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Make healthy swaps
The most important thing to state right from the start is that health is measured as part of a spectrum. Ultra-processed, nutrient-poor, calorie-dense junk foods are at the beginning of the spectrum. At the other end of the health spectrum, we find unrefined, unprocessed, nutrient dense and calorie poor foods. And then we have everything in between!
The health power of a food is maximal when it is nutrient dense, unprocessed and calorie poor. Nutrient content can be measured with the ORAC score which measures antioxidant capacity, as well as the ANDI score, which measures nutrient density, meaning the nutrient content per calorie of food. Calorie density, the calories per volume of food is also an important health marker to account for. But don't be too afraid of calorie density because foods like nuts and seeds, that are extremely healthy and nutrient dense, are also calorie dense. Thus, overeating these foods could theoretically increase weight gain, although this has not been shown in studies. Contrary to logical thinking, studies on nuts seem to show the opposite effect, weight loss, and many different hypotheses have been put forth to explain this finding.
So when someone asks "Is ham healthy?", or "Is the beyond meat burger healthy?", the answer would be: "compared to what?" All foods end up somewhere on the spectrum of health, and nutrients, preservatives and calories will determine where. So compared to a beef burger, beyond meat is healthier. But compared to an unprocessed black bean burger made at home with unprocessed ingredients, it would be less healthy.
Choose minimally processed foods
In the beginning, food processing was thought to be scientific, therefore better. Studies now show that eating processed foods shorten life expectancy. These foods are also easier to digest, meaning that our bodies burn less calories to digest them. It's estimated that it takes 50% the amount of calories to digest highly processed forms of foods compared to unprocessed ones. Food processing is also on a spectrum. It can be defined as removing things from food to improve shelf life, adding things to preserve taste, or to fortify, etc. Food processing can be defined as washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or any process that alters food from its natural state. Obviously, all processing isn't created equal, and all forms of food processing aren't bad. So theoretically, grinding chickpeas into a powder is a form of food processing that doesn't alter nutrient content, but does affect nutrient absorption. Powdered forms of food need less digesting and are absorbed more proximally in the digestive track, whereas whole foods, like whole chickpeas, are absorbed more distally in the digestive track, providing more food for the bacteria of our colon, which in return produced healthy by-products that are then reabsorbed into our bloodstream. Food processing can be as simple as putting food in a blender, or as complicated as organic chemistry, where foods, like cheez whiz, contains 27 ingredients, none of them being actual cheese.
So when looking for minimally processed foods, consider whole foods that grow in the ground, and that don't come with an ingredient list. The next step would be a very short ingredient list with names you recognize, not difficult to pronounce chemicals. For example, staple foods like white rice is a processed food, with the fiber having been stripped away to increase shelf stability. Brown rice would be the unprocessed version. Oatmeal is super healthy, and I eat it almost everyday, but all forms of oatmeal are processed foods, even steel cut and sprouted. The processing is minimal, although the level of processing does alter nutrient absorption. For example, the least processed steel cut variety is digested and absorbed much further down the digestive tract, feeding different types of bugs than the more processed instant-oats that are absorbed at the beginning of the digestive tract. But don't get too hard on yourself. Although the minimally processed steel-cut oats are the holy grail of minimally processed oats, instant-oats are a major improvement from an eggs and bacon breakfast, or from Lucky Charms cereal.
I assume you're getting the point. Food processing isn't all bad if it's minimal and if it's processing healthy foods into finer textures. But if it's chemical-laden foods, with high-fructose corn syrup and zero nutrition, that's food processing on another level. And plant-based or vegan isn't synonymous with health, as Oreo cookies are both vegan and plant-based, but are highly processed. The ultimate goal is to slowly move along the processed food spectrum. My transition started with instant-oats and with time I graduated to whole sprouted oats. Go slow, health takes time as does lifelong change.
Here are some of my processed food take-aways:
Eat more foods that grow from the ground.
Eat more foods that have no ingredients list, if it does, the shorter the better and the more recognizable the ingredients the better.
Recognize that processing is a spectrum, and less is more.
Not all processing is bad.
Choose healthier varieties of foods you already enjoy, like brown rice instead of white. Quinoa or chickpea pasta instead of white flour pastas. Whole grain bread instead of white bread.
Although canned foods are a form of processing, canned beans, chickpeas or lentils are super healthy.
In the grocery tour, stick to the perimeter where produce and organics tend to be, contrary to the middle aisles where the most-processed foods are.
Nutrient density and diversity
Nutrient density is a term used to describe the amount of beneficial nutrients in food in proportion to its energy content or weight. It is widely accepted that optimal long term health is achieved when someone lives in a mild calorie deficit accompanied by a nutrient dense diet. These patients have lower markers for systemic inflammation (as measured by C-Reactive Protein), lower HbA1C (blood glucose/sugar average), lower cholesterol values and better markers of health in general. Thus, a simple equation illustrating this is H=N/C, meaning Health is correlated to life in a nutrient dense and mild calorie deficient environment. Nutrient scoring systems are popular, and one in particular has simplified the process greatly. The ANDI score takes into account 34 important nutritional parameters to establish a score between 1-1000, including a food's ORAC score, which measures its antioxidant capacity. The perfect score of 1000 is given to the most nutrient dense foods out there, cruciferous leafy green vegetables. Cola scores a pitiful 1, and vanilla ice cream scores 9, as most fruits and veggies score in the 100 range. The goal is not only to eat as nutrient dense as possible, meaning to eat the foods with the highest ANDI scores, but also to have a variety and high diversity of nutrients. Our families' rule of thumb is to have at least 3 different colors of plants in each meal, in order to have nutrient density AND diversity. Plant diversity, which also means fiber diversity, is the number one predictor of a healthy gut bug diversity. So the health of your microbiome and yourself both depends on nutrient diversity. Kale scores 1000 on the ANDI rating system, but only eating kale will not sustain health over the long term. Click for pictures of ANDI, ORAC charts
Calorie density and weight management
How do you lose weight but eat more food? Eat calorie poor foods. There's no need to constantly feel hungry or restricted. The concept of calorie density is as important as the concept of calorie deficit. As stated earlier, optimal health is achieved with a diet rich in nutrients but low in calories. A mild calorie deficient diet coupled with high nutrient content will help achieve optimal health and weight. Most plant foods are naturally calorie poor and rich in fiber, creating a sensation of fullness related to the increased volume of food, while consuming a lower total of calories. People fear feeling starved while on a weight loss diet, but whole plant foods were engineered by Mother Nature to let us know when to stop eating. Even in modern times, we still rely on the same primitive biochemical mechanisms that we did thousands of years ago. Gastric distention, or stretch receptors in our stomach lining are still the main mechanism controlling satiety, the feeling of fullness after a meal. In the modern era, the unnatural processing of our food has concentrated our calories tightly in a smaller volume. By expressing oil from olives, or high-fructose corn syrup from corn starch that was itself processed from corn, technological advancements have helped us pack calories (not nutrients) into very small spaces. Strategies to improve taste (and profits) have led to supra-physiological concentrations of salt, sugar, fats and calories in the foods we eat everyday. Studies show that consuming processed food leads to weight gain, and statistics show that more than 50% of american's calories (which we can probably extrapolate to most Canadians) come from processed or ultra-processed foods. It's time we go back to foods provided by nature, where all the nutrients, calories and fullness signals are packed neatly into one small edible plant.
To illustrate the concept of calorie density, imagine a typical fast food meal. Fries, a Big Mac and a cola will total upwards of 1300 calories, the equivalent to eating 18 apples. First, it will take more than 2-3 hours of constant chewing to ingest that amount of calories, and second, the feeling of fullness will become felt at 3 apples and unbearable by the 4th or 5th, at about the 350 calorie mark, long before the fast food combo.
For more examples, check out the photos below: