The Marvels of Whole Foods

 By Donald R. Davis, Ph.D.

Whole foods are foods that once lived, eaten without broad changes in their nutrient content. They are virtually the only foods that nature provides for the complex creatures of the earth.

The once-living nature of whole foods has deep significance. All living things-plants, animals, fungi, algae, and others–consist of cells. These cells contain complex metabolic machinery that enables them to live and propagate. This metabolic machinery is similar in all cells, including our own. All cells use the same structural building blocks that humans need to eat, including about 10 amino acids, two fatty acids, and carbohydrates. All cells use enzyme catalysts that require the same 10 or so vitamins, and over 15 minerals and trace minerals, that human cells require. To be alive and grow, all cells must make these substances internally or get them from their environment.

So when we eat the cells and tissues of plants and animals (or sometimes fungi like mushrooms, or algae or insects), we automatically get a broad assortment of the nutrients we need: amino acids, fatty acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, and other substances. The assortment in anyone whole food generally is imperfect in many ways, both qualitatively and quantitatively. But it is always broad, and the amounts tend to roughly match our needs.

For example, it may surprise many that oranges contain 23 nutrients in at least adequate amounts compared with the calories they contain. (See the bars in the figure that extend out to the inner circle or beyond.) Twenty of these occur in no more than fivefold excess, relative to calories; only one (vitamin C) exceeds lO times current guidelines. Besides these 23 adequate nutrients, five more have at least half the adequate levels. And six more, for a total of 34 nutrients out of 40 shown here, have at least a tenth of the adequate levels. Nearly all whole foods are similarly  suited to human needs.

By eating a variety of whole foods, we help make up for the qualitative and quantitative imperfections in individual foods. Vitamin C, for example, is low or missing in the cells of grains, nuts, and most meats, but is prominent in fruit and vegetable cells.

Vitamin B12 is available only from meats. Most other nutrients occur universally in all whole foods, because their cells require them to live.

The marvelous nature of whole foods explains how humans and all other creatures nourished themselves through the ages, without nutritional knowledge. The biochemical unity of nature serves as the nutritional foundation for all creatures.

Unfortunately, this unity is destroyed or greatly reduced in three kinds of non-whole foods that dominate the diets of developed nations. Purified sugars have the taste appeal of ripe fruits, but none of the nutrients, and they are major ingredients in many foods (see figure; honey and brown sugar are similar). Added fats and oils originally from whole foods such as corn, soybeans, olives, peanuts, and milk-are all nutritionally nearly as empty as sugar. White flour and white rice, with their bran and germ removed, suffer major losses of most nutrients.

Sadly, these three kinds of “dismembered” foods alone contribute well over half the calories and dry weight of many nations’ food supply. These same nations tend to lead the world in obesity and chronic degenerative diseases-a relationship that is surely not entirely coincidental.

By far the most important way Americans can improve their nutrition is to move back to whole foods as the foundation of their diets. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish, dairy foods, beans, lean animal foods, eggs, and other whole foods have nourished healthy creatures for millennia.

Other potential ways to improve our nutrition usually are overemphasized. Although there are nutritional losses from cooking, canning, peeling, and possibly from “depleted soils,” these losses are always minor and narrow compared to the broad losses in the “big three” dismembered foods noted above. Even juicing and drying generally cause more nutrient losses than cooking.

Nutritional supplements have value, but we must remember they are only supplements, not substitutes for whole foods. The limitations of supplements recently became more clear with our discovery of “phytochemicals” in whole plant foods. Phytochemicals are not essential, as nutrients are, but they are beneficial in myriad ways. There are probably hundreds of them (we don’t know yet), and phytochemical supplements seem a hopeless way to simulate whole plant foods.

We can reclaim our nutritional and biological heritage by eating more of the foods that nature intended for us. We will reap the benefits—known and unknown-from the marvelous nature of whole foods. I