Thursday, August 5, 2010

Whole Foods

Whole Foods -- In the health arena, whole foods is a recently coined phrase that is gaining a following. But what does it mean, what are the benefits and how do you incorporate whole foods into your diet?

Whole food essentially means food that has not been refined or processed and exists in its natural state with the bran, germ and endosperm intact. Including all the componants of grains and seeds is important, as each part provides different benefits: the bran is the outer shell and includes fibre, B vitamins and trace minerals, the endosperm is the bulk and provides energy, carbohydrates and protein, while the germ provides nourishment for the seed, antioxidants, vitamin E and B vitamins.

Whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains (brown rice, oats, millet, rye, whole wheat, quinoa, spelt kernels, kamut kernels), beans (black, pinto, red, kidney, aduki), unroasted nuts and seeds, legumes. Many of these foods may be unfamiliar to the average North American, and would definitely not be considered staples in their diet. However, they are tasty alternatives to the average North American diet and slowly gaining in popularity - even becoming available in many grocery stores.

Today, the average North American diet is composed of processed foods such as white flour, white sugar, roasted nuts and seeds, processed oils, chips, white rice, processed meats and soy products. One of the main reasons processed foods have grown in popularity is because they are faster to cook, softer, lighter and sweeter. They digest quickly, and thus allow more calories to be consumed, since they don't fill up the body as much as whole foods. This facilitates over-eating and is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

The nutritional value of these foods have been stripped, and they are essentially empty calories, lacking in the vitamins and minerals that are essential for optimum health. We have become addicted to and reliant on fast, easy foods loaded with unhealthy fats, salt and sugar.

Individuals who have not consumed whole foods previously may find the adaptaion process to be difficult. Keeping the grain intact can make the texture 'chewier' and denser and creates a stronger flavour that can feel overpowering, if you are not used to it. However, after some time, your body will become used to these new textures and tastes, and will appreciate the whole nutrition it is receiving. Consuming whole foods inhibits overconsumption, as whole foods keep you feeling fuller for longer, and thus less likely to snack unnecessarily.

Consuming whole foods provides numerous added health benefits -- studies have shown that individuals with a diet high in unrefiend foods, high in fibre and low in sugar have a lower incidence of heart disease bowel disease, diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure). Whole foods are also a rich source of quality carbohydrates, proteins and various vitamins and minerals.  Whole grains will have more iron, B vitamins, fibre, protein and other minerals than their processed counterparts.  Eating a diet high in whole foods will also ensure that all of your foods provide you with a nutrient boost, rather than simply providing you with simple calories.   

Many people complain that they don't have time to cook anymore, and thus our reliance on 'quick' processed foods deepens. But, are whole foods that much more work to prepare? They may require some additional planning, but with forethought, beans and whole grains can be prepared ahead of time and ready to be made into a satisfying supper within half and hour.

Brown rice - ready in 40 minutes. 1 cup grain to 2 cups water.
Will keep in the fridge for several days and can also be frozen.
Quick to make into stir-fries with veggies, eggs, tofu, peanut or other sauces, good with asian curries and with spaghetti sauce.

Quinoa - ready in 15 minutes. 1 cup grain to 2 cups water -- should be rinsed a couple of times prior to cooking to remove bitterness.
Can be used like brown rice for savoury dishes, or is fantastic as a breakfast with milk (cow, soy, almond, rice), berries, nuts, dried fruit and a dash of salt and sweetener.  This is a super fast meal to throw together.

Oats - use steal cut or scottish oats to retain more of the benefits and minimize processing.  Takes 10-20 minutes to cook.  Great for oatmeal, with milk, a dash of salt and sweetener.  Fruit (apples, bananas, berries, peaches, dried fruit), nuts (almonds and walnuts) and coconut are also great additions.

Buckwheat - Ready in 30 minutes.  Tasty with vegetables and combines really well with tomato sauces.  Can also be made into a porridge with milk, sweetener and a dash of salt.

Spelt and Kamut kernels and oat groats- Should be soaked for several hours prior to cooking.  You can leave them to soak when you leave for work, and they are ready to cook when you return home in the evening.
Cooking time is between 50-70 minutes. The kernels or groats will be somewhat chewy when ready.
They can be used like rice for stir-fries, or are great additions to salads for extra nutritients, substance and texture.  They can also be made into a salad on their own by adding cucumber, sunflower seeds, dried fruit (cranberries, raisins or currants), celery, coloured peppers, tomatoes, and a dressing (I like flax seed oil and lemon juice, with a little salt and maple syrup).

Beans- black, pinto, garbanzo, aduki, red, northern etc.  They should be soaked overnight (or for at least 8 hours). In the morning, change the soaking water, rinse the beans a few times, and then cover with ~2 cms of extra water.  Place in a slow cooker on the low setting, and they will be ready in the evening.
Aduki beans are softer and cook quite a bit faster than the other beans.
Once ready, beans are fantastic for quick dishes.  They can be thrown into a stir-fry (garbanzo beans are especially good with rice or quinoa), be made into a dip (eg: hummous or black bean dip), thrown together for a chili, or made into tacos, enchiladas or huevos rancheros (corn tortilla with cheese, fried egg, black beans and salsa).
Beans and rice can be combined as a meal in itself, or they also make fantastic burgers.

Lentils- red, brown, french, green.  Red lentils cook the fastest in about 10-15 minutes.  The others take about 20-25 minutes.
Lentils are packed with iron and B vitamins and excellent sources of protein and fibre.
They are quick to cook and can be thrown together for soups or stews and added to rice or quinoa in a stir-fry like dish.
Red lentils taste quite a bit different than the other kinds, have a milder taste and may be more palatable for those who have never consumed lentils.

Vegetables and fruits - 
Can be eaten alone for snacks or with some peanut butter or humous for added protein.  Vegetables of course combine well with grains, beans and legumes and add a good dose of nutrients, fibre, antioxidants, and colour.

So far I have focused on foods in their most natural state, rather than foods ground into flour. Maximizing our use of whole foods that are entirely intact provides the most benefits for our bodies.  However, when flour products are consumed, an easy way to enhance the nutrient value of our food is to switch to whole grain proucts.  So instead of consuming refined pasta and white bread, choose whole wheat, spelt or kamut pasta and 100% whole wheat, rye or spelt bread.  Breads that are sprouted add an additional benefit.

However, be careful of consuming too much soft store bread.  Despite the fact that many of it is 100% whole wheat or whole grain, it still includes many added preservatives and sugars that are unnecessary.  The best option is to either bake your own bread (this is really easy and fast using a bread machine) or purchase bread from your local bakery.   

Muffins and cakes can also be made from whole grains and are equally delicious.  If you are baking your own, you can substitute the whole grain flour for a bit of amaranth flour, to lighten it.

As noted there are lots of easy and quick ways to add whole foods to our diets.  It may appear or sound daunting, but once you start practicing it, it becomes routine and doesn't require a lot of extra time.

In my next post, which I'll put up in a week, I will provide recipes for many of the ideas I've listed in this blog.  Until then, have fun, eat well and experiment a little.  

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