Refined-grain foods are soft and easy to chew, so we eat them faster, perhaps getting ahead of our natural “I’m full” mechanism.
Foods made from flour and/or sugar are everywhere! If we don’t actively fend them off, they can fill up our meals from morning to night. Think of the free breakfast at a mid-range hotel: toast, cereal, waffles, pancakes, pastries, bagels (fortunately usually also some eggs and oatmeal!). Then maybe a sandwich for lunch, with its bread, bun or wrap, plus a sugary drink, chips and cookies.
At dinnertime, there might be a sugary cocktail, hamburger buns, rolls, noodles, pasta, cornbread, breading on fried foods, garlic bread, pizza crust, baked goods for dessert, ice cream, and more. I grew up thinking that these foods were normal, healthy, even inevitable. I knew I should limit cake and cookies, but I thought bread, crackers, pretzels and granola bars (especially if marked “multigrain” or “fat-free”) were great food choices.
When we think about “processed foods” or “junk food,” notorious examples come to mind: sodas, french fries, potato chips, artificially flavored snack cakes (yuck!). But bagels and waffles and bread and buns and crackers and pretzels are processed foods too, providing mainly empty calories. In fact, these are ultra-processed foods – they are created from ingredients which are already highly processed (sugar, flour, corn syrup, industrial vegetable oils). They are mostly starch, which is long chains of sugar, and the natural fiber and nutrients from the wheat have been processed away. To make matters worse, whatever vitamins might be on the label have been added artificially, like a powdered vitamin pill. The food industry loves flour and sugar because they have a long shelf life and are easy to form into a wide range of processed foods.
Refined-grain foods are soft and easy to chew, so we eat them faster, perhaps getting ahead of our natural “I’m full” mechanism. They tend to raise our blood sugar quickly, putting us on the roller coaster of being hungry again later as our levels drop again. And they provide lots of calories but poor nutrition.
There is abundant evidence that refined-grain foods increase the risk of chronic diseases (whereas whole plant foods take us the other way!). According to the Arthritis Foundation, “Refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, which is not only bad for arthritis but may also increase your risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.”
And here’s the Healthline website on refined grains and diabetes: “White bread, rice, and pasta are high carb, processed foods. Eating bread, bagels, and other refined-flour foods has been shown to significantly increase blood sugar levels in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. … These processed foods contain little fiber. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. In other research, replacing these low fiber foods with high fiber foods was shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Moreover, people with diabetes experienced reductions in cholesterol. Increased fiber consumption also improved gut microbiota, which may have led to improved insulin resistance.”
This points to GREAT news about eating whole plants. Whole plants in their intact, natural form still have all of their fiber, and they contain a wide range of beneficial substances (phytonutrients) that we don’t fully understand, but that work in harmony with each other. Like exercise, whole plant foods can improve our health and well-being in almost all areas. “Eating the rainbow” of vegetables and fruits – the recommended five servings a day or more, in a range of varieties and colors, can help:
Whole plants? Aren’t they expensive, hard to prepare, easy to waste, and maybe not your favorite choices? Sure, there are many examples of all of those. But there are also affordable, accessible, easy, delicious options. Let’s explore them!
When we think about it, the flavor is in the seasonings, not the starch or sugar itself. Plain pasta with nothing on it is just a gummy mess. A commercial hamburger bun on its own is a flavorless blob. And how many spoonfuls of plain sugar would you eat?
When I was growing up, my mom sometimes ate “diet food” which consisted of things like cottage cheese, canned peaches, boiled chicken breast, and weird candies (remember Ayds?). No flavor! But there’s no reason for that! Herbs and spices in all their variety, as well as hot peppers, garlic, onions, curry paste, olive oil, tomato sauce, and many other seasonings have health benefits as well as adding flavor (just watch out for sauces with lots of added sugar!)
A lot of foods just serve to carry other, more flavorful foods to our mouths – the pita chips carry the hummus, the bun carries the hamburger, the bread carries the sandwich. Each of these carrier foods gives us 200 calories (or more), with very little nutrition. Here are some ideas I use for saving those calories and adding a whole-plant boost:
The combination of sugar and flour, plus unhealthy fats like processed oils or shortening, is especially insidious. It seems to bypass the mechanism that tells us we’ve had enough. We’d never overeat plain sugar, plain flour, or vegetable oil, but put them together in a doughnut and we can gulp down 500 calories and still look around for more. Here are some ideas for satisfying our natural human love of sweets with whole-plant ingredients:
Why is breakfast in the United States often a sticky, sugary mess? Here are some ideas for getting more whole plants with our breakfasts:
The Fiber Rule:
Whole-grain label alert! The rules are fuzzy about using words like “made from whole grains” and “multigrain” on labels, so we can’t assume these indicate a truly healthy product. Fortunately, the fiber content versus total carbohydrates on the nutrition label provides a much more accurate picture. Real whole grains have plenty of fiber, because they contain the husk of the grain as well as the starch. Look for at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of total carbohydrate – a ratio of 2 to 10 is even better. Many breads, crackers, cereals and pastas bragging about their “whole grain” content fall far short; check out the labels next time you’re shopping!
For many of us, the pitfall comes when we are busy and hungry, and we grab whatever is available. It’s great to keep some whole plants on hand to nourish and satisfy us and tame cravings.
In 2014, I changed my way of eating fundamentally, and I’ve happily continued with that new lifestyle. This guide to a whole foods plant-based diet (with some meat) comes about the closest to my own plan. However, I’ve always allowed limited exceptions, and it’s worked well for me. I find that I can follow a rough 80/20 rule. But I don’t mean “80% things the food companies say are healthy” or the foods I used to think were healthy, like granola bars. I mean that 80 percent of my food comes from a farm, not a factory – pastured animal products, fish, fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, olive oil and true whole grains (with lots of herbs and spices!), and then I can “play around” with the other 20 percent. I do need to stay conscious and intentional, though, or I will steadily gain excess fat again.
Food companies are happy to provide us with all sorts of “substitute” products, from artificial sweeteners to gluten-free flours. Of course, a product like rice flour can be truly helpful for those who need to avoid gluten because of an allergy or intolerance. But it’s also a highly refined carb and not an optimal choice. The research on artificial sweeteners is still inconclusive but not encouraging, so I avoid them when possible. In general, whole plants are better for us than any of these.
It can be tricky to stick entirely to whole plants, so I do often use products which are not intact whole plants, but which I consider better choices. Substitutes I use on a regular basis include: raw honey, pea protein powder, whey protein powder, pasta made from beans or legumes, tofu, tempeh and seitan (processed plant protein products), almond flour (for breading fish), and Scandinavian wholegrain crackers: these Wasa brand sourdough crackers are my favorites, with 2 grams of fiber for every 9 grams of total carbohydrate! Other choices that I think are not optimal, but better, include cauliflower crust for pizza, breads made with true whole grains such as Ezekiel and Dave’s (check the Fiber Rule!), and fresh sourdough bread from a bakery.
Finally, if you could you use a little brainstorming about how to swap out “breadstuffs” and other starchy or sugary foods and add more easy, tasty, healthy vegetables that you’ll love, jump on Zoom with me here at your convenience for free, and let’s make a plan together in just 45 minutes! It’s a real sample coaching session, not a sales call, don’t worry 😅. Please also visit my website at www.fierceafter45.com , and consider joining one of my upcoming Revel events:
Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you soon on Revel!
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