Why you should eat whole foods instead of processed foods.
A nutrition strategy that works for one person is by no means guaranteed to work for the next. That is why The Wholefood Athlete doesn’t work with a ” one size fits all approach.”
‘Eat whole foods instead of processed foods whenever possible’.
This sounds so simple doesn’t it…..and this is becoming increasingly recognised among people with even the slightest interest in nutrition.
But what is a whole food exactly and what is it about them that makes them so superior? After all, strictly speaking even the most unprocessed looking foods have been subjected to ‘processing’ in some way (milk is pasteurised, tuna is tinned etc.).
For us, whole foods are mostly unaltered and appear pretty much as they do in nature. The body recognises them and knows how to extract the nutrients from them to optimise body function…and after all, that little bit of extra pump is what we are looking for right?
Processed foods are defined as foods that have been somewhat removed from their natural state as a result of chemical, biological and/or mechanical manipulation.
So why do we process foods?
Foods are typically processed in order to:
• Increase shelf life.
• ‘Improve’ taste.
• Make them more consistent in shape.
• Make them look more appealing.
• Increase or decrease certain nutritional values (e.g. low fat).
• Make them easier to package, transport and store.
• Make them quicker to prepare and eat.
The above results are great news for food manufacturers but rarely are they great news for us. The act of food processing often diminishes the nutritional value of a food and increases the likelihood of us wanting to consume more and more.
For years, food and drink companies have been hard at it in laboratories; extensively researching the precise balance of ingredients that pin point reward centres in our brains, amplifying the voice at the back of our heads that encourages us to keep eating. At times, companies have even shamelessly shouted about it – anyone recall a well-known crisp company with the slogan ‘once you pop, you just can’t stop’?
The quite irresistible combination of salt, sugar and fat literally act as a drug in our systems, making them as addictive. What is interesting, is that this combination rarely exists in whole foods…eg, foods such as fruit are naturally higher in sugar and nuts are naturally higher in fat. But not both! Therefore, making it much easier to potentially overeat processed food. ( ever noticed how quickly you can eat a fruit and nut bar as opposed to a handful of nuts and then dried fruit?)
Calories v nutrients
The concept of ‘nutrient density’ is worth exploring. Nutrient density can be evaluated by stacking up the nutrient content of a food or drink against the number of calories it contains. Generally speaking, compared to their whole food counterparts, most processed foods fall way short when it comes to nutrient density. They tend to be calorie dense and nutrient sparse; a trait common to the overall Western diet nowadays.
Though lacking in nutrients, many processed foods often serve up an abundance of unwanted additives. Certain artificial preservatives, flavourings and colourings used in processed foods have been linked with adverse side effects ranging from headaches to cancers. Whilst not always the case, these are usually identifiable as unrecognisable, hard-to-pronounce items on a product’s ingredients list.
What’s more, even foods proudly labelled as having ‘no artificial ingredients’ might not be as innocent as their packaging suggests . Refined oils, flours, starches and sugars can all be classed as natural, but when added to foods and drink they can be detrimental to our health.
It’s hopefully becoming clearer why whole foods provide a superior option. They are much more nutrient dense, contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals, lack artificial ingredients and are simply in a physical form that we as human beings are designed to consume and thrive on.
Most of your nutrition should come from foods which sit towards the whole foods end of the spectrum. As we move towards the more processed end, whenever possible, these foods are best substituted for whole food alternatives. This approach is arguably the most effective way to enhance the overall quality of our diet and optimising our health, body composition and performance through nutrition.
If you find yourself unsure as to where a particular food or drink sits on this continuum, we always advise people to read the ingredients list. The fact that it’s got an ingredients list to start with can be the first warning sign! Generally speaking, the longer the ingredients list and the more items you cannot understand or pronounce, the further towards the processed end that food likely sits and the more likely it is that you’d be better off choosing a whole-food alternative.
Learning to work with your own metabolism, body structure, performance data and lifestyle factors can have a massive impact on athletic performance. It only makes sense to use the very best whole food ingredients…afterall, you cannot out train a bad diet.