If I gave you $30, sent you to any place that sells food, and challenged you to buy only healthy food, what would bring me?
- Which of the following is likely a healthy food—pick all that you’d buy for my challenge:
- A packaged food that came from a health food store
- A food that says “low fat” on the package
- A food that says “low carb” on the package
- A food that says “low calorie” on the package
- A food that says “whole grain” on the package
- A food that says “vegetarian” on the package
- A food that has few ingredients on the label
- A green leafy vegetable from the produce section
- A cruciferous vegetable from a Farmer’s Market
My answers are at the bottom, but I’m guessing(hoping) after you read the following, you’ll have figured out which items I’d accept as healthy.
What’s Healthy Food?
Before I can assess your shopping bag of supposedly healthy food, I’ll have to define what I mean by healthy food. I’m looking for a food that provides the nutrients our bodies need to thrive and doesn’t contain substances that cause ill health. Reasonable, I think. So what kinds of foods would that include?
Whole foods, and for maximum health benefits, primarily from plants, and mostly vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as certain protein sources. Which protein sources?you might demand of me. (But hey, let’s not get huffy, here.) Where you ought to get your protein is a great question. And one for a whole other blog entry. (Sorry to put you off. But I promise, I’ll get to that thorny issue…eventually).
What’s a Whole Food?
If a healthy food is a whole food, what’s a whole food? I define whole food as a food that comes in the package nature created. For example, edamame in its pod (whole soybeans) and not edamame-shaped puffed things that come in a package. (For giggles, check out the ingredients in a product like that one.)
You’re a busy person. Who has time for steaming edamame? You might want to make time for whole foods now, so you have more and healthier yearsto enjoy them. Older you will thank current you. In the nearer future, on a diet rich in whole foods, you’ll likely find yourself getting more done during the day and visiting the doctor less often. That’s because the health differences between whole foods versus packaged foods are striking.
What’s in Whole Foods That’s Good for You?
In a nutshell, haha, literally and figuratively,
- Various nutrients to fuel your body,
- Fiber (soluble and insoluble) to aid in digestion, help your gut biome, and make you feel fuller,
- Essential vitamins and minerals,
- As well as micronutrients that not only help the body stay well but can also stave off or help control devastating diseases.
But My Honey Nut Cheerios Say “First Ingredient Whole Grain Oats”
The fine print is a hint that “first ingredient whole grain” is not the same as a whole grain. In any case, if they were genuinely whole grain oats, your cereal bowl would rattle with the hard oat kernels (groats) rather than the soft sound of processed O’s. Sure, oats were in the picture in the pre-history of a Cheerio but think of all the transformation that had to occur to make them into sweet floating O’s. First they are pulverized into flour, then they are cooked together with: “Sugar, Oat Bran, Corn Starch, Honey, Brown Sugar Syrup, Salt, Tripotassium Phosphate, Rice Bran Oil and/or Canola Oil, Natural Almond Flavor.” Vitamin E is also added as a preservative. (Ingredients in order after “Whole Grain Oats” from the box).
The 9 grams of sugar alone (more than two teaspoons per serving) is problematic, and cereal is only an obvious culprit. Most of our packaged food is laden with sugar. Look at the ingredients in your salad dressing, for instance. Or spaghetti sauce. Or salsa. Sugar makes food tastier and makes us eat more of it, especially when combined with fat. A win for food companies but not for your health or waistline.
This added sugar may be a significant cause in our current obesity epidemic since the sugar added either as high fructose corn syrup or table sugar or most any kind of sugar, contains fructose. What’s so bad about the sugar created in fruit? In your body, fructose cannot be used for energy (unlike glucose) and therefore is turned directly into fat. (You can read more about fructose and obesity in Robert Lustig’s excellent book Fat Chance).
In fruit, the fiber mitigates the effect of fructose, at least to some extent. The USDA includes a large proportion of fruit in their dietary recommendations and fruit is, indeed, a whole food with many nutritious properties and micronutrients. But before you over-indulge in fruit, however, consider that our ancestors didn’t eat fruit year-round but only in season and they gained fatto keep them alive through months of famine. So yes, eaten in its whole (not juice!) form, fruit is healthy in moderation. Fructose by itself in packaged food, however, is a whole different story.
Wait, Isn’t Fruit Juice Part of a Nutritious Breakfast?
You’d think so from all the commercials for cereal as well as those for orange juice. Yet fruit juice contains more sugar, ounce for ounce than a can of Coke. It’s fructose without any fiber along with a heaping dose of glucose. So unless you want to gain fat and spike your blood sugar, fruit juice is not a part of a real life healthy breakfast, while whole fruit is.
Okay, Other Than Sugar, What’s the Big Deal About Packaged Foods?
Packaged foods have other problems, too. Once the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and micronutrients are removed from food (through processing) they are no longer (shown to be) effective in our bodies. Our bodies like their nutrients in the package nature provided. According to Robert Lustig, one problem with trying to get our vitamins outside of whole foods is that, in the absence of a severe vitamin deficiency, there’s no good evidence that vitamin supplements have any positive effect on health.
Lustig also notes that processing removes any insoluble fiber found in a food in nature. And fiber counts. It may in fact help people avoid or treat metabolic syndrome, a dangerous cluster of diseases.
Then there are the additives such as too much salt which can cause hypertension. Preservatives are added for shelf stabilizing. Real foodgoes bad. A Twinkie is forever. Chemicals enhance color, taste, and texture. The food industry conducts studies to make sure their food is as tasty and addictive as possible (so that no one can eat just one!) Some of these chemicals are harmless, some have unknown long term effects, especially in large quantities.
Eat Fresh, Unprocessed Food. Thank Me Later
The fresher and less processed the better. Nutrients and fiber are lost in processing and various nutrients in vegetables are lost in long trips across the country to get to your grocery store. If you have access to a farmer’s market, you can get food that was picked ripe earlier the same day. A big win for health.
Who Has the Time to Go to a Farmer’s Market and Prepare Fresh Meals?
Whole foods might take longer to prepare, but they don’t have to. Use simply prepared foods that just taste good, like nuts and fresh veggies. Eat salads with no-sugar dressing (make your own or get it from someone who does.) You can get some of your meals freshly prepared for you from farmer’s market vendors, some health food stores, some restaurants (inquire about how they source their food), and if you’re lucky (as we have around here) you might even have a local farm that delivers fresh picked and prepared salads.
Answers to Quick Quiz
The healthiest option is (I), or indeed, any Farmer’s Market produce that is farmed using “natural” methods. If you can’t get fresher food, fresh or frozen produce from your supermarket (H) are decent alternatives. Produce loses nutrients in the long haul across the country and sitting on store shelves (not to mention it is often picked unripe). You lose fiber and nutrients in the freezing process, but the produce are frozen right after picking. They’re both tradeoffs.
In a pinch, minimally processed, few ingredient packaged food (G) has (some) nutritional value and if it has no sugar or unnatural ingredients it probably won’t have any deleterious effects on your health.
All the other answers are highly suspect. Just because you bought it at a health food store doesn’t make it healthy. There’s plenty of sugar in much packaged “health food.” Low fat and low calorie are generally bad news because what replaces the fat and calories is often bad for you. Vegetarian and low carb packaged options have the same potential problems. They’re processed food. And we already talked about Cheerios, so you know “whole grain” is often not a whole grain at all. Unless it’s a bag of plain whole grains. Which would be healthy for you if grains are a part of your healthy diet. And that’s a whole other conversation.