Processed or Whole Foods?


In last issue’s article “To count or not to count” I talked about counting calories and how misleading it could get. Instead, I favored more effective and less stressful approaches. One of which was switching our diets from processed foods to whole natural foods.

What are processed foods?

If one day you have some free time, go to a supermarket and check out the nutritional label of a local brown bread brand, you will be surprised by the amount of ingredients that it contains, out of which you will definitely recognize Sugar and vegetable oil.

On the other hand, if you go to a proper baker and ask about the natural components of whole wheat or whole grain bread, you will be told that it contains just whole wheat flour, water, yeast and maybe wheat germ and bran, depending on the type of bread.
Basically, food processing is a series of procedures that involve physical and chemical alterations (additions and eliminations) to raw foods, in order to make it marketable and easily prepared and served.


How does it affect my weight?

Ok, let’s focus for now on weight loss for now – we will come to health risks later on. If we consume a 100 calories of processed turkey, shouldn’t it be the same as consuming 100 calories of whole turkey roast?

“Calories are not made the same”
Well according to the law of thermodynamics, it should be the same. If calories-in (consumed) are more than calories-out (burned), we add weight. If calories-out are more than calories-in we lose weight.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately our bodies are more complex than that. Last article I discussed how calories are processed differently by our bodies. Scientists discovered that the process of chewing, swallowing, digesting, absorbing and excreting food actually costs the body some energy. They call it the Thermal effect of food (TEF)

On average, we use around 10% of our daily energy expenditure digesting and absorbing food, but this percentage changes depending on the type of food we eat. Protein takes the most energy to digest (20-30% of total calories in protein eaten go to digesting it). Next is carbohydrates (5-10%) and then fats (0-3%).

Going back to the turkey example. In the 100 calories of unprocessed turkey Roast, the body will burn 30 calories out of the 100 in the process of digesting the fibers and proteins in the turkey meat. So you will actually be consuming 70 calories only. In the case of the 100 calories from processed turkey, where the meat does not contain as much fibers and proteins, the body will burn less energy to digest it. So you will be consuming around 90 calories.

So if we consume on average, 21 meals per week, wouldn’t that make a huge difference? It turns out that calories are not made the same after all.

Is processed food bad to my health?

Well, here are some of the announced drawbacks of food processing:

It affects nutrient density.
Processing and altering food causes it to lose many of its nutrients. For example, during the heating process, the Vitamin C content is destroyed. Same with other important nutrients.

It endangers Human Microbiome.
Not fermenting foods during processing kills the healthy bacteria (Microbiome) in our gut. Such bacteria are crucial for a healthy gut. (Have you ever had stomach problems after a certain food, well that is one reason for it)

It contains additives.
From sugar to MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. Such additives affect us differently depending on our intolerances and health status. (Sneaky added sugar, could be a serious problem for a person with diabetes)

It might contain a risk of contamination.
This is an interesting one. Processing foods involves huge grinders and large mixing bowls. Over time, these machines wear down and are liable to fracture, so when it actually happens, it leaks small to large metal particles which sometimes go unnoticed and make their way to our stomach. (So next time when you crack something while eating a chocolate, you will know what it is!)

So how would I know if I am eating whole foods?

Here are some questions you want to ask yourself when differentiating between whole foods and processed foods:

What’s on the ingredient list?
Don’t get tricked into the nutrition facts, which tells you the amount of calories and macronutrients, like the amount of carbs or sugar in that product. Instead, check the ingredients list.

Do I recognize all these things?
I always say, if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.

How many steps did this food take to get to me?
Think of the original raw component. The closer it is to it, the more whole it is. (Olives are more whole than olive oil, oranges are more whole than orange juice)

Does this food come in a bag, box, or can?
Go for the fresh veggies, the local butcher and the local baker. The more local you go, the more whole foods you are consuming. Also learn to ask what’s in that food you are buying.

Bottom line

Switching your diet to whole foods, will save you a lot of hassle, from trying to take nutritional supplements or counting calories to losing weight. You will be healthier and much happier

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Dr. Shady Labib, a certified nutritionist specializing in sports-nutrition and health coaching, believes that all conventional dieting methods with their associated mindsets have repeatedly proven to fail. He believes that true transformation lies in a real mindset change from dieting to body, mind and soul nourishing. He is a Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, a member of the General Syndicate for Sports with a specialty in nutrition, and also has his BChD in Oral and Dental Medicine from Cairo University.