Whole versus Processed Foods: A Reply to Joe Vegan

This is a response to a recent post on Joe Vegan’s Salad in a Steakhouse blog.

He asked readers to weigh in on the whole versus processed foods debate. I was going to just post a reply in his comments section, but I thought the issue was interesting enough that I should post it here too.

Here’s my response (do read his post first)….

Dear Joe:

I think there three things one must look at when assessing the healthiness of any particular food: Nutritional density, presence of bad stuff, and whether the nutrients used to “enrich” processed foods are as “good” as the nutirents that naturally ocur in whole foods.

Assuming a nutrient is a nutrient (e.g. the B12 added to soymilk is equivalent to the B12 naturally occurring in meat), then which of two foods is healthier depends how many nutrients each provides per calorie, versus how much/many “health detractors” they contain and how bad those health detractors are.

Whole foods tend to contain little bad stuff (though the pesticides etc. that coat alot of our delicate produce make me wonder at their advantage over an organic fruit roll-up) and tend to be pretty nutritionally dense. Processed foods tend to contain a lot of bad stuff (preservatives and the like) and less of the good stuff – though of course a lot of common processed foods are “enriched.”

Consequently, looking at things from a statistical point of view, one who eats a whole food diet is going to be eating healthier than one who eats a processed food diet. This does not necessarily mean, however, that every whole food is healthier than every processed food.

I actually find the same flawed logical leap by those who advocate vegan diets. Vegan food does tend to be more healthy, ergo following a vegan diet is more likely to promote health than the standard American diet is. It does not follow, however, that all meat is inherently unhealthy or that veganism is inherently healthy. A diet that is rich in whole foods but contains small amounts of meat is certainly healthier than a vegan diet that consists of potato chips and oreos.

The bottom line is, stop trying to draw artificial boundaries around your diet. Take the time to read the ingredient list and actually think about where your food comes from. And accept that all bread (even whole grain gluten free bla bla bla) should be consumed in moderation and there is no such thing as a healthy cupcake.

A couple of points to end on – First, there is a lot of debate over whether “artificial nutrients” in “enriched” foods are equivalent to “naturally occurring nutrients.” I would be interested in a collection of “hard facts” on this issue. Have many studies been done comparing the two types of nutrients?

Second, my statements above suggest that the “health argument” does not unequivocally support veganism. The moral argument, of course, does.

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