Now, right off the bat let me say that nutrient losses are real; however, I believe that perspective gets lost in the discussion of these concepts

The Taoist saying, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” is not only a testament to the human spirit of optimism, but it also illustrates a point about perspective, and how we can become fixated on an issue or concept (however minute in the overall scheme of things) and then be ignorant to the much bigger picture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had “debates” with clients regarding nutrient loss phenomenon.

Although it’s real, the overall significance of the effect of losing nutrients in many of the foods we consume is ridiculous to even contemplate, especially considering the abysmal state of food quality that most people who start to debate nutrient losses with me.  I would argue that the effect of food processing on carbohydrate availability is even more detrimental to human health and I will cover this in a future post; however for the purposes of our discussion today we will focus on the effects of food processing on nutrient content.  All of these concepts are reflected by food quality anyway.

The major processing techniques that can decrease nutrient content are:

1) Cooking (heating) foods – heating certain components of foods can destroy certain compounds that would otherwise have been nutritionally beneficial.

2) Freezing foods – reducing temperatures of some foods can destroy compounds that would otherwise have been nutritionally beneficial.

3) Drying foods – removing water can destroy and remove (especially water soluble) nutrient compounds.

4) GMO foods – forced genetic selection for specific character traits that either make for tastier crops or heartier crops pay no mind to nutritional content.  In fact a recent study revealed that GMO corn was “nutritionally dead” with 20 x less nutrition compared with non GMO corn.Additionally, GMO crops can contain components that irritate our guts or that can elicit an immune response, therefore driving up inflammation. 

The Big Picture

I hate the tendency that we have towards nutritionism.  This term, popularized by Michael Pollan, suggests that the only value that foods have is that endowed to them by the individual nutrients that science has identified. This is preposterous because it is shifts perspective to the one nutrient in question (on that given day) and completely ignores the whole food element that the nutrient was part of and how that might play a role in any perceived benefits. 

Food companies have certainly taken advantage of these concepts to tempt us with otherwise nutritionally void foods because they contain a few nutrients that are considered good for us.  Some examples include enriching flour with 13 essential vitamins and minerals (sound familiar), or fruit juice with calcium in it, etc… The challenge with all of this is that these foods are all extremely processed (in one way or another) and as a result are nutritionally empty foods.  They are yummy due to the concentrated sugars, etc… but have little in the way of nutritional content.  Furthermore, adding exciting individual nutrients that are good for us back into a nutritionally void food, does not make that food good for us in any way.  Seriously, let’s take fruit or vegetable juices for example. If I take a fruit or vegetable that have health benefits, cook the hell out of them, therefore killing any potentially beneficial enzymes and then blend them into a drink, add some sugar or salt to improve the flavor and then add in some vitamins or minerals (usually from a cheap powder), what do I have as my end product.   A high calorie beverage that has little to no nutritional value, especially when compared to its original form (fresh, whole vegetables or fruits).

Here’s a quick tool that I’ve created that can help you choose the best quality and least processed foods.  This tool only addresses the quality of foods related to processing level and does not consider your needs and the amounts that you are eating.  However, I’ve seen that people can derive benefits (i.e. fat loss, increased energy, etc…) from simply improving the quality or decreasing the processing of the foods they regularly eat!  Give it a shot for 60 days and see how you look, feel and perform and let me know how it goes for you.  I’d love to hear that it worked, or didn’t or what tweaks you made that improved it for your n=1 experiment!

Try organizing the foods you regularly eat into a spectrum of processing (similar to the one I created below) and choose the least processed foods that you can.  I’m not a raw food purist or anything, just be sure to eat more foods that are less processed over those that are more processed.  In fact, for 60 days just omit all foods from the processed side of the spectrum and see how that works for you.

Food Processing Spectrum*

*Created by: Dietitian Dan T for this blog.
This is not a quick fix, it’s truly a lifestyle change.  It will be challenging at first, but could eventually become second nature.

Perspective Shift

The reality is that we need to burn down the barns of the food industry (figuratively people, I’m not suggesting anything radical). Only then, will we be able to see the big picture, which in this case is that we need to improve the quality of the foods we eat and see how that affects our health!

Honestly, there is nothing better than cleaning up your diet and living better overall.  Better means more in line with our natural genetic adaptations, which I will cover in more detail in a future post, but in the case of today’s topic this means as free from the processed forms of foods as possible.

Till next time!


Leave a Reply