When it comes to our diets and nutrition, the amount of information on which foods to eat, how much, and the endless parade of diet options has given us almost too much information on what is and isn’t a good food choice. Yet, while we all seem fairly aware at this point that spinach is likely a healthier food choice than potato chips, a new area of focus that has emerged in recent years has more to do with the quality of the food rather than which food to pick.
Essentially, you’ve chosen to eat spinach over potato chips, but is it still good for you if it is canned, frozen, fresh, refined? This question has been a tricky one to answer and we will shine some light on this issue and specifically how to make good choices when it comes to our food choices.
To begin properly, we need to define what some of these key terms mean. Whole food is simply a food that has not been changed in any way from its natural state. This might refer to vegetables that are grown without any modification and would be the same as if you had picked them from the ground itself.
This can also refer to grains or even meat in the sense that while these foods may have been prepared by being put into a package or cut and packaged, nothing has been done that alters the food such as chemicals or preservatives added or other processes. This can be harder to ascertain, but essentially the ideal whole food would be something home-grown, picked and eaten!
By contrast, refined food is a food that has had some aspect of it removed or altered. This is not to be confused necessarily with processed foods. A processed food, by contrast, is a food that has been essentially prepared for some purpose but had nothing taken away, for example, fresh orange juice that was prepared from fresh oranges, or flour from whole grain. Refined food, by contrast, has had a process undertaken that created a fundamental change, such as the difference that occurs when rice is converted from brown to white.
One of the key qualities when considering refined foods is that generally speaking refined does not refer to better or improved but is often a refining process that is removing key nutrients. For example, white flour that was made from whole grain initially undergoes a process that removes a great deal of the fiber content, thus it is not as nutritionally dense or healthy as brown rice flour, as an example.
Not all refined foods are bad, as dried fruits are processed as they’ve had water removed but are not necessarily bad for you. Just the same, plain popcorn is refined because the heat changes its structure, but it isn’t necessarily unhealthy.
One of the key takeaways then is to dig deeper into any food that may be refined or considered refined. There are many refined foods that do not deliver the nutritional benefit and have been fundamentally altered in the process such that they deliver a substantially compromised nutritional benefit. This includes products like white bread, white rice, or refined pasta as the grains used to create these products have been altered for taste and preservation and lost much of their original density.
Another example would be fruit juices that have been processed so they can be preserved and have a longer shelf life or taste sweeter. Most of these juices, whether it be apple juice, cranberry juice or otherwise have been altered and lost most of the original benefits of the actual fruits.
Thus, while you may think apple juice is just as good as eating apples, it is most certainly not. Of course, some examples would be much easier to identify, potato chips have clearly been altered from the original potato’s, just as fried chicken tenders are certainly refined from their original composition when they are still fresh.
In a perfect world of nutrition, we would only consume whole foods that come straight from farm to table, and in any circumstance where this is possible, that is the recommended choice. They are more nutritionally dense and will deliver the best taste and nutrition for your diet.
However, if you need to shop for refined foods, do your due diligence and determine if the refining process has fundamentally altered the food for the worse, and if so, do your best to avoid. As always, preparation equals success so do your research and eat the best food for you!