What can we learn from the history of iodine?

Plus: How did we get the food pyramid, and where are we now?

Monday.  Spring break is here, and summer vacations are right around the corner, so here is an important reminder—if you stop working out, you’ll eventually lose some muscle and strength. However, the loss happens a lot slower than you probably think. 

Research suggests it takes at least three weeks of inactivity for you to start losing muscle (READ THE STUDY). THREE WEEKS! The takeaway from all this? While time off can feel like a significant setback when you go on a trip, it isn’t. Enjoy your vacation this summer, and then just make sure to jump right back into our routine when you get back. The important thing is that you don’t let a couple of weeks away turn into being sedentary for the rest of the summer. That’s no bueno. 

Moving on to a history lesson on iodine. When was iodine added to salt, how did it impact our health, and what can we learn from it today? Let’s dive in.


The Iodine Story And The Lesson We Should Learn

Salt Bae Steak GIF

Over a hundred years ago, Switzerland faced an alarming health crisis where nearly 10% of its population suffered from an enlarged thyroid, also known as goiter (you can see some images HERE). This wasn't just a minor issue; it led to serious problems like stunted growth and mental disabilities, putting a significant strain on the well-being of the nation. 

Picture this: a country grappling with a widespread condition that not only affects physical health but also dims the future of its people by impacting their mental capabilities. It was a mystery wrapped in all sorts of myths, with many blaming infection or alcoholism for the condition. 

Enter Otto Bayard, a Swiss doctor with a hypothesis that would turn the tide against this epidemic. In 1918, he suggested that the root cause of goiter wasn't any of the widely believed culprits but a simple lack of iodine. 

To test his theory, he conducted a controlled experiment that sounded almost too simple to be true. He mixed iodine with salt to create iodized salt, then distributed it across the regions plagued by goiter. The results? You guessed. Introducing iodized salt to these areas saw cases of goiter virtually vanish, marking the beginning of the end for this once-pervasive health issue in Switzerland and setting a precedent for other countries to follow.

But the story doesn't end with just the eradication of goiter. This public health intervention had another unexpected and profound effect: it may have played a significant role in the Flynn Effect, which observed a steady increase in IQ levels across developed countries throughout the 20th century. 

Studies suggest that adding iodine to table salt could have boosted the IQ of millions by as much as 15 points. Just think about it—a change as minor as adding a substance measured in micrograms (0.045 mg) to table salt had the power to elevate a nation's IQ and eliminate a major health problem.

Small changes can indeed have enormous impacts. 

So why the history lesson on iodine? Well, this historical anecdote serves as a powerful reminder of the impact environmental factors can have on our health, both positive and negative. 

In the present day, the United States allows over 40,000 chemicals in our food, water, and environment without thorough regulatory review for safety. It raises a critical question: if a mere 45 micrograms of iodine can bring about such a positive shift, what are the possible long-term effects we could face from these various unchecked chemicals?

Consider glyphosate, a chemical used so liberally in U.S. agriculture that 280 million pounds are sprayed on crops annually despite this herbicide being banned in Europe due to health concerns. After years of lawsuits linking glyphosate exposure to cancer, the company paid $10.9 billion in settlements. Still, this is a substance we are all exposed to via many of the foods we eat. 

The key takeaway? As we think back on the iodine success story, it's clear that understanding and controlling our exposure to environmental toxins is more crucial than ever. The tale of iodine and IQ is just one example of how small changes can have enormous impacts, for better or worse. So, keep that in mind and make the best food choices to minimize exposure to some of these harmful chemicals and environmental toxins. Buy organic, cook your own meals, avoid ultra-processed foods, and, when possible, find brands that use third-party testing to provide transparency on what is really in their products.


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How Did We Get The Food Pyramid, And Where Are We Now?

In the early '90s, the Food Pyramid became America's nutritional compass. Launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992, it was intended to visually represent healthy eating guidelines. It appeared on cereal boxes, TV commercials, and even in our schools. However, its foundation came from a time when the American diet was understood quite differently.

Back then, high cholesterol was the bad guy, and saturated fats were to be avoided at all costs. People were told to choose margarine over butter, egg whites over yolks, and low-fat options over everything, meaning that carbs become king.

Interestingly, when the Food Pyramid debuted, it advised Americans to have bread and pasta as their diet's base, relegating even healthy fats like avocados and olive oil to the top — indicating they should be consumed the least. This recommendation was controversial from day one, with some believing these recommendations played a part in America's escalating obesity problems.

The Pyramid was so controversial that it faced opposition from within the government even before it was publicly released. Further complicating things was that the USDA played a dual role in promoting American agriculture and providing dietary advice, which often conflicted. Big Ag had (and still has) a vested interest in growing cheap monoculture crops that produce cheap, hyper-palatable foods that lead to obesity and chronic disease. Big Ag also has a significant amount of lobbying power. You can see how that is far from ideal.

So, what did the Food Pyramid actually suggest?

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