Whole food heaven (nature knows best)

We’ve talked about whole foods in previous posts, but what does the term mean, and why is it so important? Read on to find out…

What does “whole food” mean?

A whole food is basically one that’s in it’s natural form, but edible. So an apple is a whole food even if you don’t eat the pips. And you don’t need to eat the skin of a banana for it to class as a whole food.
The most important thing is that the product retains its nutrients in their natural, unprocessed form.  The molecular structure hasn’t been changed, so the fibre and sugar are still bound together, for instance. Whilst an apple slice is a whole food, therefore, an apple smoothie, juice or puree isn’t.
Whole foods vary a lot in terms of the nutrients they contain. Some are particularly high in fat and others are particularly high in fibre, for instance. And they typically contain thousands of different micronutrients, not just the essential vitamins and minerals. Indeed, eating a variety of them provides everything the body needs (for most people at least).
Our bodies evolved over millions of years eating primarily unprocessed whole foods. So they provide nutrients as nature intended and in a way that the body recognises.

How does processing impact the food, and us?

  • Most importantly, processing typically breaks the bonds between nutrients. And this can significantly impact the way the body processes them.
    • Breaking the bond between sugar and fibre, for instance, makes it harder for our bodies to deal with the sugar. They often struggle to cope. And this can lead to things like diabetes and obesity. See this post for further detail.
    • It also means that processed foods can be eaten far more quickly than whole foods.
      • Apparently fruit and veg smoothies are consumed ten times faster than whole fruit and veg for instance [14]. Whilst this is more convenient, it can cause havoc with blood sugar levels. And it can lead to people requiring further consumption relative to eating the equivalent whole food.
      • One study concluded that “drinking a meal causes confusion that may imply a risk of overconsumption“ [15]. Which is just one reason why you may want to rethink any use of meal replacement drinks! This is because the speed of consumption undermines our body’s natural appetite regulation.
      • And because they’re easier to eat, we burn fewer calories eating processed foods than whole foods. Indeed, even just chewing whole foods for longer than usual means you’re less likely to put weight on [16].
  • It often deliberately destroys or removes the fibre completely.
    • Given that fibre feeds our good bacteria, makes us feel full and detoxes the body, this can be very problematic. In fact, reduced fibre intake is linked with a wide variety of health problemsread this post to find out more. 
  • Micronutrients often aren’t preserved.
    • This is probably because a lot of them are bound to the fibre that processing destroys [1].
    • Indeed, micronutrients like polyphenols and other phytochemicals may actually be responsible for some of the health benefits associated with fibre [2]. And whole fruit and veg typically contain several thousand different ones.
  • Processing makes it much easier for the small intestine to absorb the food.
    • Whilst that might sound good, it means there’s less fuel left for the good bacteria in your large intestine. This can result in bad bacteria taking over, increasing your susceptibility to inflammatory diseases like colon cancer [17].

Are there some more specific examples?

  • Whilst apple slices reduce bad cholesterol, for instance, clear apple juice (no fibre) appears to increase it. And cloudy apple juice (with some of the extracted fibre added back in) sits between the two. It reduces bad cholesterol, but not as much as the whole slices do [3].
  • Raw and dried apples have more antioxidants than juice [4].
  • Whole fruits have generally been found to be better than juices for cognitive performance in the elderly [5].
  • High fibre bread had a pronounced positive effect on cognitive performance, but there was a negative association with white bread [5].
  • Brown rice has been found to reduce the risk of diabetes, but white rice increases it [6].
  • Whole grains have been found to reduce chronic disease risk, but refined ones may actually increase it [7].
“whilst whole grains have been found to reduce chronic disease risk, refined ones may actually increase it”
Put simply, our bodies aren’t designed for (or used to) dealing with the highly processed foods that are prevalent today.

What else do we need to know?

Sometimes food manufacturers try to add the nutrients destroyed or damaged by processing back in to the products. But that’s no substitute for eating the original whole foods instead. 
Adding some original fibre back into the processed product was clearly beneficial to an extent in the case of apple juice above.
But most products with added fibre use unrelated ingredients like chicory root fibre or inulin. This is great for showing a high fibre content (chicory root fibre can be as much as 85% fibre). But as a processed product it’s probably been stripped of other nutrients contained in the whole chicory root. It still has benefits and isn’t a bad ingredient, unless you suffer from IBS. But as noted in the previous post on fibre, it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for fibre from whole food.
Micronutrients can also be added back in of course, or taken separately as supplements. And you’ll regularly see highly processed products with added vitamins and minerals. These isolated nutrients aren’t as effective as whole foods though, as these examples show:
  • extracts concentrating individual components of cranberries fail to match the anticancer effects of the cranberry as a whole [8]
  • higher dietary intake of antioxidants (from whole foods) is associated with significantly lower lymphona risk, but antioxidant supplements don’t appear to work [9]
  • only food sources of antioxidants appear to be protectively associated with depression, and not supplements [10]
  • pilots who consumed the most dietary antioxidants suffered the least amount of DNA damage from cosmic rays, but supplements didn’t seem to help [11]
This goes back to the fact that whole foods contain thousands of different micronutrients, only a fraction of which have been studied.
And it’s the combination of them working together that protects us, not high doses of single antioxidants in supplements. Indeed, those pilots eating a mix of phytonutrients (rather than just lots of a specific one) had the lowest levels of DNA damage.
“it’s the combination of different micronutrients working together that protects us, not high doses of single antioxidants in supplements”
Turmeric is a particularly good example of how the focus on isolated nutrients often backfires. Curcumin is widely recognised as the active ingredient in it, so that’s what supplement companies isolate. But in fact it’s just one of many active ingredients [12]. And tests show that whole turmeric is a better anti-inflammatory than curcumin on its own [13]. In fact, the first of those two studies showed that turmeric is more effective when curcumin is removed from it!

What can we do about it?

As you can hopefully see, eating as much whole food as possible, and as little processed food as possible, has a whole host of benefits.
One quick way of assessing how processed a food product is likely to be is to look at the ratio of carbs to fibre. Experts advise looking for foods where the ratio is 5 to 1 or less. Don’t forget to make sure that it’s natural / whole food fibre where possible though, rather than coming from chicory root fibre for example!
That said, if the only way you’re going to consume a certain fruit or veg is if it’s in a juice or smoothie, it’s probably best to go ahead. Do try to drink them slowly though.
“eating as much whole food as possible, and as little processed food as possible, has a whole host of benefits”
A lot of the inspiration for this and some of our other posts came from reading The China Study. So it’s probably filling to sum the issue up with some quotes from it:
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is an infinitely complex process, and it is literally impossible to understand precisely how each chemical interacts with every other chemical.”
“The triumph of health lies not in the individual nutrients, but in the whole foods that contain those nutrients, orchestrating a wondrous symphony of health as they work in concert within our bodies.”
“Because nutrition operates as an infinitely complex biochemical system involving thousands of chemicals and thousands of effects on your health it makes little or no sense that isolated nutrients taken as supplements can substitute for whole foods.”
We’re not going to suggest that eating a vedge bar is as good for you as eating fresh or freshly cooked whole veg. But they’re a great option when that isn’t possible, or you fancy a more enticing flavour combination. They contain c50-70% whole dried veg (the equivalent of over 160g of fresh veg in some cases), are at least one of your five a day and high in natural, whole food fibre.
Because of all that, they have carb to fibre ratios of 3.7-4.7 to 1, compared to an average of over 9 for the most popular brands of date and nut bars and fruit leathers.
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[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1988.tb07838.x
[2] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf00043a017
[3] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233999795_Intake_of_whole_apples_or_clear_apple_juice_has_contrasting_effects_on_plasma_lipids_in_healthy_volunteers
[4] http://www.orac-info-portal.de/download/ORAC_Werte_ausgewaehlter_Lebensmittel.pdf
[5] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44675763_Cognitive_performance_among_the_elderly_in_relation_to_the_intake_of_plant_foods_The_Hordaland_Health_Study
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3024208/
[7] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/92/4/733/4597497
[8] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf0352778
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3306533/
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520090/
[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2762162/
[12] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/mnfr.201200838
[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3392043/
[14] https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/smoothies/
[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214

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