The weight-loss and general health community is quite full of woo. That said I think there is some truth to the often repeated idea within those communities that, given the choice, it is better to select whole foods over processed foods for your overall health and well-being. However, in my opinion, the reason often stated for why you should avoid processed foods is actually backwards from what is true. The point of this post is to just give my view on why it is better to select whole-foods but not for the reasons you typically hear.
Before I get into it I figure I should define how I am using these words as they are often used in very different ways in different posts and articles.
By "whole food" I mean food that is not broken apart into its constitutive parts. The only things you can be 100% sure are whole foods would be things like a piece of fruit or a vegetable or a piece of meat. Things that are mixtures of whole foods, like a salad with lettuce, nuts and chicken would count as well.
By "processed food" what I mean is taking a whole food and breaking it down to process it for one component, an example being processing corn to produce high-fructose corn syrup which is the sugar component of the corn.
So, when I see people online talking about how processed foods are "bad" and you should stick to whole foods they seem to love to point at the ingredients list as an example of what is "good" and what is "bad". They will show as an example lets say an oatmeal that lists as its ingredients "oats, apples, cinnamon" and say that is good because it has just three whole-ingredients while in comparison a similarly marketed product of oatmeal that has a list of 20 ingredients many with chemical-sounding names like calcium pantothenate is "bad" because it has a lot of extra and unnecessarily (in their opinion) ingredients. The implication being that whole foods are simple with few ingredients while processed foods are complex with many many ingredients. That the problem with processed foods therefore is that they have too much stuff, things that have long scary names that could be potentially dangerous and that you don't need. Honestly I think this is utterly missing the point of why whole-foods are potentially the better option.
The reason I believe whole-foods are better is not because they have less ingredients, but rather the opposite, because they have thousands and thousands MORE ingredients than a processed food. The point of processing is to take the one thing you want out of a food and purify it so it can be put into food products. You process corn to make high-fructose corn syrup which is almost entirely a single molecule, fructose, because that is the sweet component of corn and you want to sweeten things. A food product that has pieces of sweet corn will have thousands more ingredients that are part of what makes up "corn" compared to something sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. This is because corn, or any whole food, is biochemically very complex and has thousands of molecules in it to the point a full ingredients list would be impractical and impossible. So the issue with processed foods is not that they have too many ingredients, it is that they potentially have too few. They are extremely reductionist.
A product whose ingredients list is something like corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup, calcium panthothenate, nicinamide thiamine mononitrate etc etc etc 20 more ingredients is actually far less ingredients than a piece of corn would have, not more. If you eat only processed foods it would be much more likely that you were missing out on some subtle nutritional aspect that our bodies benefit from but wasn't one of the things that was intentionally added to the products you are consuming.
The problem isn't that nicinamide thiamine mononitrate is scary and dangerous, it isn't....the issue is that if you boil down everything into only the ingredients you want and exclude everything else then it is somewhat likely that that sort of reductionism will exclude things we actually do require in our diets because our requirements are more complex than just a few dozen ingredients.
That said I think the community at large treats processed foods like they are poison or something which I think is wrong-headed. There is nothing dangerous about processed foods, they won't "sabatoge" your health. For example if you have a salad with a mix of whole foods like fruits and nuts and you pour a bunch of high-fructose corn syrup on top of it you haven't "ruined" it, it still has nutritional value. The issue with processed foods is simply, in my opinion, that they lack some of the nuance and variety of vitamins and nutrition that can be found in whole foods. If you include whole foods in your diet you can also have processed foods...but if you eat only processed foods I feel you are likely short-changing yourself nutritionally.
Finally I think it is important to recognize that processed food-stuffs serve an important and vital role in our communities as well as globally and shouldn't be viewed as "bad". Not everyone has the luxury to be able to afford or even find the variety of whole foods one would need to have a well rounded diet and those people greatly benefit from cost-effective cheaper mass produced processed foods that provide some of the absolute essentials for a fraction of the cost. Protesting the existence of processed foods in general I feel is a very elitist and myopic view. Proccessed foods are good, we need them to be available and I would never mock them. I just think if you have the time and the money that it is a good idea to have some fruit, some vegetables and a salmon filet worked into your diet just to cover your nutritional bases...just recognize not everyone does and you don't need to be a prick about it.
Bottom line I agree whole foods are better that processed foods for health and nutrition, but I don't think it does us any favors to demonize processed foods...they aren't bad, they just aren't complete. Feel free to include processed foods in your diet, just try to keep some whole foods in there as well.
March 20, 2018 5:05PM
edited March 2018