By focusing on fresh foods that are close the source, you are giving your body the vital nutrients that only nature can provide.
This week, it’s back to the six tenets from My Nutrition Philosophy (See post on October 11). The third tenet is:
Choose whole foods over processed.
Get into the habit of looking at your food, both when you are selecting it and when you are eating it—is it recognizable as food that came from the earth, or has it been processed and changed into another form? With each step of food processing, food is taken further away from its recognizable natural form, vital nutrients are stripped away, and things that we already get too much of (salt, sugar, preservatives) are added.
All food processing is not inherently bad. Processing consists of any activity that alters a food from its natural state – i.e. freezing, drying, fermenting, and canning. Processing food has many positive benfits: it enables us to store food for long periods of time, makes certain foods safe to consume, and can save us time and personal energy. Butchering meat or pre-washing salad greens are also considered forms of food processing. Thus, many processed foods are actually good for us—i.e. pasteurized milk, frozen fruit & vegetables, baby carrots, etc. In fact, canned tomatoes actually provide more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, than fresh tomatoes.
However, the majority of what we consider as processed foods are less like baby carrots and more like a Twinkie. Twinkies have gotten a lot of press lately, and there are many who are trying to save the Twinkie. Unfortunately, Twinkies are the epitome of what’s wrong nutritionally with most processed foods – high sugar, high fat, no nutritional value, and no resemblance to anything that was grown or raised. I understand the nostalgia associated with a Twinkie, but I have to say I was not sad to hear that Hostess was going out of business. Other examples of heavily processed foods include soda, chips, fruit snacks, American cheese, bologna, and hot dogs– foods that usually provide little nutritional benefit beyond simple calories. Many processed foods are also notoriously high in sodium. A diet high in sodium can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease, and a single frozen dinner can provide up to 1800 mg of sodium (2300 mg maximum daily is recommended for the general population). But more than just providing too much of the “bad” nutrients, processed foods are usually devoid of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber (see my 2nd tenet: Eat More Plants). Fiber, vitamins and minerals can be added to a processed food, but research has found that at least with fiber, the health benefits just aren’t the same.
Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between whole and processed foods. Eaten with the skin, a fresh apple provides 4 grams of fiber, numerous phytochemicals, and several vitamins & minerals including vitamin C and potassium. When that fresh apple is processed into applesauce, the skin is usually removed, and with it, half of the fiber. Applesauce provides 2 grams of fiber per serving. When an apple is further processed into apple juice, all of the fiber is removed, along with most of the health-defending phytochemicals and vitamins/minerals. Many juices add vitamin C because of the loss during processing (also known as fortification). Going one step further in the processing chain, when apple juice is concentrated, it is then used as a common ingredient in heavily processed foods such as Apple Jacks or apple-flavored cereal bars. None of the original fiber, phytochemicals, or vitamins and minerals remain, while sugar, salt, and preservatives are added.
It’s difficult to avoid processed foods. And it’s not necessary to completely cut them from your diet. Not everyone has a garden in their backyard or access to fresh, whole foods. And sometimes chips are the only thing that will satisfy a craving. However, by focusing on fresh foods that are close the source, you are giving your body the vital nutrients that only nature can provide.
A few tips related to whole & processed foods:
- Check out the ingredient list. Here are some red flags that indicate a food is heavily processed: 1) If the list is long (more than five or six ingredients). 2) You can’t pronounce most of the the ingredients (chemical sounding names). 3) High fructose corn syrup is in the list (the closer to the top the worse).
- Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. This tends to be where more of the fresh, whole foods are located.
- Carry apples, bananas, or oranges with you as a snack. It’s during times when we’re hungry and unprepared that we tend to fall back on processed snack foods.
- Cook. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or difficult. Roasted chicken, brown rice, and a salad is a simple dinner that doesn’t require much cooking technique, and you can control how much salt and fat is added.
- Look for lower sodium varieties of canned soups, vegetables, and beans; and lower sugar varieties of ready-to-eat cereal.
Happy Holidays! Happy Eating!