Natural? Processed? What does it all mean? In Search of the Ideal Human Diet.

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I am a believer in eating whole, fresh, organically grown plant-foods. But in this world where food can come from any part of the globe and labels on food can suggest all kinds of characteristics (organic, low fat, no fat, low sodium, low carb, natural, etc.) knowing what’s healthy can be really confusing. Add on top of that, information that is put out in conference presentations and blogs by people who are respected when it comes to the best knowledge in nutrition. Some information contradicts other information and we can start to feel panicky. It can be so overwhelming, some just give up, and eat whatever seems appealing in the moment.

I follow a lot of nutrition experts. I have my own biases of course, my own favorite experts, and those who make me roll my eyes in disbelief. There are a few things that are certain. We simply do not know what the ideal diet is for humans, in order to achieve maximum longevity and wellness. We do know that our diets need plant foods, and lots of them. Yes, we are capable of consuming the flesh and bodily fluids of other animals. Yet we know that eating too many animal products dramatically increases the risk of chronic disease. In general, people can do very well on a small amount of animal food or with none at all, as long as the bulk of the diet consists of whole or minimally processed fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. I personally prefer and promote the latter, a vegan diet, not only for health, but for ethical and environmental reasons as well.

Now that more people are focusing on plant foods we are hearing about the wide range of diets available with different experts stating that their diet is best. What’s a wellness-craving human to do?

If you decide to be vegan, is there an ideal vegan diet? You can choose the macrobiotic vegan diet, based on primarily cooked foods of whole grains, beans, seaweed, miso soup, tofu and tempeh. Dr. John McDougall promotes a starch-based vegan diet. Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live diet focuses on leafy greens and other nutrient dense foods. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s diet is very low in fat, and oils are to be avoided. There are the raw food enthusiasts and even in this community there is no one clear direction. The Anne Wigmore Institute stresses the important of sprouts, Rejuvelac and wheat juice. The Gerson Institute will tell you to stay away from sprouts and stress the importance of juicing. The fruitarians will tell you to only eat what naturally falls to the ground. Some popular raw foodists, like Juliano, Cherie Soria and Ani Phyo are happily creating new recipes and foods all the time, using blenders, food processors and dehydrators. And does your food really have to be organic? Or locally grown?

Now let’s add in the discussion, the words natural and processed. What do these things mean? When you see “natural” on a food label, it means absolutely nothing. There are no laws that regulate the use of this word. And studies have shown that some people will buy foods that say “natural” because they think it means something – that’s why you see the word on product labels.

Lots of people talk about avoiding processed foods. What comes to mind for most people are foods made from white flour and sugar, potato chips, candy or foods from fast food restaurants. Once a food is harvested, anything that is done to it before it is consumed is processing. Cooking, blending, juicing, dehydrating, milling, irradiating, pasteurizing, and freezing are all examples of processing. Unless you are living on fresh berries and green leaves, most of us eat a diet of processed food. Whether food is minimally processed or highly processed, it’s the degree of processing that’s important.

Ideally, we eat should be a mix of whole, raw and minimally processed foods. Stove top cooking vegetables in water for soup or for steaming; blending fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds using food processors or blenders; buying frozen fruits and vegetables which have been frozen quickly after being harvested; dehydrating fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds at low temperatures; and juice extraction of fruits and vegetables are all examples of minimal processing. Each of these actions alters the food. Cooking can destroy some nutrients as well as making others more absorbable. Dehydrating can make food portable without the need for refrigeration, while concentrating flavors and making some foods more fun to eat. At the same time dehydrating takes the water out of foods, water that we need to thrive, as well as making us feel full, which helps us from eating too many calories. Blending can help break down cell walls. This can make some nutrients more easily absorbed, like with dark green leafy vegetables for example. But some nutritionists will tell you that for diabetics or those trying to lose weight, smoothies might not be the best choice because the sugar will be absorbed too quickly and the fiber is less effective. Juicing, especially of dark green vegetables enables us to eat more of these foods than if we ate them with the fiber. While fiber is important, (and we get plenty from eating plant foods) juicing greens can provide us with more nutrients. Juicing greens with some sweet foods, like fruits or starchy vegetables like carrots can make the bitter green drink more palatable while adding additional nutrition. However fruits and starchy vegetables when juiced, can give us a lot of sugar.

More often than not the more foods are processed the unhealthier they become. Here are a couple of simple examples. Whole fruits are excellent. Blended fruits, dried fruits and juiced fruits do not fill us up as quickly, so we might eat more in these forms and get more sugar than desired. We typically eat grains in some kind of processed form. Whole grains, like brown rice, millet and quinoa are minimally processed when cooked with water until soft. When milled into flour, grains lose fiber and nutrients, the sugars and starches are absorbed much more quickly. Minimally processed soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame and miso can be important components of a healthy diet. Highly processed soy foods, like isolated soy protein or soy protein isolate that are found in many of the meat analogs, veggie burgers, veggie deli meats are not as healthy. Raw nuts and seeds are superior to those that have been dry roasted, dry roasted nuts and seeds are better than having been salted and cooked in oil. However, flax seeds which are so nutritious and loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, must be ground before eating. If you ate the seeds whole they would most likely leave your body the way they entered, intact and undigested! Here is an example of where minimally processing is beneficial.

Highly processed foods may contain many ingredients that are not health promoting and may actually increase the risk of chronic disease. Many of these ingredients are added to make food more flavorful or appear and taste fresh; increase shelf life; act as a filler or a replacement for a higher-priced quality item, to reduce cost. Preservatives, artificial color, additives and sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, sugar and salt are among the long list of ingredients we do not need and should not want in our food.

Organic plant foods are superior to the industrial (sometime called “conventional”) counterparts in part because the “processing” of industrial foods occurs at the seed level, a sort of processing during the planting stage. Genetically modified plants have been altered at the DNA level, to resist toxic herbicides sprayed on them, to manufacture their own pesticides or to become resistant to viruses. Herbicides and pesticides are used to kill viruses and insects that destroy the crops. Petrochemical fertilizers provide select nutrients to the soil that allow plants to appear strong while polluting water and streams, along with the herbicides and pesticides, killing much of the wildlife in its way. Organic farming, unfortunately, does not mean one type of farming. It does mean that no herbicides or pesticides will be used. The USDA has their list of regulations to conform to for food to be labeled organic. Many of the giant agribusinesses are aware of the growth in the organic market and want a piece of it. While this can be a good thing, it is not unlikely that they will cut as many corners as possible to meet the organic certification requirements while maximizing profits. There are farmers who grow crops with a higher standard than USDA certified organic, some are certified and some, due to costs and logistics, are not. These farmers use the land more sustainably, rotating crops and resting fields for a season in order to keep the soil alive and healthy. Some use veganic techniques, not using animal manure for fertilizer or other animal products.

Ideally, our produce should not only be organic but be locally sourced and consumed just after it is harvest. This is near impossible in today’s world unless you are growing your own food. We do the best we can, buying from farmer’s markets, from CSA’s (community supported agriculture) and other quality distributors we trust when possible.

I eat a vegan diet of organic, minimally processed foods. I have a freshly extracted green juice every day made from kale or other dark green vegetables along with other ingredients such as lemon, ginger, celery, cucumber. I eat a wide variety of foods, including big salads, blended salads, cooked greens, soups, stir fry dishes, beans, oatmeal, baked goods. I use a simple blender and a food processor regularly. I enjoy the occasional treats, cakes, cookies, pies, made with minimally processed, organic ingredients. I sprout a variety of beans and seeds and grow what I can on my small terrace in New York City. I believe we can all thrive on plant foods. Some people that are challenged with weight gain may need to eat less grains and more beans and greens. Some who are extremely health-challenged may do best eating as many dark green vegetables as they can, raw, steamed, blended and juiced, along with mushrooms, onions and berries to super-charge the immune system. Your caloric needs may differ based on your size, age, activities and lifestyle. And plant foods fill those needs best.

At Responsible Eating And Living, we try to be a voice of reason, helping you sort through the overwhelming abundance of information regarding health and wellness. With recipes, podcasts, videos and articles, we are here for you, so that we can all make this world a better place.

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  7 comments for “Natural? Processed? What does it all mean? In Search of the Ideal Human Diet.

  1. February 3, 2012 at 5:27 am

    Timely. I was just lamenting today all the conflicting info even within vegan and raw. I’d say Dr. Fuhrman’s recommendations are pretty different from Dr. Graham’s. After getting advice on mini-meals to lose weight form two sources, today I saw info on a session where Dr. Rita Marie says that’s bad for your health.

    Sounds like you’ve got an approach that works for you, Caryn (okay, it was so weird to just type our same name ;-) . I personally feel Dr. Graham has the most compelling argument but find 80-10-10 to be an evolving process. I enjoyed your comments on smoothies vs. whole foods re:calorie intake.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  2. Joyce D
    February 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Caryn, Great article. Provides a level-headed, simplified perspective to healthful eating. We’re in alignment.
    One comment: with regard to ‘organic’ – in paragraph 10 you state that organic means “that no herbicides or pesticides will be used.” Technically, it means that no restricted synthetic pesticides or fertilzers will be used. The USDA has a rather long list of “allowable” substances. These can be found through – http://www.ams.usda.gov . In the mean time, organic (especially local organic) is the best way to go. Thanks and keep up the great work!!

    • Carol
      July 29, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      Joyce makes an important point. USDA organic isn’t nearly as clean and healthy as old-time organic as practiced by Oregon Tilth and the like. I’m confident that recent research showing little health difference between USDA organic and conventional reached the conclusions it did for that very reason.

  3. Paula Richer
    February 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Hi Caryn, thanks for the great article. You’re right – “mind boggling” doesn’t even begin to cover it for me, but all the info you’ve provided here helps quite a bit. It’s especially disconcerting when the experts I respect so much (many of them you mention here) disagree. So I stick to the basics! As fresh as possible, organic when possible, and tasty is always a must. And it’s good to know there are people like you, doing the research, and offering your findings to us. Looking forward to your next communication. All my best!

  4. December 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Caryn,
    Over the last 4 days I’ve read Dee McCaffrey’s book The Science of Skinny cover to cover. Having altered my diet over the last decade to eat more healthily, I nonetheless continued to feel deprived of those things (sugar, fast food when I’m in a hurry, etc.)I knew I should not be eating. Dee’s book acknowledged my feelings and then went directly to my brain, informing me re precisely how eating processed “foods” harms my body, dispelling numerous myths the food industries promote, and going beyond what not to eat to what TO eat to be healthy along with some great recipes that made my mouth water just reading them. I needed the science based facts to counter my feelings of deprivation and Dee’s book had them. The experience for me is akin to seeing “Food Inc.” Truly a gift. I wonder if you’ve seen her book?

    • realworldwide
      December 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Hi Cate, I have not read this book. Thank you for the recommendation, I will check it out. For many, we need to hear the same information repeatedly, and in different forms, to ultimately change our dietary habits and make peace with our food. A book, movie or article will come along and all at once we “get it” where it’s actually been a long, ongoing learning process. Then, there are some who make change instantly and stick with it without every thinking twice. For me, it was a process of reminding myself where foods that I craved came from and how they weren’t good, either bad for health, bad for environment or cruel to animals. Over time, those foods lost their appeal. I love my food and never feel deprived. My work includes helping those who want the information, to enjoy eating healthy plant foods. – Caryn

  5. carla
    April 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I recently have been diagnosed with cancer. I am 50 and one of the ‘stupid/blind/people’ turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the truth of what goes into the food we buy and eat as well as feed to our children and loved ones. For me, this is all a new awareness. I have never paid attention but I can tell you I lived on fast food for the past ten years or so, have always been a huge meat eater , didnt know what GMO stood for and didnt believe it. Within three weeks of diagnosis (actually I started before diagnosis but with suspicion) I have changed everything . My 30 year old daughter is very strongly opinionated about food/health but I never paid attention. Suddenly its all very REAL. Im becoming quickly obsessed with reading everything I can, weeding through things and craving truth and solution. At first I started with Candida knowing that IM full of it and began a detox diet along with suppliments. Im still doing that. Meanwhile I have to decide what to do as far as treatment goes and the more I read about alternative diet cures and also the dangers of chemo and stem cell transplant (bone marrow) it seems I should go with a raw foods diet , at least a macrobiotic diet and fight this thing with diet and possibly oxygen therapy. At any rate I loved this article because its simple and understandable for people like me who are new to this. Im doing this on my own along with my daughter as I have no insurance nor am I in a community that is very advanced for this knowledge being used for treatments of disease such as cancer. Money is very very limited so buying everything I need is scary. Im intending this to be my life though so as I go along I will buy in bulk when I can and just do the best as I learn more about what is truly healthy, what i like, how to substitute animal proteins with vegetable proteins. I know there has to be a way. so much appreciation on my part …thanks

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