As we mature, there are few things more important than a healthy diet. But dietary advice is a moving target. Earlier this year, the U.S. government reversed yet another major recommendation. It now states cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern” after decades of warning us it was a major contributor to heart disease.
Many of my patients are giving up on nutritional advice altogether, just going with what tastes good or the “everything in moderation” theory. If the “experts” are consistently wrong, who really knows what is a healthy diet?
There are basic wellness-based principles of nutrition I was taught in chiropractic school more than 30 years ago and provide a much better understanding of the topic. A diet based on these principles avoids the constantly shifting advice of “first it’s good for you, then it isn’t.”
The first principle of nutrition is simple: Foods are healthiest in their natural state. Put another way, the more you process a food, the more you reduce its nutritional value. If a food is highly processed, it will become harmful. Think of sugar, which is vital to our bodies in its natural form and is present in many foods. But when it is processed and highly purified, it becomes toxic, leading to diabetes, obesity and many other health problems.
Remember hydrogenated fats? The medical profession used to recommend them as a “heart healthy” fat. But they are made under unnatural conditions including exposure to chemicals, high heat and pressure. In my nutrition classes in chiropractic school, we were advised to avoid these fats, based on the principle that the processing likely makes them unhealthy. That turned out to be good advice; studies done years later showed hydrogenated fats to be unhealthy, even a major contributor to heart disease. The medical profession had to reverse their recommendation and is now pushing for these fats to be illegal.
This is the difference between the “reductionist” approach to nutrition, used by modern medical science and the holistic approach favored by wellness practitioners. The reductionist approach sees food as a relatively simple mix of fuel — sugar and carbs — and isolated nutrients. Any nutritional value lost in the processing of a food can be added back in later in the form of vitamins — highly processed versions of the nutrients made in a factory.
The holistic approach to nutrition it is based on the idea that while foods do have different health-promoting nutrients — the vitamin C in citrus fruits prevents scurvy; liver is rich in iron, to build up blood; and fish tend to be rich in healthy fats — if you try to isolate these nutrients too much, the value is lost. There is more value in an intact, whole food than in any highly refined, concentrated vitamin pill. The healthiest foods are those that retain their nutrients, which means minimal cooking, freezing and additions such as flavorings and preservatives. This is why I recommend avoiding low-fat foods — they are a processed food, with a lot less nutritional value than the original, intact versions.
Even the most basic processing can change foods dramatically. Consider that breakfast favorite, a glass of orange juice. A large glass of orange juice could have up to 50 grams of sugar. Compare that to eating an orange, which has about 12 grams. How many oranges would you eat for breakfast? Typically not more than one. So the simple act of juicing changes the nutrient balance of your breakfast tremendously — there is much less fiber and a lot more sugar. And if the juice is frozen and reconstituted, there is so little vitamin C left they add more back in to restore the levels. You are much better off to stick to the unprocessed whole orange than a glass of fresh squeezed juice, let alone the frozen stuff.
This does not mean you have to eat everything raw and unprocessed. But I agree with the idea that at least some food from every meal should be. I also recommend choosing the less processed versions of your common foods. Fresh vegetables will deliver more nutrition than frozen; canned veggies have even less value. Vegetable juices have the least — they are highly processed. Choose whole fruit over fruit juices. And avoid the “TV dinners” — you are much better off buying the individual ingredients and making your own meal.
Next week we will cover another wellness-based nutritional principle — organic and natural foods versus factory-farmed or GMO foods.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.