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wholefood: a food as it exists in nature, without any industrial processing.
In October 2016 I began to pursue a plant-based whole food diet when I began to have problems with vision in my left eye due to diabetic retinopathy.
The diet was a version of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, with additional guidelines regarding portions and when to eat what.
After many years of low-carb, paleo, and ketogenic diets, which had made it more and more difficult to control my blood sugar as I ate more and more protein and fat, it was a relief for me to be able to eat carbohydrates. And, in fact, eating a high starch, low-fat diet did result in losing weight and a dramatic drop in my blood sugar (see Rice Diet Revival).
Because I was on this diet and highly motivated because my vision was at stake, I took my fasting blood sugar every morning and also weighed my body. I also kept track of what I was eating so I could choose the foods that actually were contributing to lowering my weight and blood sugar and avoid those foods that increase my blood sugar and weight.
I learned some things I did not expect.
Processed Whole Foods are Not the Same as Whole Whole Foods
After eating very few carbohydrates for almost two decades, when I was able to eat carbs again, I rushed to Whole Foods to buy all kinds of food products made from these so-called “whole food” carbs, such as whole wheat bread and crackers and pasta, and pasta and crackers made with beans. At the same time, I was also eating whole grain brown rice.
It did not take long for me to see that when I ate whole brown rice and whole beans that I cooked myself at home from the whole grains and whole beans my blood sugar and weight went down the very next day. And each day I ate whole brown rice and whole beans in their natural state, cooked only with pure water, my blood sugar and weight would go down.
As soon as I ate these very same foods processed into a food product with added salt and various other additives, my weight and blood sugar would go up the very next morning. It took only one serving to observe this effect.
Within a week I discarded all the processed whole food products and decided to eat only whole foods in the form in which they appear in nature. No processed foods, even those that started as organic whole foods.
It was clear to me that industrial processing turns even whole organic foods into foods that result in diabetes and obesity. And yet these very same foods, eaten in their natural state, raw or cooked at home, reverse diabetes and obesity. We don’t need scientific studies to prove this. Anyone can do this experiment for themselves on their own bodies and see the results.
As a result of this, I coined the word “wholefood” to specifically mean whole foods in their natural state.
For decades I have been shopping and eating in a world where processed whole grains are considered healthy food. Natural food stores are full of whole grain breads, pastas, cookies, cereals, and other familiar foods made from whole grains and organic whole grains. And these are assumed by millions to be healthy alternatives to refined “white” grains. I spent years eating these supposedly healthy foods wondering why I couldn’t lose weight and couldn’t control my blood sugar.
What is looks like to me is that it IS important to include all the parts of the grain. But the body seems to respond differently to the whole form of the grain than it does to the grain ground up into a flour. And it seems like the finer the flour, the worse the effect on the body.
I can eat whole grain brown rice all day long and my body loves it. But as soon as I eat brown rice pasta made from brown rice flour, my blood sugar and weight go up. Crackers can result in an increase of blood sugar by 100 points the following morning. And these are the organic, “whole” brown rice, pea protein etc super duper crackers.
Several years after I discovered this for myself, I found there is also some science that agrees.
At NutritionFacts.org, Dr. Michael Greger posted a study that shows ground brown rice (as in brown rice flour) causes insulin spikes.
In his post Are Green Smoothies Bad For You? Dr. Greger shares a study that shows the difference in blood sugar rise when eating whole brown rice versus brown rice ground into brown rice flour.
The chart below shows the rise and fall of blood sugar within the first four hours after eating brown rice. The difference is enormous.
This study clearly shows that if we are to eat “whole grains” they need to be WHOLE and not ground into flour or cereal or anything else. Just WHOLE.
Eating Whole Foods
I ate this diet of whole grains and beans and vegetables and fruits for a year, more or less. The first six weeks I had dramatic results and then I went on a trip and couldn’t stay on the diet. But I tried to be careful and eat as close as I could to the diet. After a week I had gained only three pound eating 21 meals in restaurants plus snacks, which I lost immediately after coming home and going back on the diet.
But then 2017 was a difficult year to stay on a diet. I decided to sell my house in Florida and move to California so Larry and I could help his 85-year-old mother. Living with her and two other siblings, I did not have my own kitchen and they constantly wanted me to eat what they were eating and there were cookies and cakes just sitting around accessible and free and ice cream always in the freezer and a lot of stress. I gained ten pounds and my blood sugar went back up. But as I got settled in my new home I was able to figure out how to get back on my diet, and every day I was able to stay with the diet for three meals, my weight and blood sugar went down as before. Finally, in May 2020 I wrote out everything I knew about this diet my ebook Rice Diet Revival and went back on the diet following the instructions exactly. Within six weeks I lost 10 pounds and my blood sugar fell to a 114, a number I have never seen on my glucose monitor.
What Constitutes a Whole Food
Again much to my surprise, when I moved to California I immediately had the opportunity to learn much more about what constitutes a “whole food.” Here in Sonoma County, where I live, we have a lot of small organic farms and makers of artisan food products, so I happen to have a lot of access to wholefoods.
In our industrial consumer culture, a “whole food” is an industrially processed food that starts with a whole food ingredient, such as whole wheat flour instead of processed white flour, or whole brown rice instead of processed white rice.
But real whole food is the actual food in its whole state as it exists in nature, with all of its edible parts.
After working with this concept for a while, I realized that there are actually several levels of what could be considered to be a wholefood:
Off-the-scale “Chez Panisse” Grade Wholefood — the food is eaten as it exists in nature, organically-grown, harvested at its peak of ripeness, with all its nutrients and co-factors, and its aliveness. An example would be a a variety of peach planted in its correct terroir, harvested at its peak, eaten immediately. This food would have to come from your own garden, or eaten where it is produced, such as at a farm or a restaurant with it’s premises. Or, it would be in the Chez Panisse Fruit Bowl for dessert (How Chez Panisse gets fruit of this quality).
Common Grade Organic Wholefood — the food is eaten as it exists in nature, organically-grown, but not harvested at its peak, and with less nutrients and less aliveness. Most foods are not harvested at their peak, and any amount of time between harvest and eating reduces nutrients and aliveness. This would be food sold fresh at farmer’s markets, natural food stores, and supermarkets, with various degrees of loss of aliveness and nutrients depending on the time between time of harvest and point of sale.
Common Grade Organic Wholefood, Cooked at Home — Cooking eliminates aliveness, and nutrients may be reduced depending on cooking method. This would be any fresh food ingredients you cook at home.
Common Grade Organic Wholefood, Cooked and Sold in a Glass Bottle or Jar. An example would be pasta sauce made with organic ingredients, sold in a glass jar. The cooked food would be the same as if you cooked it yourself at home, without any further industrial processing. This would include hand-filled artisan food products as an “A” and industrially-filled food products as a “B” (since this would be done in a factory). I’m allowing this because many condiments would qualify as wholefoods. Since they are used in such small amounts, they are generally simply cooked and not processed, and they add so much flavor and enjoyment, until we all make our own condiments, I’m allowing this.
Wholefood Includes Eating All the Edible Parts of the Food
This aspect of wholeness actually has two parts:
- Eating the whole food instead of separate fractionated parts
- Eating the all the parts of the food, even the parts often discarded as “waste”
One of the first things I thought of about whole food was the standard definition of “whole” with regards to food, which is “whole includes all the parts”. Whole with regard to food I think was originally used to distinguish whole grains from refined grains, particularly with regard to flours made from those grains. “Whole wheat bread” for example, is made at least in part with flour ground from whole wheat berries, but since it is difficult to make a good loaf of whole wheat bread, it is often mixed with refined wheat flours of various sorts. So the flour may be whole, but the actual bread often isn’t.
When I wanted to eat wholefood I decided to explore how each food I ate would be “whole.” And I started seeing just how prevalent “fractionated” food is in our industrial culture in ways we don’t even see.
Milk, for example, is fractionated into 2 percent milk and nonfat milk and cream and butter.
Foods are split up into their various component nutrients, which are then separated and mixed with additives and put in bottles sold as “supplements” to eating a diet of processed foods.
Potatoes are divided into the white part (made into potato chips and mashed potatoes) and the peels, which are discarded or loaded with butter and sour cream and cheese to make “potato skins.”
I decided if I was going to eat a potato I would eat the whole potato with the skin attached, If I was going to eat an apple I would eat the peel.
And then it became clear that a whole egg is a white and a yolk, and an egg white omelet isn’t whole.
Eating a whole animal is eating the flesh and the organs and pulling the nutrients out of the cartilage and bone and feet by simmering them for hours to make bone broth. All the classic cuisines use the whole animal, yet today innovative chefs are having to show us how to eat animals in ways that used to be practiced in every kitchen.
Food waste is an enormous problem in our industrial consumer society. People are going hungry while edible food is going to waste just because it doesn’t meet the expectation of consumer perfection established by industrial production.
So part of my definition of whole food is to eat all the parts, even the parts we have been taught to discard, like peelings and cores.
I love this photo of all the edible parts of a cauliflower:
There is so much nutrition in al the parts we usually discard!
Wholefood Comes From a Whole Environment
I am not an expert gardener, but I have grown a fair amount of food and have lived with gardeners and have spent time on organic farms. So I know what it’s like to pop a raspberry in my mouth that I’ve just pulled off its cane and savor a plate of leeks and new potatoes I’ve just dug out of the ground. And I also know that many people have not experienced that immediate connection between food and earth.
One day, after months of exploring this concept of wholefood, a video arrived in my email inbox for an innovative way for city dwellers to grow food by hanging discarded plastic soda bottles in their windows with a hydroponic drip for nutrition.
While on the surface this may look like a good idea, I was actually horrified.
Plants and animals need the earth and sun and rain to develop properly and be whole. And we need to eat foods that have that earth-connected wholeness to be healthy.
Food needs to come from organic farms with nutrient-rich soil or foraged from natural environments, such as wild mushrooms foraged from forests. Even as I am writing this I am suddenly realizing the importance of eating wild mushrooms instead of cultivated mushrooms, for the wholeness of their wildness that can never be obtained from a cultivated mushroom regardless of how organic it was grown. It’s mushroom season now and after writing this I decided to get a $5 basket of wild mushroom at the farmer’s market every week as long as they are available.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat cultivated mushrooms, I’m just saying they are missing their environment.
More To Come…
As I continue to live with the idea of wholefood, I have more and more observations on ways foods can be whole.
For now, it is enough to start with moving away from industrial foods and toward whole, organic foods that you prepare yourself at home. That’s what this blog is all about. And I’ll be adding more aspects as I observe and develop them.