Minimally processed food

Eating low-carb has been a useful tactic for me—when I watch my carbs, my allergy symptoms are greatly eased—but that doesn’t change the more fundamental truth of Michael Pollan’s basic rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That first rule is the most important, and would be very nearly enough all by itself, if followed strictly. Probably the way in which “low-carb” helps me as a tactic is that it eliminates whole categories of “foods” which fall short of being food, but which were in my diet for so long, and which I enjoy so much, that I’m otherwise inclined to eat them anyway.

By “food,” I’m referring to industrially produced food-like substances. And, of course, it’s not so simple as that. Twinkies and Doritos are out at the far end of the “ultra-processed” spectrum, but what about the near end? I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals—which with all the fiber removed and large amounts of sugar added are clearly ultra-processed. But what about more grown up breakfast cereals—processed, but made from whole grains, maybe with a bit of fruit or nuts added? What about granola?

Really it’s just about impossible to eat food without processing. A green salad is pretty minimally processed, but I like my lettuce picked, washed, cut or shredded into bite-sized pieces, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and vinegar (each of those latter two somewhat processed in its own right). Maybe if you get down on the ground and chomp down on a live lettuce plant you could say you were eating unprocessed food.

I started thinking about this when I saw a pair of lists—processed foods and unprocessed foods—in “Nutrition Action,” a publication which aims to be evidence-based, but which has some striking idées fixes, particularly as relates to low-fat, as illustrated in these lists: generally unremarkable, except that they bizarrely included 2% milk as an “unprocessed” food.

Now, raw milk from a single cow is arguably unprocessed. Mix it with the milk of another hundred cows, pasteurize it, and homogenize it and I think it’s already a bit of a stretch to call it just minimally processed. But to then remove half the milk fat and call that “unprocessed” to me is a bridge too far.

With ragweed season in full swing, my allergy symptoms have clicked into high gear. I’ve belatedly gotten back on very low-carb diet and am already (after just one day) feeling much better.

This time I’m trying to keep more of an “eat food” perspective on the whole thing. I don’t want to fear fruits, just because they’ve got carbs. (I am staying away from fruit juice, at least until I’m sure I’ve got the inflammation fully back under control.) I’m being even more cautious of grains, but not hesitating to include a little rice. I haven’t eaten any lentils yet, but I won’t hesitate to include them either.

I don’t want to say it’s not the carbs, because it is. But with a very few exceptions (like honey and potatoes) it’s only with ultra processing that it becomes at all appealing to eat excess carbs. If I eat food, I’m not going to have to worry about the carbs.

Here’s a photo of Jackie minimally processing some okra for the gumbo pictured at the top of this post

Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:

Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.

It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.

Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.

However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.

There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)

By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.

I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.

Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).

I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.

So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.