EXPLAINING THE WHOLE FOODS DIET
by Maria Stevens, April 2010
I don’t like the term “whole foods diet.” It sounds like every other new-age fad diet that eventually flunks its adherents because of its impossible, unbalanced demands. However, “diet” is an appropriate term nonetheless, since a diet is merely a way of eating, as an ethic is a way of behaving.
There are two major reasons why the whole foods diet works–and works well. First, whole foods confer the most dense and balanced nutrition. Second, whole foods do not inhibit the body’s ability to interpret its needs.
“Whole foods confer the most dense and balanced nutrition:”
Every plant, animal, and fungus fit for human consumption came in an original form; they came, furthermore, from the wild before animal domestication and agriculture overtook hunting and gathering. Each food, depending on its environment, came intact with a certain nutritional profile. Food today, produced almost exclusively from the intensive industrial food system, lacks the same nutritional density, but it is a fact that must be accepted.
The moment a food is picked or killed, it begins to lose its nutrition. By “nutrition,” I mean a food’s micro-nutrient profile–vitamins and minerals, which are essential for optimal physical and mental functioning. Picking a vegetable from your organic garden, however, is scarcely something to worry about; nor is chopping that vegetable in your kitchen for that evening’s dinner. In fact, this sort of food processing is ideal.
“Processing” in its strictest sense means any alteration or handling of food: chopping, grinding, blending, heating, freezing, canning, preserving, or chemical alteration which changes a food from its original form. The unfortunate fact is that almost none of this processing is done any more in the home, by the individuals preparing to eat that food; processing is done on a large industrial scale. Worse yet, processed food is often combined with other food derivatives that in no way resemble anything found in nature.
So why is processing so bad? It’s not. That is, it’s not inherently bad. Most foods must be minimally processed in order to be fit for consumption. But for the purpose of explaining the merits of the whole food diet, I will reserve the term “processing” for foods processed by entities other than the individual preparing to eat them: namely, food manufacturers.
As a general rule, most things found in the center aisles of the supermarket are processed: cereal, frozen waffles, breakfast bars, canned soup, canned vegetables, potato chips, candy, soda, canned beans, breads, cakes, etc. These foods have been so heavily processed that, unless they have been fortified with vitamins and minerals after the fact, they are abysmally low in nutrition compared to their whole food counterparts.
Why is nutritional density so important? Because the body needs much, much more than mere calories. It demands and uses each micro-nutrient in ways only partially understood by even the most cutting-edge nutritional science. The body undergoes innumerable chemical processes each second at such a profoundly complex level, no computer on the face of the earth could map or decipher them. Whatever the sequence may be, however, the body is finely in tune with it, and it “knows” which building blocks are needed for those processes. When the body is deficient in specific building blocks, in many cases it is smart enough to make less-than-optimal compromises with its materials; but it cannot do this sustainably.
When the body is deficient in micro-nutrients, it searches externally for them, via cravings. Food, it knows, is the source of this nutrition, and amazingly, the body is quite in tune with the delivery packages of different food sources. Modern processed food, however, is much lower in nutrition than food in its whole form; this leads the body to continue to eat, even though sufficient calories (macro-nutrients) have been consumed. This leads to my second point…
“Whole foods do not inhibit the body’s ability to interpret its needs:”
For those less interested in nutrition, and who simply want to know why the whole foods diet is optimal for weight loss or physical performance, this point should be taken very seriously. The human body is hard-wired for three things: salt, fat, and sugar! The roots of this hard-wiring are very clear through the lens of evolutionary biology, and need not be explained here. Food manufactures (restaurants included) know this, and use these components very heavily in their products to keep the consumer craving more. Most processed foods resemble foods found in nature neither in appearance, nor in their nutritional profiles, and at first, the human body is not adequately familiar with them. Over time, the intelligent body becomes more familiar with them, and is able to handle the unnatural nutrient inputs. But, just because a food can be eaten doesn’t mean it should be eaten.
If one exists exclusively on processed foods, it is highly unlikely that he is in a state of optimal health. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, fatty liver syndrome, and countless other so-called “diseases of affluence” are directly affected by the diet. Such diseases are the products of a lifestyle of poor eating habits. Worse yet, after years of being accustomed to a processed food diet, the body will exhibit symptoms of addiction and withdrawal if the consumption of such food is truncated. Like any drug, foods laden with fat, salt, and particularly sugar have a profound impact on brain and body chemistry. This, in part, is why attempting to “quit” these foods is so difficult.
The effects of processed food are so strong–they are so altered, so fattening, so sugary, and often so delicious–that the body’s signals of satiety are overridden. Certainly, at one time or another, everyone has overeaten a delicious food despite pain in their stomach, or even hints of nausea.
Food manufacturers have one thing in mind: make a profit. In order to make a profit, they must think of ways to get people to consume more food, despite the biological limitations for energy needs. Certainly, human calorie needs have not risen over the past fifty years; if anything, they have done down as a result of the modern, more sedentary lifestyle. Processed foods are engineered to make people want to eat more. They are even packaged to promote excessive consumption (consider the upside-down, king-sized bottle of ketchup–so easy to squeeze compared to the old fashioned glass bottles).
Too many processed foods and snacks contain components that enhance one’s experience of eating the food– hydrogenated vegetable oil to enhance mouth-feel, when other fats would have gone rancid on the shelf; monosodium glutamate (MSGs), to dramatically enhance flavor; high fructose corn syrup (predominantly sourced from genetically modified corn) to significantly enhance sweetness… your brain doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of input. And in a flavor contest, neither does a carrot.
But is all that yummy-ness worth it? Think about the health consequences, the hormonal imbalances (diabetes takes center stage), and the crashes from excessive sugar consumption. Energy levels are difficult to sustain on an even keel. Your brain, which demands sugar (glucose, more specifically) all day long, cannot be expected to perform optimally if it doesn’t have a steady supply of fuel.
In the category of delivering steady energy throughout the say, processed foods fail miserably. One of the most common features of processed food is the removal of certain components of a food: grain-ingredients have been stripped of their bran, fruit of its pulp, milk of its fat, etc. This stripping of components radically changes a foods behavior in the body. Not only can the majority of a food’s nutrition be found in those discarded parts, but the stripped food is digested and absorbed by the body at rates not “intended” by the foods initial integrity. It may sound extreme to call the result “chaotic,” but when one looks closely at hormonal responses to many processed foods, chaos is what one sees.
So what are we to do?
To put it simply, stop buying junk food. Okay, that’s obvious. But what counts as junk food? In my opinion, junk food is anything that contributes very little nutritionally (most processed food), and contributes excessively in macro-nutrients (calories) per gram. I define this subject in more depth in a separate article, “What’s healthy, and what’s junk?”
Learn to prepare whole foods. Learn how to make your own salads, grill your own meat, make your own soup, cook your own grain, bake your own bread. It will put you deeply in touch with not just the food, but your body’s relationship to it. Food is energy, of course. But food is also medicine. High quality food confers the best, cleanest, steadiest supply of fuel, and the best medicine. When you commit yourself to eating the highest quality food–food grown, selected, and prepared with care–everything else in your life starts to fall into place. Trust me.