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What makes an apple so good for us? Is it the vitamin C? Vitamin K or B6? Is it the soluble fiber or the insoluble fiber? Is it the potassium or the phytosterols?
Or is it the apple? What a concept.
Western science is obsessed with deconstructing food, researching and analyzing its component parts, isolating the "active ingredients," repackaging them in pills or powders and prescribing them in daily doses. But according to Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., author of Food and Healing, this chemistry-based theory of nutrition is completely upside down.
Dr. Colbin, founder and CEO of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, has crafted her own nutrition theory based on more than 30 years of nutrition practice and teaching. She prefers to liken nutrition to systems theory, and believes that a whole food, like the human being consuming it, is complex and much greater than the sum of its parts.
"Whole foods," according to Dr. Colbin are those "foods that nature provides and all the edible parts." She limits them to foods that have one ingredient, such as plants, whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Animal foods are a little trickier to identify. Eggs are a whole food, but steaks are not unless you're eating the entire cow. She includes small fish if you eat the head and bones, and small birds like quail. Whole milk is included but low-fat dairy is not.
Why does eating the whole food matter?
Dr. Colbin's theory is that our bodies know the difference between a whole food and an aggregation of isolated nutrients. The human body has evolved over thousands of years to eat the food that nature presents to it and if that food has been split apart or "fragmented," the body knows and goes looking for the missing parts.
For example, Dr. Colbin suggest that if you eat fragmented wheat like white bread, where the bran and germ of the whole grain have been removed, your body will still be hungry and seek the missing part of the food, i.e., something with fiber or crunch. Likewise, health nuts who devour wheat germ or wheat bran in isolation will also feel something is missing and may find themselves craving refined flour in the form of cake at night.
Whole foods help control cravings
When we eat only part of a food that has been "fragmented," i.e., broken down into its component parts, our bodies know and want what's missing. This can set us up for cravings according to Dr. Colbin.
She cites table sugar as an example. It is a fragmented food taken from the whole food, sugar cane. So little of the sugar cane makes it into the final product that Dr. Colbin calculates it takes 17 feet of sugar cane to make one cup of sugar. What's missing is mostly the water content found in natural sugar cane, and the result she says, is that sugar makes you thirsty. If you drink sodas, which have about 12 teaspoons of sugar in a serving, you'll be thirsty afterward and continue to drink more, creating a vicious cycle.
Fruit juices are another fragmented food. When you drink orange juice, for example, all of the fiber from the fruit is missing and your body will crave something to chew on. This may set you up for a craving for chips or something crunchy. The same is true even if you think you are being really healthy and juicing vegetables.
Why health nuts might crave junk food
In fact, this problem can affect people who are trying to be healthy just as much as people who are eating junk food. For instance, Dr. Colbin warns to be very careful of vitamin and mineral supplements. Although they may have a place at certain times to treat a condition or deficiency, they are also fragments of food. The body, she says, may have difficulty processing these isolated nutrients outside of the whole food.
Dr. Colbin suggests that supplements may even make you less likely to want to eat vegetables and set you up for junk food cravings to balance out too many vitamins or minerals. Her advice is to use vitamins and supplements if medically required, but not every day and not forever.
It's all about maintaining the natural balance in the foods that nature provides. And there's no need to worry about striving for perfection or changing your diet radically. Dr. Colbin recommends that you aim for 70% whole foods in your diet to keep everything in balance. Start small, make a few changes, listen to your body and see if you notice a difference.