I am a big believer that in order to be healthy, a good general principle to use is to base the bulk of your diet on whole foods. I believe that a nutritious diet based on whole foods can not only make you feel good, it can make you look good, and relieve the pain associated with many conditions, especially ones I treat frequently (eg carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia). A lot of people believe this, and it is not really a controversial idea because generally speaking, in spite of variability in its application, eating whole foods works for most people.
But the term is vague, undoubtedly, not unlike organic, and I think deserves some clarification to help relieve confusion. One of the things that I hate to see is a useful concept or set of principles, like whole foods, suffer from a consequence I see quite often when ideas are not clearly defined, or there exists controversy regarding the idea for whatever reason (sometimes scientific, and sometimes personal).
That consequence is that the idea eventually gets ignored and/or rejected, not because of its specific merits or demerits, but rather because so much confusion and debate exists about various aspects of the concept (often within the circle of those who believe in the concept and use it!) that ideas, which may be controversial, never really get ‘hammered’ out.
To a great degree, this has happened with the concept of Paleo. The general concepts of Paleo are very helpful and usually effective (such as eating whole foods), but due its enormous variability in practical application (as seen, for instance, by the recurring ‘Is it Primal?’ section of Mark’s Daily Apple) along with some interpretations that are highly speculative (there is a tendency to rely on just-so stories), the specific merits and empirical results of applying Paleo in one’s daily life, are overshadowed by the general sense of confusion of what it actually is, was it actually how our ancestors ate, and can it actually be done in any ‘real-world’ real world sense.
Instead of using these confusions a source to find and express answers (which tend to be nuanced, in most cases, because we do live in a modern world, and the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ so to speak), it has become a charge against Paleo as a whole, no matter the result Paleo brings to people. Hence, Paleo is generally descibed as a fad, pseudo-science, quackery, and a passing fancy of an bored elite.
To be sure, those ‘true believers‘ within any field, including Paleo, do not generally help diffuse these charges with claims of magic bullets, highly speculative ‘scientific’ justifications (just-so stories), and charges of implied moral deficiency resulting from eating foods that are verboten. But the roots of that particular psychological disposition as it is manifested in Paleo circles is another discussion for another day. This is still a discussion on whole foods, and the fact remains that in order to have success in terms of controlling your blood sugar, losing weight, or whatever you particular goals you have set for your diet, you need to understand that not all whole foods are not the same.
By and large, most whole foods are fine, but some can wreak havoc on your diet in different ways, especially if blood sugar control through carbohydrate mitigation is an important aspect of your diet for either weight control or metabolic control. Indeed, some whole foods can be very bad for you in this regard. That being said, will a whole food ever be as bad a processed food? I don’t think so, but I am always amazed at how sugar there is an reportedly ‘healthy’ smoothie.
WHAT IS A WHOLE FOOD?
This is what Wikipedia defines as a whole food: Whole foods are foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, before being consumed. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients, such as salt, carbohydrates, or fat.
This is what Merriam-Webster defines as a whole food: a natural food and especially an unprocessed one (as a vegetable or fruit). It’s interesting that the first known use of this word is 1970, right around the whole organic movement, which coincides with the counterculture movement that focused on consumption of grains and vegetables over meat and animal products because of questions of sustainability of animals products and the fear of famine due to a population crisis.
Not a real clear definition, but I kind of get it.
A lot of people talk about whole foods, though. Micheal Pollan discussed in quite a bit in his book, In Defense of Food. But still, the definition is both intuitively clear and certain and likewise, somewhat vague when you think about the specifics.
In fact, the more I delve into it, discussing and identifying the true nature of whole foods is a little bit like discussing the idea of time–a concept we all understand in our own way, but find it hard to explain to others definitively.
I guess my best definition of what is meant by whole foods is foods that spoil quickly, don’t have labels, have short shelf lives, and generally, kids hate them and fight quite a bit with you to eat them at the dinner table. (You know what I am talking about if you have kids!) Basically, unprocessed foods that don’t come from a big company like Nabisco, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Nabisco, etc.
But although I think that, on the whole (no pun intended), whole foods are a good thing to eat, a lot of whole foods are not good to eat, especially in the context of blood sugar control, which is usually most important for diabetics or those at risk of developing diabetes. This necessarily includes a great subset of the population, so ultimately, there is a bit of nuance and skill you should have in choosing them based on your own metabolism and nutritional requirements.
And this is really the purpose behind this blogpost in the first place!
A LIST OF 5 EXAMPLES:
Whole food, right? No doubt, but these guys, although they are quite nice to eat, have a funny little quality about them that is not great for diabetics if they look like this:
Ripeness plays a big role in how bananas affect your blood sugar. In my experience, having a whole banana is tough for many diabetics, and having a ripe one is near impossible because they really raise your blood sugar. They are are good food to avoid for most diabetics, ripe or not. Whole food or not…
Potatoes are whole foods, and for the most part, they can be a healthy addition to your diet–but in my opinion, only occasionally, and context matters crucially here (ie how much you eat, how active you are, how the potatoes are prepared, and especially this one: ARE YOU DIABETIC OR PRE-DIABETIC? etc.) If you are trying to lose weight or have blood sugar problems, then potatoes can be tricky to manage in your diet. For many people, it is often best to just avoid them. That being said, other people disagree, and this has become a bit of a controversial topic on the blogosphere.
Some conclude that potatoes are perfectly fine to include into your diet, and can be eaten ad libitum. I’ll accept there are other ways that work for other people (I eat potatoes too, and I like them), but I tend to think that this dependent on many factors and can’t be accepted categorically. How a person tolerates potatoes depends on many factors such as if you are obese, if you have lost a lot of weight, diabetes, how many potatoes do you eat, what kind, how often, and your diet as a whole (pun intended) to see where potatoes fit in contextually. In short, what is your meal plan?
I know many people might disagree with this statement, and have had success integrating potatoes in their diet (I know people have done an all potato diet and have done well), but I suspect that this is done with extreme care and attention to detail. That is, how much and how often are tightly controlled so they don’t end up eating eat a lot.
I think it is very easy to overeat potatoes when they are prepared in certain ways, despite what people say, particularly when they are mashed with butter and salt or french fried. You can easily eat way more than you think, especially if you don’t use a scale, which I suspect that many people who have integrated potatoes as a regular part of their diet over the long term are doing.
I have respect for the spud though, no doubt. It is a powerful little thing, the tuber is. It is a whole food that you should take the care to see if it really works for you when you are attempting to include it as a regular part of your diet. If it does, then great, and please then proceed to share your results!
Dried foods like figs, dates, and raisins are extremely high in sugar. Though they are whole foods, have a lot of nutrients, and a lot of fiber. They are delicious, no doubt, but you would be shocked at how much sugar they have. Vegans are big fans of the Medjool dates in particular from what I have seen, and eat those quite frequently, which is probably okay since they are not eating much of anything else (kind of like a potato diet with dates, eh?) But the reality is that you can eat a few small serving of figs, and find out that you have just consumed more sugar than a can of Coke (about 40 carbs!). Though it is clear which is better, and if you have to satisfy your sweet tooth, well then, go for figs over Coke, but there are other choices that are probably better. My favorite is peanut butter/almond butter and an apple, but yours might be different.
This one is kind of a trick. Labeling junk food, especially cereal, as whole grain makes people think these foods are somehow healthy. But they’re not, and you know that.
Here is what a real whole grain looks like:
This is buckwheat, and to eat it, you have to boil it a long time and season it. Otherwise, it tastes kind of bland and unappetizing–sort of like potatoes, really. Of all the grains available to eat, buckwheat is one of the best, I think, to include in your diet, as it has a low Glycemic Index, and as a result, doesn’t shoot your blood sugar up like crazy. Buckwheat kernels also have a lot of protein, and they make for great pancakes you can have with your kids on Saturday. I love them, personally, but once again, they are relatively high in carbs, and not all people can tolerate them. And if you have 3 bowls of them, then you will get still get fat, no matter whole healthy and how whole they are.
Nuts are great food to include in any diet, but eating a lot of them is not always a good idea. First of all, if you get nuts in a can be careful that they are prepared with a ton of seed oils and flavorings like MSG. This makes an otherwise very healthy food, very unhealthy. You will tend overeat nuts that are prepared this way. That being said, I think its important to be cognizant on how many nuts you serve yourself even if they are unprocessed, as people tend to overeat them anyway! I tend to measure a serving of nuts out, have them with a glass of water or something, and wait 15-20 minutes before I consider having another serving. The blunt fact is that calories DO MATTER (Your body is smart and wants to store them if it can!), and there are certain foods that you can stuff your piehole with, even though they are ‘healthy and whole’, before satiety kicks in. Nuts seem to be one of these foods, and to have success dieting, it is a good idea to measure out nuts and wait a little bit before seconds. Same goes for dairy, in my experience. You may not gain a ton of weight and go on crazy binges as if you were eating sugar, but you might gain a food pounds or find it hard to lose the weight you want eating a lot of nuts. So keep this in mind while you are enjoying some macadamia nuts or cashews.
Ultimately, you have to use your brain when you are eating whole foods, and not fall into the trap that so many people do where they think a food is safe and then engorge themselves on it. You may be able to do this with some whole foods, without any repercussion, however, you can’t do this will all whole foods! Everyone is a little different, and you will have to keep this in mind when finding out what is really right for you! That being said, whole foods are nutrient dense and delicious. It makes no sense to categorically exclude them from your diet if you like them. It just takes a little work and effort to try an find the method that works for you.
I hope this list helps, and you will share with me some of the whole foods that have/have not worked for you!