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Ask the Diet Doctor: Is Wholesome Food Healthier Than Processed Food?

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Q: Are wholesome (natural, local, etc) foods healthier than processed foods?

A: This might sounds sacrilegious, but processing doesn’t innately make a food bad and just because something is local doesn’t mean that it will help you lose weight. (The Amish desserts at my local farmer’s market make the McDonald’s menu look slimming.)

Sure high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, but if you replaced all the high fructose corn syrup in the American food supply with organic cane sugar, would we be that much better off? No.

We are often seduced by health buzzwords such as “raw,” “unprocessed,” “natural,” “organic,” and “gluten-free.” But just as the old buzzwords (“cholesterol-free,” “low-fat,” “fat-free,” “saturated fat-free”) misled people to eat foods that were packed with refined sugars and carbohydrates, today’s new health buzzwords have convinced people to completely disregard the fat and calorie contents of foods as long as they have one (or more) of these claims on the label.

Calories Are Key
If you want to lose weight, the first thing you need to focus on is calories. But a calorie is not a calorie and eating 200 calories from a piece of sirloin compared to a glass of cola is different. So the second most important thing to consider is the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats).

RELATED: How Many Calories Are in Your Favorite Summer Treats?

After these two, there are a lot of secondary factors such as:

  • organic or conventional
  • level of processing
  • potential allergens (i.e. gluten, casein, soy, etc)
  • natural ingredients or synthetic ingredients

More and more I am seeing people put secondary factors before primary factors—and this is a mistake. If you choose to eat a bag of chips from the farmers market that was made from organic potatoes and deep-fried in beef tallow over a bag of chips from the vending machine, don’t puff up your chest too much about the wholesome unprocessed foods that you are eating as you are still eating potato chips.

This kind of rationalization is most prevalent in the gluten-free world. Gluten-free sweets and desserts are pitched as having a halo-of-health around them due to the absence of an all-natural protein called gluten. Here’s the thing about gluten-free sweets and desserts (I’m telling you this out of more than eight years of practical experience in the gluten-free world plus my experience as a nutritionist): They are most expensive, they don’t taste nearly as good, and they contain more refined fast-acting carbohydrates than their average non-gluten counterpart food. Gluten-free does not equal healthy.

RELATED: 11 Nutrition Myths That Cause Weight Gain

Make Smart and Wholesome Choices
Picking the local/organic/natural version of comparable foods is usually the better choice. Eating locally grown organic spinach is going to be a better choice than non-organic spinach shipped from Guatemala. But skipping the non-organic non-local spinach salad because of its origins and then opting for the 600-calorie slice of raw, vegan, organic pumpkin pie made in the restaurant's kitchen because it is wholesome is not the smart move.

Keep your diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Buying wholesome foods is great, but don’t let any of the new health buzzwords lead you away from the fact that calories matter.

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