The Intrinsic Value of Whole Foods
Every day, discoveries are being made that underscore the truth that keeping foods whole, not processed or fractionated, is vital to our overall health and well-being. Increasingly, we are learning that isolated nutrients don’t always have the same health benefits as the whole foods from which they were derived. And beyond the familiar vitamins and minerals most of us know about, whole plant foods, including herbs and spices, contain an almost bewildering array of healthful compounds known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals (phyto means “plant”). Pigments, flavor components, and aromatic qualities that we once thought were primarily of benefit to plants—helping them either to better flourish or to protect themselves—have turned out to be powerful antioxidants that can help moderate damage to our own cells. Phytonutrients have also been found to enhance our immune response, help repair DNA damage from toxic exposures, and enhance cell to cell communication. Unlike protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, the vast array of phytonutrients may not be essential for keeping us alive, but their positive effects on health, such as helping prevent cancer and reducing inflammation are unmistakable and certainly make living life that much more enjoyable.
Some of the most studied phytonutrients may sound familiar:
-Carotenes, including alpha- and beta-carotenes, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin as found in red, orange, and yellow vegetables and fruits
-Polyphenols, including flavonoids (anthocyanins, catechins, flavanones, and isoflavones) and nonflavonoids (ellagic acid, coumarins, tannins, and lignans) as found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, tea, culinary herbs and spices, dark chocolate, and red wine
-Isothiocyanates and indoles, as found in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, arugula, chard, kale, bok choy, collard greens, cauliflower, rutabaga, turnips, radishes, watercress, and brussels sprouts
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown the powerful positive effects of eating a good diet, starting from the maternal nutrition we receive while still in the womb and continuing through all stages of life, including our senior years. Eating a good, nutritious diet high in phytonutrients, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting sufficient exercise are essential for reducing the incidence of myriad chronic noncommunicable heath conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, cancer, dental diseases, and osteoporosis.
And a good diet is not a numbers game involving basing one’s diet choices on how high or low a food is in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and the like. Food manufacturers can process food in a variety of ways to make it look good on a nutrition facts label, but that doesn’t mean the food within the package is inherently nutritious or even good for you. The lowest rates of coronary heart disease, certain types of cancers, and other diet-related chronic diseases have been found in cultures where the everyday diet is based primarily on whole foods. This diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, whole grain breads and pastas, beans, nuts and seeds, and includes some unrefined healthy oils. It has low amounts of eggs, red meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products in the form of cheese and yogurt. Not only is eating such a diet the most nutritious—remember that phytonutrients are present only in whole plant foods—it is also the most delicious—which helps motivate us to maintain such a diet. The trick is to know all the fabulous good food possibilities available in every category of food.
And that is exactly what this book is all about. Rather than being about what foods to avoid and why, it is an introduction to or a reminder of what good food is and what to do with it. It is a weaving together of descriptions, cooking suggestions, and just enough history, food science, and nutrition to give a glimpse of the wonders each food has to offer. It is an appreciation of food for its possibilities: its bringing together of people to the table, its melding of cultures, its nourishment of body and soul, its celebration of the people and plants that make it all happen, and, of course, its extraordinary flavors.
Each chapter focuses on specific foods and related ideas that I personally have found to be essential to an intuitive style of wholesome, delicious cooking. You’ll experience an abundant world of food within these pages, which I hope will serve as a catalyst for the development of your own natural connection to foods. Your path of discovery will bring you not only sheer enjoyment but also better health and well-being.
Now, it’s time to turn the page and get out your fork. Explore and enjoy the possibilities!
Excerpted from The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg. Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Wittenberg. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.