In Search of the Perfect Diet

Nutrition pathway to changes

I am running into more and more nutrition purists. People who think their approach to eating is absolutely perfect, free from all harmful substances, and better than any other approach to nutrition. The purist sits across from me, preaching about GMOs, pesticides, carbohydrates, gluten, processed foods and salt, talking at warp speed only to take a breather so they can sip on their organic greens drink (mixed into pH balanced water of course). Meanwhile, deep from within their soul I feel their longing for acceptance, as if they are in a confessional, looking for me to forgive their past nutrition sins – a life full of bread, dairy and fast food grilled chicken – and commend them on becoming a disciple of nutrition purity. Their eyes search, looking away as they ramble and catching mine again as they look for an expression from me. Anything. Even a simple head nod would provide the validation they are looking for.

I’m always happy when people move from less than healthy diets to more healthy diets. The problem with nutrition purists is they believe there is ONE diet for everyone. ONE pattern of eating and everything else is wrong. They aren’t looking for advice or information from me but instead want me to acknowledge they are doing everything right. Forget science because this person is drinking the Kool-Aid (err, powered dehydrated veggies) from internet blogs written by some self-proclaimed nutrition expert who relies on sensationalism and scare tactics. Their mind is closed to learning anything that doesn’t fit within the doctrine of this self-proclaimed nutrition expert (quack). So I sit there with a blank look on my face though in the back of my mind I am wondering things like “if only this 20-something year old fit male knew the research on this subject was conducted in obese postmenopausal women.”

Saying there is one diet that fits all is akin to giving everyone the same workout program. If you’re a strength coach or personal trainer, would you put everyone on the exact same program? Would you give an 82 year-old grandma who has never worked out the same program as a 43 year-old marathoner? No. So why on earth would you give everyone the exact same nutrition guidelines and supplements? Please, throw away those silly one-pagers with nutrition “rules” you aimlessly hand out to everyone that walks through your door.

My job is to move a person from where they are to better so they meet their goals. Everyone has a different starting place, set of beliefs, goals, health history, medications they are on, food likes and dislikes, cooking skills, budget, training program and more. Nutrition is like a road map – there are many routes you can take, some are quicker that others, some have roadblocks, traffic or require a vehicle that can jump a few curbs or possibly even a bike to make it through narrow spaces. Going to a seasoned nutrition profession is like hitting Google Maps and figuring out the best route for you. The alternative is aimlessly driving in a foreign city without street signs (ciao Pescia Italy! I have fond memories of driving in circles, next time I’ll bring a GPS and my Italian will be much better too, I promise).

So, before you drop your jaw and blast me after hearing I told a client he could eat fast food once a week, stop to consider this person’s starting place: fast food everyday. And some clients aren’t willing to give up certain foods or drinks so make substitutions, so I meet them where they are. If I try and switch a junk food eater who binges on alcohol to an all-organic diet without cheeseburgers and fries, chances are they will fail and give up.

Nutrition is a complex science. There isn’t ONE approach that works for everyone or one that every single person is willing to follow. So, if you are that person who is bound to a single nutrition doctrine, please open your ears a little and be willing to consider there are many factors that should be considered before a person goes on a diet or makes drastic dietary changes. And please, read a few research studies or textbooks prior to preaching to others because chances are 90% of what you reading isn’t backed by science or common (biochemistry) sense.

Why “Avoid Processed Foods” is Bad Advice

Countless internet blogs preach about the dangers of processed food, how eating a diet with processed food will make you gain weight and your health will suffer. Yet anyone who writes this nonsense doesn’t understand the real definition of processed foods (and I bet large sums of money they eat many processed foods) and the benefits they provide.

A processed food is “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity (“food that is in its raw or natural state, including all fruits that are washed, colored, or otherwise treated in their unpeeled natural form prior to marketing”) and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling (1, 2).” Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, livestock – these are all agricultural commodities. And therefore, all of the following are processed foods: frozen broccoli, frozen chicken breast, dried beans, dried pumpkins seeds. Who in their right mind would dare say any of these foods are harmful or will make you pack on the pounds? Someone who has no clue what they are talking about. Not to mention there are many reasons why processed food are healthy:

Versatility

If you want to get a wide array of nutrients and healthy plant compounds (such as antioxidants) you should eat a wide variety of foods. If you take all processed foods out of your diet you’ll only eat what is in season and hasn’t been altered.

Value

Dried beans, oatmeal and rice are processed foods that are very affordable. All cost pennies per serving (about 15 cents for a serving of brown rice). Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are another great example of affordable foods that are picked at their peak of ripeness, preserving nutrition value and flavor. In addition, 100% juice is a bargain, thanks to food processing.

Concord Grapes
Concord Grapes
Welch's 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes
Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a Concord grape farm – where they grow and   process the grapes into Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. Nothing is wasted during this process. The Concord grapes are crushed – skin, seeds and all (so more of the grape is in the bottle) – and heated to release healthy polyphenols (plant based compounds) straight from the grape into the juice. In fact, 40 whole Concord grapes are in every 8 oz. serving of Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. This is important because over a decade of research indicates that, thanks to the Concord grape, 100% grape juice made from these grapes helps support a healthy heart. Because the Concord grape harvest season is very short, lasting approximately 12 weeks, juice processing delivers the benefits of Concord grapes to us year round.

I consider all of these processed foods a good nutrition bargain. Plus, you may end up with less food waste, thanks to a longer shelf life, if you buy canned and frozen produce and poultry as well as 100% juice.

Convenience

In between long days and traveling, there are days I like meals that take me 5 minutes or less to throw together (not to mention if I’m hungry I want to eat asap). Frozen and canned foods allow me to do this. Steamed vegetables? They take about 7 minutes in my stovetop steamer. Canned? Less than 1 minute to open the can (because sometimes I don’t even heat them up). Frozen chicken breast? Perfect, I don’t have to go by the grocery store late at night if there is nothing in my fridge.

So the next time you hear someone say you should eat fewer processed foods, ask them to define “processed food.” And if you read it in a blog, move on to nutrition advice grounded in science.

Disclosure: I am an advisory board member of family-farmer owned Welch’s.

1) 21 U.S.C. United States Code, 2010 Edition, Title 21 – Food and Drugs. Chapter 9 – Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Subchapter II – Definitions.

2) SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321]. CHAPTER II—DEFINITIONS 1.

Is Processed Food Evil?

As a dietitian, I can’t count the number of times people have come up to me telling me all about their new found nutrition miracle knowledge. From fad diets to fat burning pills, I have heard everything that can fit into a category I call “Hope in a Bottle or Book.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in food and the efficacious use of dietary supplements for disease prevention (not to mention of course athletic performance and just feeling better) but, come to me with some scientific evidence and correctly defined nutrition terms and I’ll listen (vs. just giving a head nod in hopes the subject changes sooner rather than later).

So the topic I keep seeing lately is a misunderstood category called “processed food.” In fact, twitter is a tweet lately with dire warnings about what processed foods can do to your body, both inside and out. So, let’s first define processed foods and then take a look at whether or not you need to make a mad dash to the doctor after realizing you’ve consumed copious quantities of processed foods all these years (oh but wait, if only you could sprint, I bet those processed foods are weighing you down!).

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a processed food “means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” There you have it folks, unless you are on a Raw Food Diet, you eat processed food every single day! Even if you eat a “clean diet” (that’s a topic for another blog post), if you cook your meat or tofu or freeze your vegetables or mill your own flaxseed, you have just *gasp* processed food yourself!

So is processing bad? Processing itself is not only not bad but it is oftentimes essential for good health.  Here are just a few examples:

  • cooking meat kills potential bacteria preventing food born illness
  • many agricultural products cannot be consumed until processed – grains for instance
  • canning and freezing are methods that keep food longer until consumption
And, there are many foods that are better processed. Take tomatoes – the antioxidant lycopene is more bioavailable in cooked vs. raw tomatoes and cooking eggs prevents a protein in egg whites, avidin, from binding the B vitamin biotin (cooking also kills salmonella bacteria). In addition, there are a plethora of functional foods out there that are developed specifically for improving health, helping people maintain weight, improving sports performance and more. I could go on and on with examples but as you can see food processing is an essential part of healthy dining and our vast world of food and nutrition. So, don’t be swayed by people who speak evil when it comes to processed foods. If you are looking for sound nutrition advice, make sure the person you are listening to has a RD or MD after their name or at least a degree in nutrition, nutrition biochemistry, endocrinology or something along the lines of the advice you are looking for (i.e.  muscle physiology for information on building muscle). After all, you wouldn’t go to an architect for physical therapy advice would you? For more information on processed foods, check out this tool kit created by the International Food Information Council Foundation. And, for a list of nutrition blogs by category, check out the Nutrition Blog Network my colleague Janet Helm, MS, RD, put together.