Redefining Healthy Food: Part 1

We all know what healthy food is. Or do we? It’s a term that’s so overused and misunderstood, it has become meaningless. Confused by misinformation and clever marketing. Clouded by other factors which influence our food choices. We’ve lost sight of what healthy food really is. It’s time to get our objectivity back. It’s time to redefine healthy food.

In my inaugural post, I discussed the importance and necessity of owning our own health. You can see that post here. Owning your health obligates you to take action. To make changes to the health-related aspects of your life. The most important of these is food. Think about it. Every single component of your body is built from the food you put in your mouth. Food not only provides the raw materials for the physical structure, but the building blocks for every process and function in the body, from nerve impulses to wound healing. The body and its functions are incredibly complex. This complexity requires precision. Every component has to be right, or faults appear. Since every component is built from food, in order to be healthy – to function optimally – our food has to be right. A healthy body requires healthy food.

If you think this sounds obvious, you’re right. It is obvious. Or at least it should be. Defining healthy food is the tricky (and contentious) bit. Because the whole topic has become a confused mess. Everyone from the NHS to your favourite lifestyle blogger has their own definition of healthy food. Many of them are plain wrong. Nearly all of them are compromises. Distorted by all the other pressures that impact what food we eat. Preference, availability, affordability, sustainability, cultural practices, social norms, environmental concerns. We are caught up in trying to please everyone. To provide “balance”. But what we end up with is watered-down, blurred definitions that don’t serve our health. When making food choices, our starting point should be the health impact. To begin with, all other factors should be ignored. That’s not to say the other factors aren’t important. They are. And I don’t presume to tell you what to eat. You own your health, not me. But before we incorporate other variables (and we must), we need an honest and objective definition of what healthy food is. And, of course, what it isn’t. I’ll start there.

It’s well established that humans have evolved to eat food which could either be foraged, killed or caught. In other words, food in its natural form. Whole food. Real food. Humans have not evolved to eat anything else. Eating anything else, therefore, is harmful to us. Perhaps not immediately and severely (unless we have an allergy). But over time, if the exposure persists, health problems begin to emerge.

The modern human diet, at least in Western countries, is made up mostly of manufactured food. Processed food. Fake food. Food made in a factory or a laboratory from fragments of natural food and synthetic chemicals. Around 75% of food shelf-space in the supermarket is taken up by manufactured food. That means 75% of the food we eat is not real food. The health implications of this are terrible. We all now recognise that “junk food” as it’s commonly defined – the likes of Mars Bars, Coca-Cola and Big Macs – is catastrophic to our health. But almost every other manufactured food is also harmful to us. Packaged bread, breakfast cereals, ready-meals, tinned soup, biscuits, vegetable oil, industrially produced animal products. These all sound like reasonable, everyday foods, right? And that’s what they have become. But in reality, they are all highly processed food substitutes. Even so-called “health foods” like protein bars, soya milk and granola are often highly refined and laden with chemicals. There are differing degrees, of course, and dose matters, but the vast majority of manufactured food is damaging to our bodies. In one (or more) of the following three ways:

  1. Food fragments used in manufactured food are digested, absorbed and metabolised very differently to the whole foods from which they are extracted. Sugar is a good example. Consuming refined sugar is very different from eating a piece of sugar beet. Our bodies have evolved to deal with the volume and state of sugars in whole foods, not in processed sugary drinks and snacks.
  2. The synthetic chemicals common in manufactured food – preservatives, colours, flavours, emulsifiers, stabilisers – are not familiar to the human body. They only appeared in our food supply in the last few decades. We have not evolved mechanisms to deal with them. They damage our tissues and leave behind toxic residues.
  3. Manufactured food is lacking in, and often completely devoid of nutrients. Filling up on these products leaves less room for the healthy foods which provide the nutrients essential for physiological function. We become deficient in the correct raw materials.

The human body is an amazingly adaptable organism. We are able to weather a significant amount of abuse before any clinical symptoms emerge (symptoms that can be identified by your doctor). But problems begin way before a clinical manifestation. Years, or even decades before the abdominal pain, the bloody stool, the chest pain or the tumour, there are sub-clinical signs. Inflammatory markers, hormone imbalances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, toxin residues. Tangible, measurable signals, which unfortunately are not routinely looked for by the medical fraternity. The point is, manufactured food doesn’t kill us overnight, but it does contribute enormously to the development of disease.

There’s another important angle to consider here. Manufactured food has been created for one reason, and one reason only: To increase the profits of the food industry. In fact, there wouldn’t be a food industry without it. The whole supply chain – from manufacture to storage to transport – is efficient, scalable and enormously profitable. Attracting buyers for a poor quality product is hard. So, the food industry has used very persuasive (and ultimately very successful) marketing. They have managed to convince us that fake food, with a long shelf-life, that requires minimal preparation is actually a good thing. It’s convenient, they tell us. Easy. Tasty. I don’t think there’s anything convenient or easy about obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And, even if it was tasty, that wouldn’t be sufficient compensation. Maybe I’m just cynical, but the reality is manufactured food is killing us and our children, while enriching the food companies. It has also made us lose our respect for food and our skills in the kitchen, which further perpetuates this destructive and depressing cycle. If you are in any doubt about the pervasiveness and insidiousness of manufactured food, consider this: One in three children leaving primary school today is overweight or obese. One in three.

The good news? There is no single change more effective at transforming our health than opting out of manufactured foods. Doing this alone enabled me to quit the powerful immunosuppressant drugs I had been taking for seven years, and finally take back ownership of my health. I’ve since made many lifestyle changes, including further diet refinement, but nothing has been as transformative as ditching manufactured foods. My past food choices were nothing short of terrible. My diet was littered with processed junk and refined sugars. Sadly, I wasn’t an exception. In fact, I was probably eating a better diet than the UK average. But I had to change, and eventually I did. You can too.

Giving up manufactured foods entirely doesn’t have to be the goal here. The goal is to own your food choices. There are, in fact, a small number of what I’d call “acceptable” manufactured foods (to be revisited in a future post). And there are a few which are truly healthy. Genuine extra-virgin olive oil is one. It’s all a matter of degree. Use your judgement. Assess the risk. And make a conscious decision.

Now that we have defined what healthy food definitely is not, we can explore what healthy food is. In Part 2. Stay tuned.

Own your health

– James.

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