these what looked to be incredibly pristine rivers. And I would ask a local, I was just kind of like, “Hey, could you drink out…? I mean, this river looks like the most pristine body of water I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m like, could you just…?” I wasn’t going to do it. But I wanted to know, theoretically, “Could you drink out of this?” He’s like, “Oh, no, man,” he’s like, “You can’t. You know, there’s a lot of Listeria runoff from the cattle farming in this part of the world and it gets in the water.” How often does it get on the food that reaches us on our tables when we’re at home?

Mareya: A lot.

John: Really?

Mareya: You know, and it’s something that we don’t see. You know, and the CDC just came out with a report, even despite the efforts to help reduce bacteria on our food, our numbers are increasing. So every year there are over 48 million reported cases of foodborne illness in the USA alone. And those are reported cases. By estimates, the numbers they’re saying, you know, by experts in the industry, they’re saying they’re really closer to like 70 million cases. And when you look at it, less than half of 1% of imports are inspected by the FDA. So there’s a lot that’s slipping through the cracks. And even though the USDA has implemented, you know, different… Well, let me back up for a second. So the FDA and the USDA kind of split responsibility when it comes to food safety. Some vegetables and other items are handled by the FDA and some are handled by the USDA, in addition to meat products. And then you have the EPA that oversees, you know, toxins like pesticides and environmental concerns.

And the truth is, none of them are talking to each other. So you’ll go to one silo and they’ll tell you what to do, and then you’ll go to another one and there’s just no cohesion across the categories, and plus their budgets are getting cut. So what I’m saying is, we can’t put the onus on those companies to do the right thing because, by the time you get sick, it’s too late. You know, by the time you get E. coli or Salmonella poisoning because you’ve had a head of romaine lettuce and you’ve now had kidney failure, it’s too late. Your immune system and your health is already compromised. So, I think it’s incumbent on us to address it before it gets us. And that we’re the last line of defense as consumers and home cooks, so we have to think about that.

John: And that’s just it. When I hear of food poisoning, I think of these really acute terrible situations where you have to know that you have it because your symptoms are very severe. Is there a spectrum here in terms of, obviously, you get the E. Coli poisoning and you know that you’re sick because, you know, you’re having terrible nausea and everything that goes along with that? Is there anything more subtle that people should know about in terms of the ramifications, maybe it doesn’t reach the critical stage, but consuming these foods on a regular basis? Is there any research that we could point to, to show an impact there?

Mareya: Well, of course, there’s gonna be varying degrees. And the truth is, I mean, we all carry an amount of E. coli in our guts anyway. And that’s where gut health becomes so incredibly critical, is it’s not a matter that eating E. coli or getting E. coli, for example, as one bacteria, getting that into our system is necessarily a bad thing. It’s the amount of E. coli and what our immune system can handle before it goes tilt. And you and I could eat the same thing. It actually happened to me last year. I went to a restaurant and I had one shrimp from one of my brother-in-law’s plate. He offered me one shrimp. He ate a whole plate of it, I had one. I was in the emergency room the next day. I had gotten some kind of food poisoning. So the truth is you and I could eat the same thing and have a completely different result from it. And that’s the scary part about foodborne illness, in general, is it doesn’t take a whole lot for some people. Some people are more sensitive than others. And, you know, I think, again, it doesn’t mean that we’re never gonna get sick but we can take steps to figure out what might have happened. And by the way, I did find out that one shrimp that I ate was a farm-raised shrimp that they imported from India.

John: Yeah, the chain of title there with all the flying and keeping it refrigerated. I mean, and then you have those moments where you’re like… Like last night, I actually had shrimp. I added some shrimp to some pasta sauce that I had. And most of them tasted great. I had this one and I was really kind of on the fence like, “Should I spit this shrimp out? I don’t know. I don’t know if this is like…” I just went for it and just took it down. I was like, you know, I don’t wanna waste food, but, man, you’re always running that risk with shellfish, in particular, shellfish, shrimp, oysters. I don’t think I’ve ever had a terrible reaction to those foods because I’m pretty careful about where I eat them but they can get you, no doubt about it.

Mareya: They can get you. And so, I guess, you know, back to your question, you know, are there varying degrees? There are absolutely varying degrees. And I think the best thing that we can do is, A, know where our food comes from. And shame on me because I always ask even in a restaurant, like, I’m always asking, “Is it wild-caught or farm-raised?” And I will never order it if it’s farm-raised. I just know too much. So know where it comes from, know how it was cooked. And when you’re in a restaurant, the truth is, you kind of don’t know unless you’re standing in the kitchen, looking over the shoulder of the chef, which is not very welcome. So controlling your own cooking in your kitchen and knowing what you should be doing, and then knowing how to process your food prior.

And you know, that was really the nascence for our product line. And, you know, it’s interesting, I’ve gotten letters and notes from moms who have told me, you know, “I thought my son was allergic to apples and grapes. Well, it turns out that he wasn’t allergic to the product, he was allergic to what’s getting sprayed on them, you know, the waxes that are used to coat the food that contains casein and other dairy items.” Yeah, if you have a dairy intolerance, you might be surprised to know that a lot of the waxes that are used to coat produce to help it last longer as it’s being shipped all over the world contain casein, the milk protein. So I was getting letters from parents saying, “You know, we realized that when we use your product, Johnny can have apples and grapes again.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, there’s no disclosure.” You know, so that transparency is still something that we’re really lacking.

John: Yeah, I know, it’s funny with apples. Apples are said to be one of those really common fruits that gets a huge dose of pesticides as they’re raised, in particular.

Mareya: Well, I mean, there can be an average of 54 different pesticides on apples, but even still, it’s that wax. You know, that wax that traps that residue under the surface, it can contain fungicides and these milk proteins to stabilize them and help to keep further infestation away after they’re picked and packed. And, you know, some of those apples are sitting for 8 to 10 months in cold storage. So it’s a lot of marinating in that stuff, you know?

John: Yeah, that’s not good. And I wanna just go back really quickly because you mentioned as part of that thought that you never ever eat farmed seafood. I am not as strict on that as probably I should be, I will eat farmed seafood. Sometimes if I feel like the color looks good and it looks like it came from a reputable producer and I’m going to a good market. Why are you so strict as to never eat farmed seafood?

Mareya: Well, so first of all, the color, I always say you can’t judge a fish by its color because they add additives to enhance the color oftentimes. So, you know, if it’s not that beautiful ruby red color naturally, you know that it’s not eating what nature intended it to eat. In farm-raised seafood, we see a 90% to 95% contamination of the fish of lice. That’s how filthy the environment can be. And oftentimes, they’re not fed what nature intended them to eat, like algae and other, you know, microscopic proteins. They’re eating these fish pellets that are made from other fish. They’re just simply not eating what they’re supposed to, so it creates inflammatory omegas versus the good kind. So you’re not even eating the same animal, and that infestation of lice is creating transmittable disease.

John: Yeah. So I have seen the YouTube videos of some of the fish farms and the conditions that can arise in those environments. So they’re certainly not natural and keeping the fish in those enclosed spaces is suboptimal. Sometimes, in my experience, you gotta eat and, you know, it’s so tough to just constantly be sourcing the perfect grass-fed beef, the perfect, you know, wild-caught fish. It can be difficult to do.

Mareya: I agree with you. Well, let me actually disagree with you for a second.

John: Good. Yes. Please do. No, this is…

Mareya: I understand that it can seem difficult, but by the same token, I think, you know… And this by no means is to create paranoia for people. But in the case that I had last year with that one shrimp putting me in the emergency room, like, when you have something like that happen, you’re like, “Whoa, it was just one. Like, what if I eat a whole plate of it? Would it have killed me?” And I guess, you know, I would rather trade off and not eat the fish, and just eat more quinoa, you know, or black beans and rice, just, you know, it’s not worth the gamble. But by the same token, there are so many resources now for buying sustainably. You know, they’re different, even mail order services, where you can get it delivered to your home. And so, the convenience factor is there, you know. And in a lot of cases, it’s not even that much more expensive or it’s parody with what you would buy in the store and then you know it’s coming from a good source. So I think eating responsibly is really important because, again, like, we vote with our dollars. So instead of overfishing, you know, and creating, like, tremendous issues with line-caught or wild-caught seafood too, like, we can eat less, but still enjoy the good stuff.

John: Yeah, no, that’s a good message, and I mean even to almost disagree with myself from three minutes ago in a way, there’s a region of the country, a lot of people haven’t heard of it, but it’s called Bristol Bay. Have you heard of Bristol Bay, Alaska?

Mareya: Mm-hmm.

John: Bristal Bay, Alaska, supposedly, is the last sustainable, you know, at scale, like, huge fishing region in our country. All the salmon regions of the Pacific Northwest have been dammed so many times over that they’ve done major damage to the salmon haul in those regions. But Bristol Bay is a region of the country where it is sustainable, meaning, they don’t take out more fish than the fish are able to reproduce. And you make a good point and made me think of this. You can get gorgeous quality salmon from Bristol Bay, just if they freeze it right after it’s caught, and they’ll ship to you as much as you want. And I will do that from time to time. So, I mean, and really, it’s true, the price of that kind of a product really is pretty much in line with what you pay at most grocery stores. So it does take extra effort, but it can be done.

Mareya: Yeah. Well, you take that little extra effort and then what you end up finding is the product tastes so much better too. We got some lake wild-caught, like, just, you know, lake trout is beautiful, ruby colored flesh lake trout. Or, excuse me, not lake, river trout. And it was like the most delicious trout I’ve ever had in my entire life. And everybody eating it was just, like, “How did you prepare this? Like, what did you…?” And we prepared it so simply, but it was so good. And so what you end up finding… And I talk a lot about this in the book, is when you open up your experiences, all of your experiential kind of senses into food and you really dedicate that, you’re not multitasking when you eat, you’re really giving it the focus and kind of honoring what is on your plate, you discover that you were so much more satisfied with less food, you know. And the portions that people think that they need, they don’t really need.

John: Yeah, there’s truth to that. Me as a skinny guy, I do need those portions. I need to eat every last morsel. I need to eat every last morsel I can get my hands on so I can maintain a healthy body weight, but I think that’s true for a lot of people.

Mareya: Yeah, I mean, you know, I really believe in, like, eating with intention and eating with this kind of all the senses awake. And, you know, I get made fun of a little bit of my family because, you know, I don’t just make a piece of avocado toast, like it’s a work of art, you know, because it makes me happy. And just putting that little, little bit of extra time, it’s not, like, a lot, but when it’s pretty, I eat it slowly, I savor it. And you get so much more satisfaction out of it, versus most people who just kind of, like, choke down their food in a hurry. And then they go, “Wow, my plate’s gone. Like, I don’t even remember eating it,” you know.

John: No, it’s one of the most inspiring points, I think, that you’ve made in this episode. For me, I mean, with COVID-19, we talked about the beginning, just too much caffeine, you know, just kind of falling into bad habits digitally. When you have businesses like we do that are that are internet-driven, you could theoretically be working at all times. And I found that, especially during this time, I can get out of balance in this way at any time, but especially during this time. The screen eating, you know, on the laptop, doing something on Slack and eating, and literally just like a Homer Simpson of wolfing down of food. And frankly, though, it does make a big difference to try to step out of that and just chew your food, and just think about what you’re doing, and that’s a good reminder.

Mareya: Well, I coach people… I have a program called Eat to Thrive and it’s an eight-week program where I really walk people through some of these key points because I wanna, number one, retrain them and break some of these bad habits of, like, mindless eating. And unlike you, who, I guess, you’re very blessed, my friend, to be able to eat whatever you want, you could barely keep the calories in, many people have the opposite problem, especially a lot of the women that I coach that are kind of in those years where their hormones are awry and they need some extra help. So, you know, kind of just getting in touch with, like, releasing the bad habits around mindless eating and then also retraining your taste buds. You know, we could sabotage very early in life, by the time we’re five, we’re pretty well imprinted. And if we were raised on a Froot Loop and Eggo waffle diet, it’s gonna be really hard to accept a lot of the whole foods that contribute to health, sour foods, which are good for gut health, bitter foods that are good for all over immunity health that you get from a lot of leafy greens, for example.

And then umami foods that are attributed to immunity-boosting foods and also proteins that are essential amino acids that we need to fly our planes every single day without crashing. So when you retrain your palate, you then crave differently and you can kind of release yourself of the cravings that come from salt and sugar. And I think now more than ever, you know, regardless of what happens with the recovery of COVID, and for all my friends out there who have restaurants, and people who are frequenting restaurants, like, my prayer is that everything goes back to normal and quickly. But my guess is it’s not. And my guess is that a lot of people are still going to be relying on themselves to feed themselves, you know. And it ain’t gonna happen by buying pre-made meals. You know, we really have to take that responsibility. And I think it’s the ultimate survival skill and to make friends with food.

John: Yeah, it’s a great point. I think that especially as people are eating at home with COVID-19, and I’m with you, God, there’ll be moments during the day, almost every day where I’ll just think back, my neighborhood in New York, and just think about all the different restaurants and all the people that put so much effort into making them successful, and special, and have a cool atmosphere, and do all the things that they do. And I have a little moment where my heart just breaks for them, honestly, because I can’t even begin to imagine how painful that must be to see those creations just kind of go and be so deflated. But if you are gonna be eating at home, taking some of the tactics and the strategies that you’re talking about, which are very holistic, rooted in sort of old eating traditions, which we’ve really lost in this country, I think there’s a ton of value there. And I really appreciate you coming on and sharing all this wisdom. Is there anything that you… And usually, you asked me, which was like, I was totally stumped on this. I didn’t even know really quite how to answer it. But what would your last meal be and what would you eat? Is there anything you’d like to close on? Any way to put a bow on it, a thing you’d like to add to the messaging today for people at home?

Mareya: Yeah. I think, you know, whenever I give presentations, you know, I always leave people with kind of one little piece of knowledge. And I think it’s really important for people to register this and have this be sort of, like, a little barometer of how they think about things. It’s not about being perfect all the time. You know, I really believe that the 90/10 rule is so human. And 90% of the time, if we can really kind of get in touch with what we need to eat from a nutrition standpoint, and 10% of the time, we just allow ourselves to be human and eat the amazing handmade pappardelle with black truffle, and, you know, eat mom’s homemade apple pie and have the meatloaf, like, and release ourselves of the guilt around that, then we will just be so much happier. And that 90/10 rule is really what saved me. It saved me from, I think, what could have been my future of having a really hard struggle with food, and instead, I look at it as the most beautiful way that we can communicate with each other and nurture ourselves. And so, just think, food is information, you can’t burn it off. Once it gets in your body, it becomes part of you. And it can help [inaudible 00:50:23] and break it down. But we are human, and 10% of the time you can eat whatever the fork you want.

John: Yeah, I think that’s beautifully said. We really appreciate. This is, like, my area of work from home, my dog…

Mareya: I love it. Your dog is like, “Yes.”

John: That’s his way of cheering and applauding of… Ned approves as do I, we really appreciate you taking the time and sharing all the knowledge, and we will look… And where can people find you just before we close out, and websites and all that good stuff?

Mareya: Yeah, the best place for people to find me is eatcleaner.com, that’s eatcleaner, where you can find our products, the book, the program, and then on Instagram and Facebook at Eat Cleaner. We also have a bunch of cooking videos and great resources on YouTube at Eat Cleaner. So it’s Eat Cleaner across the board.

John: Awesome. Thank you so much and we will keep in touch. I look forward to collaborating with you on future projects, and stay safe.

Mareya: Thank you, John.

John: Yeah, bye-bye. The “Gene Food Podcast” is our attempt to synthesize the latest developments in the fields of genetics, nutrition, and medicine, and offer you practical tips and stories you can use in your own unique health journey. If you enjoyed this podcast, you can find more information online at mygenefood.com.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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