Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new Food Freedom habits, and figuring out how to make a healthy, sustainable lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m going a little outside the box and talking about extending your health-focused approach to areas of your life other than food.

Dear Melissa,

Besides eating healthy Whole30 foods, in what other ways do you avoid toxins? Do you cook with a microwave? Do you use plastic containers? How do you feel about non-stick pans?  Do you buy all organic produce? -Stephanie, Fontana CA

Hi Stephanie,

This seems to be a natural train of thought once you’ve done the Whole30 and changed your habits and relationship with food. Once your Whole30/food freedom diet feels like second nature, you start wondering, what else can I do to be a healthy person living a healthy lifestyle? You start thinking about where your food comes from, shopping seasonally or locally, looking at the ingredients in your skin care products, and researching natural cleaning techniques for your kitchen.

The trouble is, all this research basically makes you feel like everything is bad for you. EVERYTHING. Like, you know, drinking bottled water. Or breathing. Wait, even spinach can make you sick? It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed—and all this doom and gloom can leave you absolutely paralyzed, not acting on any information because there’s just too much information. Or worse, convinced that unless you live in a hypoallergenic bubble next to an untapped mountain spring eating only organic food you’ve grown yourself from heritage seeds—just not spinach—you’re probably going to die early. Or get cancer. Or pass down horrible genetic mutations to your great-great-grandchildren, and IT’S ALREADY TOO LATE WE’RE ALL DOOMED.

Deep breath. Let me share how I think about it, m’kay?

Research is Good, Overwhelmed is Bad

First, it’s fantastic that you’re looking into all of this stuff. It’s good to be aware of what’s in your food, products, and environment so you can make an informed choice—even if that choice is, “I’m not going to change anything right now.” But don’t let yourself get overwhelmed before you’ve even begun! Take a cue from habit research (which says the brain can only really focus on one goal at a time), to keep you on track and prevent information overload.

Tip: Choose one category on which to focus for a month, and stick to just researching and making gradual changes in that one category. Maybe this month, it’s household cleaners; next month, it’s local farms, CSAs, and farmers markets. This will keep you from getting sucked down an internet rabbit-hole into Everything That’s Wrong with Everything Ever, chasing one article about household cleaners to a link about the impact of plastic on our hormones to another link about how cell phone radiation is… well, we won’t get into that here.

Don’t Believe the Hype

It’s also easy to find really dramatic “interpretations” of the “science” about things like microwaves from sites which make their research sound superadvanced… but really, how accurate is their analysis? Take this 2011 article about microwaves… after reading this, I’d be convinced nuking my toddler’s chicken meatballs this morning qualified as child abuse. But really, how credible is this website? How distended are their claims? What’s their slant here, really?

Compare that to these articles, from The Washington Post (2014) and Chris Kresser (2015)—both sources I trust far more than The Natural Society. These paint a very different (and well researched) position on microwaves, and I’m far more likely to rely on this balanced reporting of current research when making a decision about cooking methods.

Tip: Only accept research from sites and people you trust, and think critically about what you’re reading! You can find “research” to support just about any position out there, but is it recent? Is it credible? Is it well supported by other sites/people you trust? Don’t just take the top hit on Google and call it good—this does require some effort.

Start with the Low-Hanging Fruit 

I suspect you already realize that some changes will be easier to make than others. Swapping out your dish soap for a more environmentally-friendly brand? No emotional attachment there. Deciding whether or not you want to continue getting your roots touched up with chemical-laden dye at your heavenly swanky salon? That one might be harder to part with. (See what I did there?)

Tip: Start with the stuff that feels effortless—going “green” with kitchen cleaners, using a more natural body lotion or toothpaste, replacing your plastic food storage containers with glass, or buying an at-home filter instead of bottled water are easy fixes that will certainly help your cause. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning things up in order of easy to hard, and the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel knowing you’re making changes for the better may strengthen you for the tougher examinations.

Let Good Enough Be Good Enough 

In a perfect world, no BPA-containing plastics would ever touch your lips or skin. In the real world, where even cash register receipts are “toxic,” that just ain’t gonna happen. Realize that you’re never going to be “perfectly” healthy, and don’t set expectations for yourself or your family that are only going to create more (unhealthy) stress.

Tip: Do as much as you can, then let that be good enough. Switching to all-glass storage at home? Awesome! Still using the occasional plastic storage tub to send your kid to school with organic carrot sticks, celery, and homemade ranch dressing? That’s okay too. This isn’t permission to bury your head in the sand; “I’ve done enough, I’m just not going to worry about the rest.” I’m just saying, show yourself some grace now, but when you recognize you have capacity to do a little better, do it.

Live Your Life 

Finally, is it perfectly ideal that you are eating a non-organic fruit salad, grilled organic (but not pastured) chicken kabobs, and dark chocolate that maybe isn’t conflict-free, all packed in a plastic storage container next to your BPA-lined cans of sparkling water, heading out to the park in your oil-consuming sedan to sit on a blanket coated with fire-retardant material, laid on grass sprayed with chemical fertilizers, while coated in paraben-rich sunscreen and listening to music from your radiation-emitting iPhone? Um, you know, I guess not…

BUT YOU ARE HAVING A PICNIC WITH YOUR FAMILY. The sun is shining, the kids aren’t arguing (for once), and you’ve got the entire afternoon to enjoy nature, in-person social interaction, some lawn bowling, and delicious food you prepared by hand and packed with love.

Tip: Don’t let the pursuit of getting it “right” take over your life. Live it. Enjoy it. By all means, ask yourself the tough questions, challenge yourself, and do better where you can. But also show yourself grace when you just can’t even—and allow yourself to recognize that the progress you’ve made improving your own health and the health of your family is something to celebrate.

I suggest a picnic.

Best in health,

P.S. Head over to my Facebook page, where I’ve shared some of the things I’ve changed in my own life and home to stay healthy.

Got a question for Melissa? Submit them here.

Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.

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Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; and the upcoming Food Freedom Forever and The Whole30 Cookbook. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography