Whole food heaven (nature knows best)

What’s a whole food? It’s basically a product in its natural form, but that’s edible / palatable. So you don’t need to eat the pips of an apple, for instance, or the outer leaves of an artichoke.

The most important thing is that the product retains its nutrients in their natural form – the molecular structure hasn’t been changed, and 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.

We’ve touched upon the importance of whole foods in previous blogs, as they typically have more fibre than processed products.

Fibre’s great as it feeds our gut bacteria, makes us feel full (reducing the urge to eat more than necessary), and detoxes the body. It also slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream (when they’re bound together), helping to prevent diabetes and obesity.

There’s more to whole foods than just fibre though, as we explore here.

Before we get into too much detail, it’s worth remembering that our digestive systems have developed over millions of years. And for the vast majority of that time, we only ate unprocessed whole foods. So our bodies are designed to effectively process whole foods. They’re not designed for (or used to) dealing with the highly refined ones that are far more prevalent today.

our digestive systems have developed over millions of years

Whole foods typically contain a mix of carbs, fats, proteins and fibre (plus lots of micronutrients). Eating a variety of whole foods provides everything the body needs (for most people at least). Processed products are typically less well balanced, however.

More importantly, whereas the nutrients are all bound together in whole foods, that’s not the case with processed ones. Whole foods provide nutrients as nature intended and in a way that the body recognises. But processed ones effectively strip the nutrients out of whole foods and then try to reassemble them (in a way that the body may not recognise and isn’t used to dealing with).

Macronutrients like carbs and protein are often preserved during the processing, albeit the bonds between them are often broken. But micronutrients often aren’t preserved, 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.

It’s no surprise then that whilst apple slices reduce bad cholesterol, 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 also have more antioxidants than juice [4]. And whole fruits have generally been found to be better than juices for cognitive performance in the elderly [5].

The last study also found that whereas high fibre bread had a pronounced positive effect on cognitive performance, there was a negative association with white bread. Similarly, brown rice has been found to reduce the risk of diabetes, but white rice increases it [6]. And whilst whole grains have been found to reduce chronic disease risk, refined ones may actually increase it [7].

whilst whole grains have been found to reduce chronic disease risk, refined ones may actually increase it

Adding some original fibre back into the processed product was clearly beneficial to an extent in the case of apples. 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 is c60-70% 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 blog, it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for fibre from whole food.

Micronutrients can also be added back in of course, or be 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 basically 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!

Furthermore, by breaking the bonds between nutrients, processed foods can typically 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 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].

Processing food too much also makes it much easier for the small intestine to absorb. Whilst that might sound good, it means there’s less fuel left for the good bacteria in your large intestine. This can result in dysbiosis, where bad bacteria take over and increase your susceptibility to inflammatory diseases like colon cancer [17].

So 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. 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 blogs 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 food 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. They’re also high in several vitamins and minerals and a good source of several others.

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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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