In our modern society today, it is not unusual to feel overwhelmed and confused about choices regarding food. We are regularly bombarded with advertisements for food products which make claims about our health and wellbeing. The power of advertising and marketing can be deceptive, and it is important to understand some of the basics about conventional food products versus real food.
If you are dealing with a chronic digestive/immune/neuro-behavioural condition, eating an unrefined, whole food diet would be the first step towards refining a dietary protocol which is tailored for you, in order to achieve optimal health. More specifically, a diet higher in protein and healthy fats, lower in carbohydrates and moderate in fruit, and high in fresh vegetables is preferable.
Real food is the food which we should be focusing on eating.
These foods are fresh, they are able to go off, they are alive, and they come from the earth. Such foods are unprocessed, unrefined, and whole, without additives. Real food contains the macro and micronutrients that best feed our cells what they need in order to function optimally.
What to Include in a Real Food Diet:
Protein in a Real Food Diet
Protein is absorbed at a slower rate compared to carbohydrates, it can aid in making you feel fuller for longer by slowing down glucose release from carbohydrates. As part of a real food diet, protein can help curb blood sugar peaks and troughs, and maintain blood sugar release.
Amino acids, the basic building blocks that make up protein, are also the same building blocks that synthesize enzymes, hormones, blood, and connective tissue (bone, cartilage, muscle).
Healthy Fats are Important
Healthy fats are necessary for optimal cell signalling, mental health and cognition, hormone production, cardiovascular health and much more.
Consuming inflammatory fats and oils can be a catalyst for many diseases due to induced oxidative damage. This inflammatory cascade is a precursor to many chronic illnesses and is especially prominent in cardiovascular events.
The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fat in our modern western diet is exceedingly out of proportion.A ratio of 4:1 is ideal however we are currently consuming these fats at a ratio of approximately 10:1.
Eat more of these…
|Raw seeds and nuts (exclude peanuts)||All trans-fats. Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.|
|Extra virgin olive oil||Refined vegetable oils which are high in omega 6, and very inflammatory|
|Coconut oil||Seed oils including sunflower, canola, cottonseed|
|Organic butter||Palm oil|
Include Raw Plant Foods
There are nutrients and enzymes in raw vegetables and fruits which are not able to be obtained through foods which are cooked. Some nutrients are heat sensitive and become damaged by the cooking process. As an example, Vitamin C is sensitive and will be damaged by heat. Additionally, there are some carcinogenic compounds which may form from cooking foods at very high temperatures.
Ideally, the plant foods which are a part of your diet should be organic to avoid herbicides and pesticides.
You can try incorporating more raw foods into your diet by:
- Adding a handful of raw green vegetables as a side dish
- Juicing vegetables and fruit
- Adding raw greens to a fruit smoothie
- Eating raw vegetable sticks as a snack
- Raw balls to snack on (nuts, seeds, raw vegetable powders, cold pressed coconut oil)
What to Exclude in a Real Food Diet:
Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Sugar is addictive, and it even has the capability to induce thought patterns similar to those brought on by illicit drugs. Thoughts which have to do with rewards and cravings. Excess sugar consumption can disrupt multiple systems in the body, eg: digestion. Intestinal microflora can be impacted by sugar, in the cardiovascular system sugar can potentiate oxidative damage and inflammation. From an endocrine perspective, sugar can significantly impair hormone balance.
It is also important to read labels and avoid products which contain high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners like aspartame which is a neurotoxic sugar substitute that is common in many sugar-free beverages. High fructose corn syrup wreaks havoc on blood sugar balance and is especially dangerous to anyone who is predisposed to or has a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Weaning off sugar can be difficult, two substitute sweeteners to consider when undergoing this process are stevia and monk fruit extract.
Wheat and other Inflammatory Grains
Gluten, a protein compound found in wheat can be inflammatory in many people. You do not have to have Coeliac Disease in order to be sensitive to gluten. Coeliac Disease is an autoimmune condition whereby there is an extreme sensitivity to gluten causing a multitude of digestive and systemic issues. Consuming a gluten-free whole foods diet almost always creates a positive shift in one’s health. Eating a generic gluten-free diet whereby gluten-containing foods are substituted for gluten-free versions is not optimal. Plenty of gluten-free foods are still refined, inflammatory and high in sugar. Eliminating your overall refined and processed food intake should make room for a variety of whole real food to be incorporated into your diet.
Here are some gluten-free grains and seeds that can be eaten instead of wheat as part of your real food diet:
Is Dairy part of a Real Food Diet?
Casein is the protein component found in milk, it can be very inflammatory and affect mucous membranes in the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Many people are reactive to dairy products without even realizing it. There are some dairy products which are more superior than others, for example, A2 milk comes from grass-fed cows, and the A2 protein found in these dairy products are less inflammatory and cause less of a reaction compared to conventional A1 dairy. Organic full-fat yoghurt can be a good dietary probiotic source. Kefir, a fermented milk beverage is a probiotic that is healthy for the digestive system if it can be tolerated.
However, if you experience gastrointestinal symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome, or any systemic allergies, and/or inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, it would be beneficial to try eliminating dairy from your diet to see if it makes a difference. Lastly, avoiding low-fat dairy products is not recommended as the sugar content (lactose) remains high in these products despite the fat being reduced.
Conventional milk production comes from cows who have been given hormonal therapy in order to improve their lactating performance. Cows are also given antibiotics to control bacterial infections. Ingestion of antibiotics found through cow’s milk products can potentially damage our gut microflora. Synthetic bovine growth hormones are given to cows in countries such as the United States, however, it is banned in Australia. This growth hormone increases milk production but may create endocrine disruptions in the human body.
Note: the Mindd Foundation recommends caution with regard to including dairy foods in a real food healing diet. You should consult a qualified practitioner to seek advice about whether to include, and how to use dairy foods.
There is plenty of conflicting information out there about the pros and cons of soy. This is predominantly due to its high isoflavone content which possesses both hormonal and non-hormonal properties. The chemical structure of soy isoflavones are similar to the structure of endogenous estrogen, allowing it to bind to estrogen receptors in the body and exert a hormonal effect. Having said this, soy can also elicit anti-estrogenic effects in some parts of the body, acting like a Selective Estrogen Receptor Mediator (SERM). It is important to be informed about soy in order to make the best decision for your health.
As the majority of soybeans are genetically modified, it’s not advised to be eating conventional soy. Soy, when unfermented can potentially act as an endocrine disruptor and cause disturbances to hormone balance. Due to soy being a phytoestrogen, it is best to avoid consuming it if you have sex-hormone related conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibroids and polyps. Soy is known as a goitrogen and can interfere with thyroid function as it can impair thyroid hormone synthesis and absorption. Therefore, it is best to avoid soy if you are predisposed to low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) or an autoimmune thyroid disease (e.g. Hashimoto’s).
If soy is to be consumed, it should be eaten fermented and whole, like tempeh, natto and miso paste.
Commercial Food Products – not too much Real Food!
Commercial food products are different to the basics of real food. They are industrially manufactured foods. They are generally heavily processed and may also contain additives which can potentially be detrimental to our health. Many food products that are found on supermarket shelves which make large health claims are more often than not, nutritionally poor. These include products such as meal replacement beverages and shakes, some instant milks, bars, and cereals. The most nutritious foods are the foods which require no claims, such as fresh produce.
Large food manufacturers purchase premium shelf space in stores and supermarkets. These spaces are at eye level, they are most visible in the aisles and at the end of the aisles, as well as near the checkout lanes. The most profitable foods and food products will always be found in these locations. The purpose behind this is in marketing, it is to increase visibility and sales of these food products. Unfortunately, these food products and beverages are the ones that are highly linked to obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other metabolic problems. They are not real food!
Summarized below are some key points regarding commercial food products that you should be aware of.
The ingredients listed on food labels are not necessarily the only ingredients in the product you purchase. Acrylamides, a compound that is formed in food when it is cooked at a high temperature can be potentially carcinogenic. This is not listed on food labels. Pesticide residue and solvents may also not be written, as contents which make up less than 5% of the final product does not have to be listed.
Food additives – flavour enhancers and sweeteners
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) gives food an addictive umami flavour, it is used as a taste enhancer and is added to many savoury food products. Often, it creates the effect that causes people to want more of what they are eating. This potentially contributes to the obesity epidemic and creates repeat business for food manufacturers. MSG is widely used in Asian food, but it is added to a wide variety of other food products and goes by many names such as:
- Glutamic acid (E620)
- Glutamate (E620)
- Monopotassium Glutamate (E622)
- Calcium Glutamate (E623)
- Monoammonium Glutamate (E624)
- Magnesium Glutamate (E624)
- Natriun Glutamate (E625)
Additionally, MSG is commonly hidden in these ingredients in various food products: yeast extract, torula yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and autolyzed yeast. Many food products contain one or more of these flavour enhancers, including foods which are marketed to be healthy. For example, many vegetarian food products such as ‘veggie burgers’, or meat replacers contain these taste enhancers. Therefore, it is very important to read labels and check the ingredients list of a food product.
MSG acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter due to its glutamate content, it has the potential to trigger migraines, and bring on anxiety. It can also cause sweating, flushing, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, and is not recommended for those who experience heart rhythm disturbances.
Artificial sweeteners including aspartame and sucralose have no health benefits whatsoever and should be avoided. Such products are marketed to dieters and to those who aim to lose weight. However, on the contrary, such sugar substitutes have been associated with an increased Body Mass Index (BMI), and cardio-metabolic risk. The cardiometabolic risks associated with high sweetener intake include hypertension, a higher risk of stroke, and various cardiovascular events. These sweeteners also pose adverse effects on glucose metabolism (a precursor to type 2 diabetes), gut flora and appetite control. They can, in turn, lead to increased food consumption, and weight gain. Additionally, aspartame has been linked to headaches, migraines and seizures. It has the potential to cause neurological and/or behavioural disturbances in sensitive individuals. Changes in concentration of adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine in the brain by aspartame can potentially lead to insomnia and seizures. Studies have also explored the possibility of excess consumption being involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders, and emotional functioning.
Trans-Fats and Poor-Quality Oils
A wide range of food products are made with hydrogenated oils, MSG, and artificial colours. These ingredients can be found in foods ranging from dips and spreads to crackers and chips. The dangers and negative effects of MSG have been pointed out above. However, it is noteworthy to identify the effects of poor quality oils also. Many food products contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils to increase shelf life. However, hydrogenated oils are very inflammatory, they do this by reducing antioxidant activity and in turn, this increases the circulating oxidised low-density lipoproteins (“bad cholesterol”). These factors are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, specifically atherosclerosis.
Plastic food containers and plastic food packaging can be a potential health hazard. Bisphenol A, found in plastic, can leach into food and be eaten by consumers. Heating and cooking in plastic based containers can also do the same. Bisphenol A is a known endocrine disruptor. It effects hormones in both men and women. It can be anti-androgenic in men, leading to various issues such as gynecomastia, erectile dysfunction and more. BPA can disrupt oestrogen in women. However, studies are showing that maternal intake of BPA can also affect newborns.
In sum, as a modern consumer, it is a privilege to be able to have the choice about what foods you want and need to eat. It is also a privilege to be able to be educated about the difference and the effects of real foods versus food products which are nutritionally poor. You have the ability to decipher between what food or food products will support your health goals and the ones that will hinder them. If you have a predisposition to certain chronic illnesses, real food can act as an incredibly powerful tool in aiding your body in the prevention of developing such illnesses.
On the other hand, nutritionally poor food products can have the potential to serve as a catalyst which facilitates the commencement or progression of a disease process in your body. Avoiding packaged foods that contain additives and are foreign to the body, and instead opting for foods which are in their most natural form will ensure that the foods we eat provide our bodies with what is essential and necessary for achieving and maintaining optimal health. Ultimately, it is real foods that are grown from the earth and are supplied by nature which offer the most health benefits. They supply the nutrients essential for us and match our evolutionary needs.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine
or the slowest form of poison.” ― Ann Wigmore
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Written by Kimberly Kushner BHSc (Nutritional Medicine) BHSc (Naturopathy) for MINDD