Nutritionist Michele Chevalley Hedge explains to Body & Soul, the many health benefits of skipping processed food and eating closer to nature.
Wholefoods are foods that are closest to their natural state and that means they give us more nutrients than packaged or processed foods.
None of us are perfect and we live in the modern world, so obviously every meal and snack we have will not be made up of wholefoods. However, if we aim for them to make up 60 to 75 per cent of our diet it will go a long way towards preventing disease and slowing down ageing.
So what should we eat? Wholefoods include unprocessed fruit and vegetables; wholegrains (millet, brown rice, oats, rye, wholewheat, buckwheat, quinoa and cornmeal); beans and legumes (including lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans); and nuts and seeds. Wholefoods of animal origin include eggs, small whole fish, seafood (including crustaceans), poultry and red meat such as beef, lamb, pork and veal.
Eating foods that have not been processed ensures you consume the maximum amount of nutrients, in the correct proportions.
Wholefoods contain a wide variety of nutrients in one food. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids and fibre. Wholefoods are also rich in some substances that cannot be synthesised in the body and therefore have to be obtained through diet.
Consider the amino acid valine. Amino acids are the substances that make up the protein for every cell in our body. Our bodies use 22 amino acids.
Nine of these cannot be synthesised within our bodies and must be supplied through diet. Valine is one of these essential amino acids. It is needed for muscle metabolism and tissue repair. Wholefood sources include brown rice, beans, beef, mushrooms, peanuts and soybeans.
Many nutrients in food work together to ensure the healthy functioning of our bodies. Eating food in its natural state ensures we benefit from these synergies. The amino acid tryptophan, for example, is the precursor to the “happy” hormone serotonin, but it needs B vitamins in order for it to be converted into serotonin.
Wholefoods are also rich in antioxidants, which neutralise free radicals. An overload of free radicals has been linked to problems such as heart disease.
Pass on processed
Processed foods are often filled with chemicals and preservatives that give food flavour and a long shelf life. These chemicals can build up, causing our body’s systems to become sluggish and even toxic. Eating this way starves bodies of nutrients, which is why people who eat a lot of processed foods are always hungry.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of wholefoods versus their packaged counterparts.
- Instant oats vs traditional oats: Instant oats usually have the oat bran – the layer of the grain beneath the hull – removed. Many vitamins and much of the fibre found in oats are contained within the bran, so the processing removes many of its nutritional properties.
- Whole fruit and vegetables vs packaged juice: Most fruit and vegetable juice has been stripped of its fibre content. After it has been juiced, a fruit becomes a concentrated source of sugar and will elevate blood-sugar levels far more quickly than the whole fruit.
- For example, a 120-calorie apple contains 24 grams of sugar, while 120 calories of apple juice contains 30 grams of sugar. Juicers often also require the pulp and skin of the fruit to be removed, depriving you of flavonoids and antioxidants. A packaged juice will also often have additional sugar, as well as chemicals and preservatives.
- Canned or frozen fish vs fresh fish: Essential fatty acids in fish are often reduced in the processing or packaging process. Omega-3 fatty acids assist with immune, nervous system, cardiovascular and reproductive functions. They may also help alleviate depression.
Finding good food
How do you find wholefoods? It’s easy. At your local grocery store, shop in the fresh-food aisles, which are usually on the outside of the stores. The further you move into the centre of the stores, the more processed food you will find. You can also visit farmers’ markets or your local greengrocer or health-food store.
You don’t have to cut out processed food altogether. The key is to increase your intake of wholefoods, and instead of buying treats such as cakes or muffins, try making your own with wholefood ingredients such as wholemeal flour and fruit.