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Understanding Heavy Metals in Foods: Risks and Mitigation Strategies

faucet contaminated water

Heavy metals are toxic elements found naturally in the environment and can contaminate various foods. Exposure or accumulation of heavy metals in your body can pose serious health risks. In this blog post, we'll explore what heavy metals are, their potential harm, and how to minimize exposure through informed food choices and preparation methods.

What Are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals normally occur in nature and are essential to life but can become toxic through accumulation in organisms. They are metallic elements characterized by their high density and potential toxicity even at low concentrations.

Mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic are the most common heavy metals that have been found to induce human poisonings.

Aluminium is not a heavy metal, but is often also included in the list because of its high toxicity. These metals can accumulate in your body over time, leading to health issues such as organ damage, neurological problems, and an increased risk of chronic diseases.

Not all of these metals are bad for you. We need small amounts of some of them, such as copper and iron, to keep our bodies healthy.

Before I go on, let’s get this straight: probably everyone has heavy metal toxicity. And your body is storing away these toxins in your fat cells to protect you from their harm. Heavy metals are known to cross the blood brain barrier and therefore cause damage to your brain, so your body is storing them away in fat cells before that happens usually. That’s one of the reasons why toxicity can be a reason for unexplained weight gain and inability to lose weight: as your body doesn’t want to release those toxins, it holds on to these fat cells. But I’m getting carried away: I just wanted to make a point that everyone has heavy metal toxicity and the bottom line here is to make sure you minimize exposure and you detox safely regularly. (Skip to the bottom for my 2 best heavy metal detox tips)

Potential Health Risks of Heavy Metal Exposure

Excessive or prolonged exposure to heavy metals can have serious health consequences, impacting various organs and systems within the body.

These are the potential health risks associated with heavy metal toxicity:

1. Lead & Mercury:

  • Neurological Damage: Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to the nervous system, especially in children and developing fetuses. It can cause behavioral and developmental issues, learning disabilities, and lower IQ levels.

  • Kidney Damage: Lead accumulates in the kidneys and can lead to kidney dysfunction and failure over time.

  • Cardiovascular Effects: Elevated lead levels may increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease.

2. Arsenic:

  • Cancer: Chronic exposure to arsenic is associated with an increased risk of various cancers, including skin, lung, bladder, and liver cancers.

  • Skin Lesions: Long-term exposure can cause skin lesions, hyperpigmentation, and thickening of the skin.

  • Neurological Effects: Arsenic exposure may affect the nervous system, leading to numbness and tingling in extremities.

3. Cadmium:

  • Kidney Damage: Cadmium is primarily toxic to the kidneys and can lead to kidney dysfunction and failure, especially with long-term exposure.

  • Bone Disorders: Accumulation of cadmium in bones can cause weakening of bones and potentially lead to osteoporosis and fractures.

  • Cancer: Long-term exposure to cadmium is associated with an increased risk of lung, prostate, and breast cancer.

5. Other Heavy Metals:

  • Nickel, Chromium, and others: These metals can cause skin irritation, respiratory issues, and in some cases, long-term exposure can increase the risk of cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity?

  • Abdominal pain

  • Diarrhea

  • Dehydration

  • Tingling

  • Anemia (iron deficiency)

  • Kidney damage

  • Liver damage

  • Lung irritation or fluid in your lungs

  • Brain problems or memory loss

  • Horizontal lines on your nails

  • Weak or malformed bones

  • Miscarriages or premature labor

Sources of Heavy Metals in Foods and the Environment

Heavy metals can enter the food supply chain through various pathways, including contaminated soil, water, air, and industrial pollution. Some heavy metals like cadmium for instance are naturally present in soil too. Cadmium is present naturally in the earth's crust, and certain agricultural practices, industrial emissions, and the use of cadmium-containing fertilizers can lead to soil contamination.

Additionally, food processing and packaging can introduce heavy metals.

Common sources include:

  • (Contaminated) soil and water

  • Pesticides and fertilizers

  • Air pollution from industrial and vehicule emissions

  • Food processing, packaging, and cooking utensils

  • Beauty products

  • Dental fillings (lead in composite and mercury in amalgam fillings)

  • Paint

  • Tuna, swordfish, shark and Norwegian salmon

  • Shellfish, such as oysters, crabs, and mussels accumulate heavy metals from the water they inhabit

  • Chinese herbs or Ayurvedic supplements

  • Rice: cadmium and arsenic (actually brown rice has higher amounts of arsenic than white) (Japan, China, South America and USA are the worst)

  • Leafy vegetables: Can accumulate heavy metals from contaminated soil and water

  • Root vegetables: Absorb heavy metals from the soil they are grown in

  • Water: depending on your pipes and local water quality

  • Chocolate (cocoa beans) and coffee can be high in cadmium especially from Peru

  • Tobacco plants are known to accumulate cadmium from the soil. Consequently, tobacco and tobacco products, including cigarettes and cannabis, can be a significant source of cadmium exposure for smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke.

Minimizing Heavy Metal Exposure

To reduce exposure to heavy metals, consider the following strategies:

  • Diversify your diet: Consume a variety of foods to minimize exposure from a single source.

  • Choose organic foods: Organic farming practices often result in lower heavy metal content.

  • Prefer smaller fish like sardines and mackerel or fish that swim in cleaner parts of the ocean

  • Remove mercury fillings

  • Soak and wash rice before cooking and prefer rice outside of Japan, China, South America and the US

  • Wash and peel fruits and vegetables: This can reduce heavy metal exposure from contaminated surfaces.

  • Check water sources: Ensure your water supply is free from heavy metal contamination.

  • Prefer coffee and chocolate outside of Peru

  • Opt for beauty products that don’t contain lead (Isoparaffin - can also be found in paint, wallpaper, printing ink…) or aluminium

  • Opt for non aluminium cookware

  • Reduce or quit smoking and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

  • Be mindful of food packaging and opt for cadmium-free materials, especially in food storage and preparation.

  • Stay informed about cadmium levels in seafood and choose varieties with lower cadmium content.

Detoxing Heavy Metals Safely

And as I said above, you can't possibly avoid all sources of toxins or heavy metals. Look at how you can reduce your load and something that I like to do is taking a mix of Chlorella, Cilantro and Garlic that is really great for heavy metal detox.

I use this product from Copmed: Chlorella synergisée (if you want to order this, you need to use code BEABE803 to purchase as this is a site for professional products only)

Another must for heavy metal detox is infrared sauna!

If you are looking for a place in Brussels: Alchimie Spa (Ixelles) offers Infrared sauna (you can get 10% off with my code MARIEKE10).

If you don't have a place close by, you may want to opt for an infrared sauna blanket. Koanna is the brand to go for in Europe and Higher Dose in the US.


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