In my first post I suggested three broad categories that we can put dietary information into to help us sort out the good, the bad and the useful. In this post I am going to begin to explore the first category, or what I call “Universal Dietary Principles”. These are principles that apply regardless of what specific foods we may be emphasizing or avoiding in our diets. They are simple, broad concepts that apply to all of us because they meet universal human biological needs. Because of this they have a powerful ability to improve our health if we apply them in our lives.
The first, and probably most important principle is to eat primarily fresh, whole, unprocessed foods. We all know the term “whole foods” and that it is probably a good idea to eat them, but what are they exactly, and why should we be choosing them instead of all that yummy other stuff?
Foods are complex and the ways that our bodies interact with them to create health are complex. I often marvel at the fact that any given food, a carrot, a piece of broccoli or a grain of brown rice has hundreds, if not well over a thousand individual chemical compounds in it. I’m not talking about chemical additives or pesticides here (although they are often present) but the naturally occurring chemical constituents of the plant or animal that are present in the food when it shows up on our plate. When we combine a number of foods and spices into a meal we are talking about thousands of chemical compounds that we are taking in at a single time!
Now at this point in time, scientists have identified only about 50 specific chemical compounds that we get from foods that are considered to be essential for life. These include some of the building blocks of protein (amino acids), vitamins, some minerals, essential fatty acids and a few other things. The truth is, however, that if you were to live on foods that only contained those 50 or so ingredients your health would decline over time suggesting that we actually need more than that to maintain optimal health. Sadly, most Americans who are eating a “standard American diet” are not even getting the minimum requirements of some of these 50 or so recognized nutrients.
There are, however, many other “non-essential” compounds within foods that have important recognized health benefits. While a mouse in a laboratory may not show signs of illness in the short run if you withhold one of these constituents, when our diets are deficient in a whole range of these constituents over time, our health clearly suffers. This is more than evident if you look at the relationship between the way we eat as a nation and the soaring rates of chronic illnesses from which we suffer.
Not only do unprocessed foods usually contain significantly higher levels of known essential nutrients than processed foods, but they also contain hundreds of health promoting compounds that are currently not considered essential and that are largely missing from processed foods. Many of these compounds have recognized health benefits such as anticancer properties (lycopene from tomatoes, EGCG from green tea and the fiber in fruits and vegetables to name a few), protection from Alzheimer’s disease (curcumin from the herb turmeric, medium chain triglycerides from coconut), help balance hormones (DIM from broccoli and cabbage) or eliminate toxins such as pesticides (limonene from citrus, dill and caraway seeds). And, while nutritional supplements are certainly useful at times, there is no way to replace all the beneficial ingredients in whole, unrefined foods with supplements, partly because we have yet to discover all of the health promoting compounds that foods undoubtedly contain!
There are many ways in which foods are processed and virtually all of them reduce the amount of health supporting nutrients. For example, turning whole grains into “white flour” removes vitamins, oils and fiber and makes the remaining oils more vulnerable to rancidity which makes them harmful to health. Processing food usually exposes the constituents of food to heat, light, oxygen and sometimes pressure, all of which can damage or destroy healthful nutrients. Furthermore, processing foods is often done to make them more “stable” on the shelves of warehouses and supermarkets. Foods sitting on shelves are losing more and more nutrients over time.
A few other points to consider. All government recommendations regarding nutrients in foods are based on avoiding specific deficiency diseases such as scurvy and beriberi, not on promoting optimal health. In fact, governmental dietary recommendations are not even aimed at reducing the risk of the most prevalent diseases of our society: cancer and heart disease. Secondly, all societies from around the world that have enjoyed unusual longevity and extremely low rates of chronic disease have eaten diets of whole, unprocessed foods. Lastly, when people from other cultures who eat more traditional, whole food diets and have lower disease rates immigrate to the US and take on our diet and lifestyle, their disease rates virtually always increase to match ours. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
So, if you are seeking a high level of health or seeking to restore your health from chronic disease , you can see why it’s critical to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Our bodies need hundreds of important constituents in foods, not just a few.
I like to tell my patients to “eat more foods that look like something nature made”. You know without blinking that a seed, a nut or a leaf of lettuce were made by nature. If you grind that seed into a flour or powder it no longer looks like something nature made. Similarly a grain of white rice looks less like something nature made than a grain of whole grain brown rice. Try to opt for whole grains over products made from flours, whole, raw nuts and seeds over roasted and salted ones, fresh fruits and vegetables over canned or frozen and fresh meats over packaged and preserved.
Do Cheetos or Mountain Dew look anything at all like something nature made? They look more like something found at a chemical spill! (Sorry if you like Cheetos and Mountain Dew). I’m sure you get the idea.
To continue: Universal Diet Principle No. 2