Food… Everyone’s favorite topic. Without it, we cannot sustain basic life functions. It is our primary source of nutrition, vitamins and minerals. It gives us energy to perform our daily tasks and to go from place to place. It certainly tastes good, so we make a bracha on it. Yet for many people, food is the enemy, causing us to engage in a lifetime battle in order to maintain a normal and healthy weight. And that battle can often be unending and can wear us down. So, in order to avoid this battle, what foods do we need to eat, what should we avoid and how do we accomplish it?
Anyone who follows the latest research in nutrition certainly could be, and should be, confused. Every few weeks, new research contradicts the information we read only the month before. It had become very difficult to decipher all of the information with which we are inundated on a daily basis. So it is important to look at the constants – those things we know that, no matter what type of diet you may eat, are good for you and will promote good health. By the same token, we also know that there are foods (if you want to categorize them as such) that will cause your body harm. As diligently as we try to adhere to not smoking cigarettes because we know how much harm they cause, we are far less vigilant with our food intake, which can cause just about the same damage.
In addition, a diet based on quantity rather than quality has brought us a new human being: the one who is overfed and undernourished. Until recently, when calories were adequate, nutrition was adequate. But today, we have a phenomenon that the majority of people are overweight and obese in the United States, but our food intake is not nutrient rich. Simply put: when we are seeing re-emergence of diseases such as rickets in children, and seeing Type II diabetes in teenagers (we once called it “mature onset” diabetes because it was only found in adults over 50), then we know something is very wrong with our diet both in terms of quality and quantity.
Let us first look at the issues of food quality. Approaching it from the standpoint of what we need to eat will help us with good health and longer life. Number one is quite simple: lots of vegetables and fruits, and a wide variety of both. We do know from scores of studies that any society (unlike the United States) which incorporates an abundance of vegetables and fruits into its diet has less instances of heart disease and cancer, as well as deaths from these and the other “western” diseases. Five to six portions of vegetables and three to four portions of fruits on a daily basis are crucial. Again, variety is very important, as different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals and different types of antioxidants.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, another essential dietary change one can make is to reduce, or even eliminate completely, refined grains (white flour and the like) and to stick with whole grain products.
Why in the world would someone take whole wheat grain, crack the grain, pulverize it with rollers, and separate the endosperm from the dark, fibrous bran and the wheat embryo? Why would they take out important nutrients, vitamins, unsaturated fats, fiber and magnesium? And if intact grains are so healthy, why did we stop eating them and shift to highly refined grains?
White flour was a novelty for the upper classes. The fact that you could take this brown, grainy flour and “purify” it also helped make bread and cakes lighter, airier and fluffier. Buying white flour became a status symbol. White flour can also survive longer without refrigeration. But the damage we have done to ourselves in the process has been severe.
Whole grains protect against diabetes. According to two large ongoing studies, people who consume whole grains are 30% less likely to develop diabetes. Because whole grains take longer to digest, you don’t get repeated insulin spikes, which lead to Type II diabetes.
Intact grains mean less heart disease. Also according to a large study, women who consume more whole grains were 30% less likely to develop heart disease than those who consumed refined grains.
Less refined grains mean better GI health. The fiber in whole grains helps keep the stool soft and bulky. This prevents constipation, which is the number one gastrointestinal complaint in the United States. 725 million dollars is spent annually on over-the-counter laxatives. Whole grains also help to prevent diverticulitis and diverticulosis.
Whole grains may prevent cancer. A recent overview of 40 control studies indicated that whole-grain consumption reduced the chances of developing mouth, stomach, colon, gall bladder and ovarian cancer.
Be sure the products you are buying are truly whole-grain. Often, breads are brown in color, but are made with white processed flour. Check the ingredients to be sure. If the taste of a whole-grain food like pasta or brown rice isn’t palatable to you, begin by mixing it with the white refined version and slowly increasing the ratio of intact grains to refined grains. Remember – the more any food is processed, the more nutrients and vitamins are lost.
Whereas at one time, you could only find whole wheat, whole rye, brown rice and whole grain pasta in health food stores, now they are available just about everywhere. According to the USDA, only 1% of ingested energy in the United States is unrefined as opposed to 20% for refined grains. Studies suggest that the more this ratio changes in favor of whole grains, the less disease there will be. Once you make the change, you will realize how much natural flavor and taste are in whole grains, and you may never want that piece of white bread again.
We will continue exploring better food options in my next column. Until then, shop wisely, and b’tayavon!