Quality Over Quantity: Choosing the Best Food Source

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Oct 6th, 2011)

Last week we talked about inflammation in our bodies and how to reduce it through diet. A major part of this is choosing good quality food sources. This can be overwhelming when starting out so I’d like to try to simplify this and take away some of the anxiety surrounding this topic.

The most generic advice for starting out that I can give is to avoid the central aisles in the grocery store and stick to the edges of the store. This will take us through the produce section, the butcher’s counter, the dairy section, and the bakery (bonus points to anyone who remembers why these to last sections should be skipped too. Hint: The answer was discussed last week). Select few products from the centre aisles should be included in a healthy diet such as canned goods like beans or bottled oils and vinegars. Otherwise, the centre aisles are filled with processed foods that hold very little in the way of nutrients and often an overload of chemicals.

To get more into the specifics let’s look at what makes up food. The five groups of nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats but not all nutrients are made equal. We need to look at each group separately to sort out all the different issues associated with them. Don’t worry. It’s not as daunting as it sounds.

The Carbs:

The main issue with quality carbohydrates is well known, Simple versus Complex carbs. But how many of us actually know what that means? Carbohydrates are made up of a chain of sugars and, in general, the difference between the two is the length of the molecule. Simple carbs, like the table sugar used in baking or to sweeten our tea or coffee, are very short and easy to digest. Complex carbs, like whole grains or vegetables, are long and harder to digest. Complex carbs are also called Fibre. Despite what logic might say, the harder the carbohydrate is to digest the better it is for our bodies. Fibre has a slowing down effect on our guts that improves digestive ability and captures bad substances and does not allow them to be absorbed. Simple carbohydrates will enter our blood streams in a big rush and spike the insulin levels (increasing the risk for developing Diabetes if happening repetitively). Try to avoid simple carbs and get most of your daily intake from complex sources.

Foods To Avoid

  • Processed Grains
  • White Rice (it has been highly processed)

Foods To Pick

  • Organic Whole Grains
  • Brown Rice
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
  • Fresh Crunchy Vegetables
  • Crisp Fruit

Proteins:

Proteins are made up of little building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 unique amino acids that we use in our daily grind to drive all the mechanisms of our metabolism and build the infrastructure of our muscles. Some of these amino acids we can make from others but some we absolutely need from our diet. Instead of trying to memorize a list of names that mean nothing to you and trying to find out which foods contain which amino acids it is easier to fill our diets with foods that are rich in many different amino acids so that we take in a variety every day. When attempting this; beans, fresh meats, and quinoa are your best friends. Eggs actually contain every amino acid the body needs and are a great source of protein but are a common allergen and so may not be an optimal choice for many people.

Foods To Avoid

  • Deli or Canned Meats
  • Beans canned in oil, salt, or preservatives

Foods To Pick

  • Organic Meats
  • Beans canned in Water
  • Eggs

Vitamins:

By definition a vitamin is a molecule that our body needs to function, cannot make on its own, and does not fit into one of the other categories. Vitamins can be divided into two groups; water soluble and fat soluble vitamins. This means that your vitamins are going to be coming from very different foods. Our water soluble vitamins (Vitamins B and C) can be found in the usual places you would think to find vitamins like fruits and vegetables. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are found in the less “traditional” places like meat, dairy, and fatty fruits like avocado but they do still show up in our fruits and veggies (especially vitamin A).

Foods To Avoid

  • Deli or Canned Meats
  • Canned Vegetables

Foods To Pick

  • Organic Meats
  • Fresh Dark Green and Brightly Coloured Vegetables
  • Fruits of Many Different Colours
  • Dairy (more fat is best but this has other problems)

Minerals:

There are so many minerals that the body requires to function properly it would be overwhelming to list them all. A good rule of thumb for these essential nutrients is to eat unprocessed foods that come from the earth. Many of you may be looking at me with a quirk in your eye and thinking, “All food comes from the earth dummy!” What I mean is foods that are closely associated with dirt like root vegetables, onions, mushrooms, and the entire legume family. Two exceptions to this rule are green leafy vegetables and nuts. They are absolutely full of good minerals.

Foods To Avoid

  • Canned Mushrooms
  • Beans Canned in Oil, Salt, or any Preservative
  • Premade Root Vegetable Meals

Foods To Pick

  • Fresh Mushrooms
  • Fresh, Canned in Water, or Dried Beans
  • Fresh Root Vegetables
  • Whole Grains
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (see the pattern yet?)
  • Nuts (fresh or dry roasted)

Fats:

Fats are so essential in our lives that one or two paragraphs will not do them justice. We will discuss them in depth next week so that you can have the full picture these nutrients deserve.

From these lists a pattern becomes clear. A healthy and balanced diet should have organic and fresh meat as well as a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits in many colours as the bulk. Adding nuts, whole grains and brown rice will fill in any gaps there might be left. This way you will be eating good quality nutrients allowing you to be at your best and prepared for any physical challenge the world can throw at you.

I hope you enjoyed this and learned something today. Thanks for reading,

Dr. Ben

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