If you learned of an easy way to protect your body from degenerative diseases like arthritis, cancer and heart disease you would probably implement it immediately and tell all of your friends and family, right? By simply eating foods as nature intended, unprocessed and unrefined, you can greatly reduce your risk of all of these diseases and more. However, most of us are eating in a way that provides minimal nourishment for our bodies and protection against disease. Understanding the benefits of adding whole foods to your meal regimen will motivate you to begin making some changes to your food choices. Many believe that a whole foods diet is too time consuming and costly, but this is not the reality. You can easily prepare affordable meals using whole foods that are readily available at competitive prices without spending more time in the kitchen.
The Standard American Diet which consists of high fat, refined grains, sugary desserts and high amounts of red meat is associated with five of the top ten causes of death in the United States. In contrast, a whole foods diet lowers the risk of many types of cancers and chronic diseases, as well as promotes healthy aging and higher energy levels. It also lowers the risk of cataracts which almost half of all Americans over the age of 75 have. A whole foods diet consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, unprocessed meat, poultry and fish and non-homogenized milk. The foods contain nothing more than the naturally occurring nutrients inherent to the original plant or animal that they were derived from.
There are some essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs but cannot make, so you need to get them from the food that you eat. You can get these essential nutrients into your body at their highest levels and natural, unchanged state when you eat whole foods. When foods are processed, the nutrients are often destroyed or changed. Sometimes they are even changed to the point that they actually become non-nutritious. Whole foods also contain phytonutrients which are not essential nutrients for your body, but they are still excellent for you and help reduce the risk of many diseases, such as cancer. Again, processing removes most and sometimes all of these health-promoting phytonutrients. The nutrients that you do find in processed foods have been added back and there are usually only a few select vitamins and minerals included.
Synthetic chemicals have also been added to these foods to make them seem more like the whole foods that they came from. The substances added are not usually derived from food and are sometimes made from starting materials like coal-tar or other non-food chemicals. They are used for coloring, flavoring and preserving. It is believed that some of the additives may compromise your body’s structure and function. They may also be related to a host of skin, pulmonary and psycho-behavioral conditions. When you eat foods in their whole state, you know that no nutrients have been removed or remodeled and no synthetic, artificial substances have been added.
Another advantage of whole foods is their natural synergy. It has been consistently shown in studies that the health benefits from food are better when it is consumed containing as many of the original array of nutrients as possible. However, studies on isolated nutrients have mixed results. For example, foods that are high in beta-carotene, like carrots, have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, but the same result was not achieved when a synthetic form of beta-carotene was used. It is thought that it may be the combination of many or all of the phytonutrients found in whole foods that provides the protection.
Whole foods also provide our bodies protection in the form of antioxidants like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, Zinc, Flavonoids and Carotenoids. Antioxidants enhance our immune systems and also counteract free radicals and other unstable molecules that are present in our cells from UV radiation, toxins and pollutants. If free radicals are not neutralized they can increase the development of diseases like cancer, arthritis and diabetes. The antioxidants in foods work together as a team, so to reap the benefits your body needs the full spectrum that is provided by a varied whole foods diet, not just high amounts of one like vitamin C.
Essential nutrients, Vitamins C and E are two important antioxidants that are readily available in many whole foods. Actually, Vitamin C is easily destroyed by lengthy storage and/or excess light so the best source is a fresh one. One of the key nutrients in fruits and vegetables that protects against cancer, it is also thought to decrease the risk of strokes and heart disease and can counteract or protect against colds and some infectious diseases. It functions as part of a nutrient team with Vitamin E and Carotenoids which are not usually present at all in processed foods. Vitamin E is actually a family of eight different nutrients and many supplements only contain one of these. They are all important for cell membranes that act as gateways to allow nutrients in and wastes out, keeping potentially destructive molecules from entering your cells. Getting your Vitamin E from a natural source ensures that you are receiving the entire family of nutrients and the bioavailability is also higher meaning that more gets into your body. Broccoli, bell peppers and oranges are good sources of Vitamin C while Vitamin E can be found in foods like sunflower seeds, almonds and spinach and Carotenoids are available in carrots, tomatoes and spinach.
You can also greatly increase your fiber intake by adding whole foods to your diet; fruits and whole grains are some of the best sources. Fiber helps rid our bodies of carcinogens, toxins and excess hormones like estrogen and is necessary for healthy digestion. It also provides protection from heart disease, lowers total cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and decreases the risk for breast cancer. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber promotes excretion while soluble supports the intestinal tract and decreases glucose levels. Whole grains are a great concentrated source of insoluble fiber and fruit skins have high amounts of soluble fiber.
Switching to whole grains is one of the easiest changes to make for a beginner to a whole foods diet. It does not require any additional preparation and there are many options readily available in most grocery stores. However, pay close attention to the ingredients list. Just because the package states “wheat” it does not necessarily mean it is a whole grain. The first ingredient should state whole wheat flour or whole some other grain flour. If it only states wheat flour, it is not a whole grain. Whole grains provide high levels of minerals as well as a range of vitamins and essential fats. When it is processed, the grain loses its bran where most of the fiber, minerals and B vitamins are stored. Processing also removes the germ which contains the essential fats and the family of Vitamin E nutrients. This leaves a grain with a large amount of simple carbohydrates and starch, a bit of protein and only a few vitamins from a food that started out with thousands of healthy nutrients and a wide variety of vitamins.
The thought of altering the way you cook and eat is a daunting task to all of us and can be overwhelming. I suggest that you being by making small changes gradually. Start by adding one snack per day of fresh fruit or vegetables or switch just one of your grains to a whole grain such as your bread. Once you have made that switch, move on to another grain like rice or spaghetti noodles. You will get used to the taste of whole grains and will begin to prefer it. Another simple change is to begin steaming fresh vegetables instead of buying them in a can. The taste is so much better. You will be amazed and wonder how you went so long thinking vegetables out of a can were just as good as fresh. Notice that none of these suggestions are going to cost you any more money or keep you in the kitchen for a long time. So, take it slow and remember that any change you do make is a step in the right direction and will only benefit you. Eventually, all of those steps will become the path that led you to a healthier lifestyle.