by Maria Stevens, April 2010
The principle of the whole foods diet is simple: don’t eat processed foods. In practice, it’s a little more difficult. Most foods end up processed minimally. The line between “acceptably” and “overly”-processed is blurred.
The following list will address certain foods and why I think they can or cannot be successfully incorporated into the whole foods diet, and why.
Bread is highly processed grain. There’s no way around it. The grain has been harvested, polished, and ground into flour. The resulting product is a powder, more often than not, a white powder. This white powder in no way shape of form resembles a wheat berry. White flour is grain that has been stripped of its bran (its vitamins and fiber), refined, and bleached. What you get is a very light and very sticky compound that bakes beautifully into bread, cakes, scones, cookies, and the like.
White bread is exceedingly popular, and has a mouth feel very unlike wholegrain bread. It’s light, fluffy–almost like biting into air. It sucks up jellies, butters, liquids, and it doesn’t compete with other flavors. No wonder it’s so popular.
But white bread is almost devoid of anything but calories, and were it not a requirement that flour be “enriched,” it would be worthless. Besides it’s “yummy factor,” white bread contributes nothing. In fact, white bread has a very high glycemic index, which means is rapidly raises blood sugar, resulting in an over-excretion of insulin by the pancreas into the bloodstream. Insulin pushes the sugar into the body’s cells very rapidly, and then you experience a crash. Suddenly you want more bread. It doesn’t fill, and it doesn’t fuel steadily.
But what about wheat bread? Not all breads are created equal. Much of the wheat bread you see lining store shelves is cut with white flour. The 100% whole wheat isn’t much better, as its is shown to have a virtually identical GI value to white flour.
So if whole grain bread is so processed and has a high GI value, should you eat it on the whole foods diet? That all depends.
Many individuals have a difficult time controlling their intake of complex carbohydrates. Generally speaking, grain-derived products are bland and simply act as vessels for other high-fat or high-sugar substances: jelly, peanut butter, mayonnaise, etc. Few people ever eat a plain slice of bread, unless they’re really hungry.
Also, because bread is pre-digested grain (milled flour), it takes less chewing. The less you chew, the faster you tend to eat, and the faster you tend to eat, the more you tend to eat because you don’t give your body a chance to tell you it is satisfied.
In light of all this information, one should not forget that bread has been a staple of human beings for thousands of years. It really wasn’t until to advent and popularization of white flour that bread turned into a “bad guy.”
Whole grain and multi-grain breads can be successfully incorporated into the whole foods diet. Before you decide whether to do so, ask yourself whether bread is a problem food for you. If it is, you might do well to avoid it until you are better acquainted with the whole foods diet and its effects on your system. Once you’re ready to eat bread again, explore and enjoy all the amazing things you can do with it.
The case for pasta is almost identical to the case for bread: it is a product of highly refined grain. The biggest difference, however, is it GI value. Because the flour in pasta has been so densely packed, it actually takes your body more effort to digest it than bread. This results in a nice, long release of energy throughout the day. Again, pasta is a staple of many long-enduring cultures, and should not be dismissed because it technically isn’t a whole food. Be sure that what you put on your pasta is high-quality, filling, and home-made; you won’t go wrong.
Frozen fruits and vegetables -
If it comes wrapped in plastic, don’t buy it, right? If canned fruits and vegetables are a no-no, why aren’t frozen fruits and veggies? The difference lies in the nutrition. When produce is canned, it ends up very low on the nutritional totem pole. When you taste, for example, canned carrots, they are soft and soggy. The nutrients have been cooked out of them. Frozen produce, on the other hand, has undergone some chopping, yes, but is otherwise close to its original in nutritional density. Obviously, fresh produce is preferable to frozen, but if you must substitute, don’t worry about it sabotaging your goals.
100% Fruit Juice -
The pulp is still there, isn’t it? It’s a whole food, technically, right? Keep in mind that most juice is filtered, leaving only a little pulp. Also keep in mind that juicing is a form of processing that dramatically raises the GI value of fruit. If you can’t live without fruit juice, use it as an ingredient, or drink it sparingly, or dilute it with water.
Dried Fruit -
Unless you’re eating raisins, a lot of dried fruit has sugar added to it. Cranberries, for instance, are too bitter without it. Dehydration is a form of processing, and there are acceptable and less-acceptable ways of dehydrating fruit. High temperatures blast nutrients from food; lower temperatures retain the nutrients and also food enzymes. But it is virtually impossible to know how your dried fruit was processed. Frankly, dried fruit, being the closest thing to “whole food candy,” should be reserved for special occasions and not heavily incorporated into your diet.
Honey and Maple Syrup -
Aren’t these sugars? Yes. The difference: they still resemble their natural form, mostly. Use these additives sparingly, and try to buy them as raw and unfiltered as possible.
Rice Milk -
If you’re lactose intolerant and you want milk, this would seem to be a nice alternative. It’s still a processed food, no matter how you look at it. But, rice milk is relatively easy to make. You’re better off making it yourself. Chances are, your whole foods diet doesn’t call for very much milk, since you’re not eating breakfast cereal.
Skim and Non-Fat Milk
With all the hype around having a low-fat diet, you might think that it’s okay to cut a corner here, and avoid the more fattening whole milk. Milk, first of all, has come a long way. It’s almost always pasteurized and homogenized–it is processed, but not to such an extent that is has to be avoided. Whole milk provides very filling saturated fat, and is a more balanced drink (fat, carbohydrates, and protein all in one drink!) than non-fat and skim.
But why can’t you drink skim? Cream is derived from milk, cheese as well. How far down the chain of dairy processing do we go without being complete hypocrites for not allowing non-fat and skim milk? Not far at all. This is a personal choice. I will, however, repeat that whole milk is a more balanced drink.
Soy milk –
It’s supposed to be good for you, right? It’s a very popular alternative to milk. Just like rice milk, right? Not really. First, soy milk requires a more labor-intensive processes than rice milk. Second, almost all soy beans grown in the United States are genetically modified (which raises brand new issues that cannot be addressed here). Third, it is far less gentle on the digestive track than rice milk. Finally, soy has a high concentration of phyto-estrogen (plant estrogen). Phyto-estrogen looks like regular estrogen (to your body) and can tends to cause hormonal abnormalities. Soy milk is a new creation, and best avoided.