Food can feel complicated. But it really doesn’t need to be. Keeping it simple and as close to nature as possible is all that is necessary. An optimal diet that reduces risk for disease is based on whole plant foods which are recognizable and enjoyed in their most intact form, avoiding animal products and processed foods. But what is a processed food, exactly? Clearly, Twinkies, Skittles, and fluorescent colored energy drinks would fit the bill of being highly processed. But what about something less obvious…such as a green smoothie, pasta, or plant-based yogurt?
From a diced onion and juiced carrot to refined sugar and artificially-colored corn chip, there is a whole lot of gray area in between when defining processed foods. Especially when you consider that processing includes all sorts of transformations that can be done on food, including grating, mincing, chopping, blending, boiling, baking, blanching, chargrilling, canning, pickling, extracting, changing the chemical or physical structure, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.
With many–but not all–of these alterations, there may be implications, such as these:
- Nutrients can become lost. From the moment a plant is plucked from the Earth, nutrients start to degrade. Even from the time between when food is harvested to the time it ends up in your kitchen–let alone on your plate–significant losses occur. Cooking foods causes further leaching of certain nutrients and refining a whole grain significantly reduces fiber, protein, and other key nutrients.
- Unhealthy or potentially harmful substances can be added in. On most food production lines, preservatives, artificial colors, (artificial) sweeteners, artificial flavors, stabilizers, thickeners, and other ingredients are added into the original food for myriad survival reasons. Even using high temperatures to cook potato or grain products can promote byproducts such as acrylamide formation.
- Nutrients can be concentrated. There is an increase in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals when blending and juicing fruits and vegetables (however, this may also reduce fiber and satiety). Further, a dramatic enhancement of fat and calories is found in olive oil as compared to whole olives or carbohydrates from sugar beets as compared to table sugar when refined (however, this reduces fiber and most other nutrients).
- Satiety can decrease. When fiber is reduced, many health benefits are minimized and satiety is often also slighted.
- Calories can increase. Taking out fiber or water leaves room for more calories. Highly processed foods such as sugars and oil contain the most calorically dense foods of all. But even dried fruit increases caloric density as water is removed.
- Enzymes can become activated. Certain foods are best eaten raw or even sprouted, to protect their disease-fighting phytochemicals and to enhance nutrient absorption. For example, allicin in garlic protects against cancer and is only activated when cut or crushed based on the enzyme allinase. Similarly, sprouting seeds significantly improves their nutritional benefits.
- Cravings may be enhanced. Highly processed foods have been shown to provoke physiological responses similar to addictive drugs.
Here is a graphic to help illustrate the journey foods can take from its original state to a more processed version of itself:
Here are 5 ways to optimize the “whole” in your whole food, plant-based diet:
- Fill at least half of your plate (or bowl) with raw or lightly cooked vegetables and fruits.
- Include at least half of your diet from raw foods to benefit from their original nutritional profile.
- Include cooked foods as well to incorporate the benefits that take place with cooking certain nutrients, such as carotenoids.
- Drink soups and stews to make sure you retain any nutrients lost in the cooking broth.
- Minimize or avoid oils and refined sweeteners.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains as often as possible.
- When purchasing food with a label:
- Focus exclusively on the ingredient list.
- Aim for the fewest ingredients possible.
- Completely recognizable and pronounceable ingredients.
- ignore misleading marketing on the front of the package;
- Avoid artificial flavors/sweeteners/colors, preservatives, stabilizers, thickeners.
- Prioritize The 6 Daily 3’s: 3 servings of legumes, leafy green vegetables, other-colored vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and exercise.
Ultimately, it all lies on a spectrum…