Jack and Jill strut into a hip foodie sandwich shop. Jack, wearing his Eat More Kale t-shirt, gets roast turkey on whole-wheat with whole-grain mustard, romaine lettuce, and tomato. Jill orders turkey too, but goes for a white bulkie roll. Jack watches everything he puts in his body. Jill, to this point in her life has not given much thought to nutrition, but she’s looking to eat healthier and she’s asked Jack to help her out since he seems like a good mentor. Jack’s eager to help. He trembled when Jill ordered the white roll and corrected her quickly, “You don’t want to do that.” “Ditch the crappy white bread. You’ve got to go with whole grains.”
You’ve probably heard a million times that whole grains are superior to refined grains. Health-conscious eaters have been proudly favoring whole-grain breads, for example, over “crappy white bread” for years. The rationale: more nutrients. And this is totally sane logic. A whole grain is just that—the whole grain. It’s made up of the bran, germ, and endosperm. When a grain is refined, the bran and germ are removed. This leaves the starch and removes all of the nutrients found in the bran and the germ. In the bran, you find B vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and 50 to 80 percent of the minerals found in grains like iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium. In the germ, you find B vitamins, antioxidants (especially vitamin E), and phytochemicals. (There are probably additional nutrients in these and all foods that scientists are not aware of yet as well.) When a grain is refined, all of these nutrients that are found in the bran and the germ go bye-bye. If eating whole grains is like investing in a mutual fund that gets you a 10-percent return, eating refined grains is like investing in a mutual fund that gets you a measly two percent. Refined grains simply don’t have much bang for their buck since so many of their nutrients have been stripped away. This makes sense to most people at this point—whole foods, unrefined are best.
Back to Jack and Jill. The next morning, they’re making breakfast at Jack’s house. (Jill may have stayed over, I’m not sure. It’s beyond the scope of this article.) Jill is chopping up some vegetables for omelets. Jack is mixing some fruit with some yogurt and preparing some eggs for the omelets. As Jack’s nutrition apprentice, Jill is eager with questions. “Jack, what’s non-fat yogurt? Why are you separating the egg yolks and whites and throwing out the yolks?” “Whole milk is nasty. It’s loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. Non-fat yogurt has all the good stuff without the fat. Same with egg yolks. They’ll kill you,” Jack responds. Jill inquires, “But you were telling me yesterday that whole foods are best. You were telling me how with grains, when you refine them and take parts away, you remove most of the nutrients. It seems like that’s what non-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt are. They’re refined. Parts of them have been taken away. And you’re doing it right here with the eggs. You’re taking the yolk part away and putting them down your garbage disposal. I thought whole foods were best?”
Jill makes a keen observation. If whole foods are best, if whole foods contain the most nutrients, why are some people still eating non-fat (or low-fat) yogurt (and the same goes for cheese and milk) and making egg-white omelets? Is the fat not part of whole milk? Are the yolks not part of whole eggs like the bran and the germ are part of whole grains?
Using the logic of whole grains, refining milk and eggs in this way is completely insane. Just as grains grow in nature, intact, as they are, so do cows make milk and chickens lay eggs, intact, just as they are. Removing the fat from milk makes it a refined, processed food. Removing the yolks from eggs make them a refined, processed food. Interesting, right? Skim milk and egg whites are refined foods in precisely the same way that refined grains are a processed food—parts of them have been removed. Remember that mutual fund with the measly two-percent return? In addition to white bread, it has holdings in skim milk, low-fat milk, non-fat and low-fat yogurt, non-fat and low-fat cheese, and lots of holdings in egg whites—low-nutrient, significantly altered, refined foods.
What do you lose when you remove the fat from milk? You lose the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Makes sense, right, since those vitamins are fat soluble by definition? What do you lose when you remove the yolks from eggs? So much—egg yolks are literally loaded with nutrients! A few highlights: calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, folate, fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids, and carotenoids. Why would we want to take out all of the nutrients from those two whole foods? Wouldn’t that make them less nutritious? Good questions.
Although our society’s fat-phobia is largely a remnant at this point, it is still sticking around. By fat-phobia I mean a fear of consuming fat, one of the three naturally occurring macronutrients. (The three are protein, fat, and carbohydrate). Macronutrient neuroses are among the most illogical food neuroses that exist. How could one of these macronutrients singlehandedly be to blame for the fatness and sickness of people around the world? For a good two decades fat was the demon. All you needed to do in the 80s and 90s to be lean and well was to eat a low-fat diet (and do exercise wearing leg warmers). Then, like a game of macronutrient-paranoia tennis, someone hit a good volley and carbohydrate became the demon. I heard the term low-fat millions of times in the 80s and 90s and I’ve heard low-carb about as much since. And yet, fat phobia still exists for many, especially my older relatives fond of Reader’s Digest. I’m no Nostradamus, but don’t be surprised when low-protein becomes a thing. It might seem crazy now, but not any crazier than low-carb seemed prior to around the year 2000. As a society, we’re obsessed with identifying and vilifying the macronutrient enemy and defeating it (just as we’re obsessed with wars of all kinds).
Food, as it’s found in nature, is inherently nutritious. Using our most logical minds, does it really make sense that one plant grows and bears edible fruit called a banana and it’s “good for us” because it does not contain fat and a short ways away another plant grow that bears edible fruit called an avocado and it’s “bad for us” because it is composed primarily of fat? That’s exactly how a fat-phobic thinks. The newer-generation carb-phobics think exactly the opposite. They honestly feel a banana or pear or cantaloupe is to be avoided. And in avoiding the carbohydrate, they are avoiding all the nutrients that are in fruit. The truth is that whole foods are nutritious. The debate between bananas and avocados, fat and carbohydrate, or among nutrients in general, is the wrong debate. Food loses its nutritive value when it is altered. Whole, natural real food is nutritious. Mess with the food and you mess with its value as a source of nutrition. It’s that simple. Demonizing fat is simply misguided. After 20 years of low-fat and going on 15 years of low-carb, Americans are, yes, fatter, and sicker (in terms of the prevalence of chronic disease). These statistics are abundantly available and easy to find. The war on macronutrients, including fat, has been a failure.
So maybe your cool with eating some fat. But just not saturated fat. And definitely not cholesterol. Those two are just plain deadly, right? It’s scary these beliefs linger. But people can be slow to accept new ideas even in the face of overwhelming evidence. I imagine when it was first discovered the Earth was a sphere, many believed the world was still flat for decades to come. Heck, I believed in Santa Claus until my well-intentioned Jewish friend burst my bubble in the fourth grade. Today, considerable scientific evidence debunks these myths about saturated fat and cholesterol, yet many hold onto outdated models.
Regarding eggs and cholesterol, consider the statement from Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating (1): “No research has ever shown that people who eat more eggs have more heart attacks than people who eat few eggs.” There comes a time when one has to be presented with clear information and see it for what it is. This is from a physician. From Harvard. What other smarty-pants evidence do you need?
Regarding saturated fat and foods containing saturated fat including milk, consider the results of a 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2). After examining the results of 21 studies that included over 300,000 people, the researchers concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Interesting, right? You can easily go read the study abstract and article yourself if this just does not sound right to you.
(I know some people may find these statements controversial and maybe even tell me I’m being irresponsible. Because I’m having a good day, please direct your misguided malice toward the Harvard Medical School and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. These smart, very-well-educated hard-working people are presenting this information for all of us.)
And these are two pieces of information in what is a sea of readily available information on the safety of consuming whole, natural, real foods that naturally contain the nutrients saturated fat and cholesterol. A simple Internet search will provide the eager learner days of reading material on the inherent safety and nutritive value of these nutrients. For a comprehensive look at these topics, I recommend the work of Uffe Ravnskov, MD, who has written books covering the research in these areas. Yes, he’s a physician and he writes extensively about the inherent safety of eating all whole foods including whole foods that contain cholesterol and saturated fat. He also eloquently describes how the myths regarding these nutrients arose.
Editing nutrition to its essence, we see the inherent simplicity:
1. Whole, natural, real food nourishes us. By design, they have everything we need (nutritionally speaking) and nothing we don’t need.
2. Refined, altered, processed food is like food pornography. It looks like food in some ways, but it’s not the real thing. It cannot nourish us like the real thing and it leaves us depleted and sick and wanting something better.
Healthy-happy animals (including people) are naturally lean and well. People whose needs are met. My formula for leanness and wellness: inner wellness or self-love (before you say it, I’m a blue-blazer-wearing fraternity brother, not a hippie), great relationships, great work, some exercise you love, a real-food diet, plenty of rest, and plenty of sleep. Together, this creates a symphony of systemic harmony and efficient metabolism.
A fear-based, reductionist approach to nutrition looks for a demon to vilify and keeps missing the boat. Nutritionism, looking at individual nutrients as “good for us” or “bad for us” is a failed reductionist paradigm. Continual attempts to alter foods to cut out or add certain nutrients has not worked. Whole, natural, real food, as it is simply has everything we need and nothing harmful. Nutritionism, and all food neuroses, are distractions. Distractions from the heart of the matter. Nutrition-related problems began to occur in civilization when food processing began. Then the science of nutrition grew in earnest to start to understand these problems and how they might be solved. The problem is that scientists, over decades, could not see the forest for the trees. They created recommendations based on avoiding certain nutrients and foods increasingly become processed to conform to these recommendations. When all that was needed was a simple return to whole, natural, real food. I’m for real food because it just makes sense. Call me a simpleton. Or logical. I’m for real food because it’s real food, not because scientists can now show clearly that there’s nothing wrong with these foods people have been fearfully avoiding. But if you like that kind of evidence, now you have it. The world is round.
(1) Willet, W.C. (2001). Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.
(2) Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010, 91(3), 535-546.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.