What is the best type of diet for us? There are a lot of zealots and fanatics out there touting the advantages of one diet over another. What to believe?
Vegetarian? Vegan? Raw? Flexitarian (mostly vegetarian, but some meat)? Pescatarian (fish)? Paleolithic (like our cavemen ancestors)? Carnivorous (like lions)? Herbivorous (like deer)? Granivorous (nuts and seeds) like squirrels? Frugivorous (fruits) like lemurs? Foliovorous (leaves) like koalas? Omnivorous?
When it comes to eating—like religion—I don’t like other people foisting their views on me. That stated, when it comes to diet, eating and nutrition, there are some basic facts that are relevant to our health and wellness. In our modern society, if you want to stay on track regarding diet and weight, it is not so much what you choose to eat, but what you elect not to eat that count. Essentially, by avoiding the “bad,” by default you will be fueling yourself with the “good.” In other words, there are a great variety of healthy, high quality foods that can nourish us, and it is not important what your specific choices are as long as there is balance, sufficient intake of macro-nutrients (protein, fats and carbs) and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals), and avoidance of excessive calories. The key is to stay away from processed, reconstituted, unhealthy, mystery, faux foods. Processed food can be defined as real food that has been altered in order to lower its production cost, lengthen its shelf life, make it look more appealing and make us want to eat more of it, resulting in a reduction of nutritional content and an increase in chemicals, dyes, preservatives and toxins.
Humans are remarkably omnivorous, meaning that there are a great variety of different foods—plants and animal in origin—that can both provide energy for our metabolic processes and sustain us in terms of cellular and tissue replenishment. Regarding what to eat to maintain good health, the celebrated author Michael Pollen famously stated: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. I borrow his maxim and reverse it in an effort to summarize what to eat to promote poor health: Eat imitation food, eat a lot of it, mostly animal-based. And there we have the Western diet—processed foods, lots of meats, refined carbs, fats and sugar—the eating style that has contributed to two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese. The Western diet is largely responsible for the diseases of Western civilization, namely hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Processed garbage foods are ubiquitous in the United States of Obesity. These run the gamut from doughnuts to hot dogs to the myriad of chemical-laden, nutritionally-depleted food-like substances that are readily available, aggressively marketed and promoted, relatively inexpensive, and potentially addictive. Fast foods, junk foods and many packaged foods—cheap, easy, and a staple of many adults and children—are in this category. Much of this is not actually food, but enhanced food-like matter, highly processed and laden with additives, preservatives, and loaded with fat, sugar, salt and other chemicals (most of which are unknown, unpronounceable, unrecognizable, un-food-like concoctions)—engineered in a science lab. The “killer” triad of processing is enriched wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. In contrast to wholesome, slow-digesting, natural foods that contain abundant fiber—which slows and regulates glucose absorption and leaves us feeling full and satisfied—nutritionally-void, packaged foods laden with fat, sugar, and salt promote addiction. These highly-refined food substances are essentially pre-chewed, pre-digested, melts-in-your-mouth adult baby food that is absorbed very rapidly because of the fiber-stripping and refinement process.
The term processed is a derivative of the word procession. A procession is a movement that occurs in an orderly fashion, for example, a parade. The procession that results in processed food on our plates involves the farmer, the processor, the baker, the distributor, the retailer, and ultimately us, the consumer. For example, wheat is grown and harvested by the farmer and the process of threshing separates the wheat kernels from the chaff (husks of the wheat grains). The process of milling enables the wheat kernel components to be separated such that the bran and germ are removed, leaving the pure, silky, highly refined powder that we know as wheat flour. This wheat flour is then used as one of the many unhealthy components of processed foods, for example—a Twinkie. After the Twinkie is configured, baked, sealed in plastic wrap and boxed, the distributor trucks and ships the product to our local supermarket retailer where it can be purchased. So what starts out as a healthy and natural grain, after much processing, ends up as unhealthy junk food. The final product bears little relationship to the original farmed product. The bottom line is that the more that is done to our food, the more it gets depleted of its nutritional value.
Remember the game called “telephone” we used to play when we were kids? A bunch of us would sit in a circle and the first person would whisper a few sentences into the ear of the person sitting next to him or her. That person would repeat it to the next person, and soon around the circle. The last person would announce the message they heard. The message that the final person announced was virtually always very different and distorted from the original message, usually in a very funny way. My point is that the processing of food is not unlike this game in that the final product bears little, if any, relationship to the original, with each step in the production process resulting in increasing adulteration.
Minimizing one’s exposure to processed foods, as difficult as that might be, is a noble idea in terms of avoiding being overweight or obese and maintaining good health. Examples of processed foods are: Pop Tarts, Hostess Twinkies, Spam, Doritos…the list is virtually endless. Processed foods can be as detrimental to our health as tobacco has been proven to be, contributing to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
As much as I am denigrating processed foods, it is important to understand that not all processed foods are bad and that food processing is a necessity. We cannot all be farmers and grow a variety of vegetables and fruits and raise cattle and other livestock and must rely upon intermediaries to transform a raw product such as wheat grain into an edible form. However, the desirable goal is to eat a healthy, nutritious, robust, wholesome processed product, for example, 100% whole grain wheat bread vs. the infamous un-wholesome Twinkie. Obviously, the closer any food item resembles its original and natural form, the healthier it is, but many original forms do need to be processed to some extent to make the food available to us. In general, real food comes from the earth and not the laboratory, and the less processing the better. The corollary of this is that the more processed and highly altered the food is, the less nutritious—and oftentimes more hazardous—it becomes. Processed foods in addition to being unhealthy and nutritionally void, have an abundance of sugar, salt, fat, additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers, chemicals, and dyes. Some processed foods are filled with mystery components. Often, to make up for loss of nutrients during processing, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added.
I am a pragmatist and am not advocating absolute purism with complete avoidance of processed and junk foods, but am a big supporter of minimizing our intake of them. I suggest making a concerted effort to eat healthy, wholesome and natural foods as much as possible, but the occasional succumbing to the urge and craving to consume some processed junk food is acceptable…everything in moderation.
Bottom line: In my opinion, the healthiest kind of diet is a non-processed diet. Any diet that provides sufficient but not excessive calories, is balanced in terms of macro and micronutrients, and is largely non-processed should prove to be a healthy diet. Non-processed will ensure the intake of an abundance of natural and wholesome foods. The surest way to ruin the health benefits of a vegetarian or a vegan diet—those diets that are touted as quite healthy—is to couple them with the intake of processed foods! There are way too many vegetarians who are overweight for this reason. I am an omnivore who espouses avoiding processed foods and encourages a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and lean animal products in moderation. I believe that if this kind of diet was adhered to, it would contribute positively to curtailing the American obesity epidemic.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
This is just a taste of what you will find in Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. The website for the book is: www.promiscuouseating.com.
It provides information on the book, a trailer, excerpts, ordering instructions, as well as links to a wealth of excellent resources on healthy living. It is also available on Amazon Kindle.
To see my YouTube video on Processed Foods: