Whole Food Vs Refined Food

For too long, nutrition science has taken a predominantly reductionistic approach to the study of food and its relationship to health. Rather than appreciate the complex nature of plants and their potential to synergistically work within the body, we have fragmented foods into specific components in an effort to mimic certain observed benefits. In doing so, the interplay of thousands of molecules working in harmony is lost, and often with it, the art of true nourishment. Quite simply, whole foods are more than the sum of their parts. The powerful response that whole foods offer the human body is almost never replicated by one nutrient that has been isolated from a particular plant or a food that has gone through processing and refinement.

Whole food ingredients support balance in the body due to the natural balance that exists between the molecules in these foods. Each whole food consists of thousands of naturally occurring molecules that provide the body with a variety of micronutrients in a way that is both balanced and physiologically compatible. These molecules also interact and can work synergistically in the body to offer benefit. However, when a food is heavily processed or refined, these important molecule relationships are stripped away, and we lose the synergy and balance that exists – the effects of which are new to our metabolism.

It is critical to evaluate several different aspects of food processing and the effect it can have on the human body. There is now a large amount of data supporting a whole foods approach – some of these studies include the following:

  • Ian Spreadbury examined the relationship between carbohydrate density and changes in the microbiome. Processed foods that comprise most standard diets are higher in carbohydrate density and negatively impact the microbiome by promoting bacterial overgrowth, driving inflammation, and increasing metabolic burden. (1)
  • Laster et al looked at ultra-processed diet vs. an unprocessed, whole foods diet with the same calories, macronutrients, sugar, and fiber. Participants who ate the processed foods diet ate more and gained weight from the start of the study. (2)
  • Poti et al evaluated the level of refinement of fruit in its whole form to juice and further to soda. Whereas a  whole fruit can be well tolerated because of the phytonutrients, fiber, and small amount of sugar it contains, turning this whole fruit into juice strips away the beneficial components, leaving sugar in a form that creates a rapid sugar spike that’s more difficult for the body to manage. (3)
  • Many studies have looked at imbalance and inflammation that results when fructose is consumed beyond a level that the body can safely metabolize – often from fruit juices and sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. (4-6)
  • Oils have also been evaluated based on their ORAC scores, which assesses the antioxidant capacity of a particular oil and how well it protects against oxidation from free radicals. Those with high ORAC scores, like olive and flaxseed oil, are almost never added to processed foods whereas those that with very low ORAC scores and low benefit, like sunflower, peanut, and canola oil are frequently added to processed foods. Even more, processed industrial seed oils promote a significant level of inflammation in the body due to the imbalance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. (7)

Further, several studies have looked at isolating a certain nutrient thought to be potentially beneficial and have shown either no positive effect or even worse, negative results.

  • Inulin in whole foods like artichokes, leeks, and asparagus can be very beneficial to the microbiome. However, when inulin is added to foods, like it is to so many processed foods to increase the fiber content, it can be very damaging results to the microbiome and overall health. (8)
  • Microbial accessible carbohydrates (MACs) from whole, plant-based foods support a healthy microbiome by supporting SCFA production, helping reduce the body’s inflammatory response. In turn, the current model of eating with refined, heavily processed foods fortified with nutrients, may create dysbiosis within the gut, producing highly inflammatory compounds. (9) 
  • Vitamin E supplementation in the Physician’s Health Study showed no benefit of supplementation in cardiovascular disease, but an increased risk of stroke. Though, nuts and seeds that are rich in vitamin E are continually shown to be supportive of overall cardiovascular health. (13-15)
  • Studies of fish oil have not been shown to replicate the benefits of consuming oily fish. While there can be a time and a place for using fish oil, it’s not just the EPA and DHA from fish that are beneficial - there are so many others fatty acids found in a whole food like sardines that are not found in fish oil. (16-18)

All this demonstrating that the beneficial nutrient composition of a plant is dependent upon its relationship with other molecules, not one single nutrient. This balance is easily lost by pulling out each component and no longer do we see synergistic effects.

David Katz, in his review of popular diet interventions including vegetarian/vegan, Mediterranean, Paleolithic, low carbohydrate, etc., concluded that “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion.” While the study of nutrition can become detailed and nuanced, when put simply, a foundation that is rooted in whole foods will support the overall health and wellness of all populations. (19) The same has proven true for individuals requiring enteral nutrition support. A recent study out of Boston Children’s Hospital showed improved outcomes in children receiving blenderized diets consisting of whole foods when compared to those on conventional formulas composed of highly refined ingredients. Among their findings, improvements in those on blenderized feeds included lower ER visits, decreased hospital admissions, decreased digestive symptoms, fewer symptoms, and higher satisfaction. (20) Dr. Stig Bengmark has also written landmark papers examining artificial enteral formulas and their failure to support the nourishment of critically ill patients – instead creating greater imbalance, insulin resistance, greater levels of inflammation due to the heavily processed and physiologically incompatible ingredients. (21-22)

It’s time to assess nourishment with a deeper lens. Most of our current analysis view foods from a macronutrient and micronutrient perspective – calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. While still important, it’s very limiting in assessing the overall impact of a food. A broader perspective considering the combination of foods, how a food is prepared, where a food comes from, and how it is grown, will offer far more than a single supplemented nutrient. This favors a far more holistic approach that places value in the complexity of whole foods and offers greater impact on human health. (23)

The information and resources provided in this article are based on the opinions of the author unless otherwise noted. All information is intended to assist readers to make their own informed  nutrition and health decisions after consulting with their health care provider. All products sold and distributed by Nutritional Medicinals are conventional whole foods and are not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.



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  7. Lanza B, Ninfali P. Antioxidants in Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Table Olives: Connections between Agriculture and Processing for Health Choices. Antioxidants (Basel). 2020;9(1):41. Published 2020 Jan 2. doi:10.3390/antiox9010041
  8. Vishal Singh et al. Dysregulated Microbial Fermentation of Soluble Fiber Induces Cholestatic Liver Cancer. Cell, 2018; 175 (3): 679
  9. Starving our Microbial Self: The Deleterious Consequences of a Diet Deficient in Microbiota-Accessible Carbohydrates Erica D. Sonnenburg, Justin L. Sonnenburg Cell Metabolism Volume 20, Issue 5, Pages 779-786 (November 2014)
  10. Anna-Sigrid Keck, Qingyan Qiao, and, and Elizabeth H. Jeffery. Food Matrix Effects on Bioactivity of Broccoli-Derived Sulforaphane in Liver and Colon of F344 Rats. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2003 51 (11), 3320-3327
  11. Thomas W.-M. Boileau, Zhiming Liao, Sunny Kim, Stanley Lemeshow, John W. Erdman, Jr., Steven K. Clinton, Prostate Carcinogenesis in N-methyl-N-nitrosourea (NMU)-Testosterone-Treated Rats Fed Tomato Powder, Lycopene, or Energy-Restricted Diets, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 95, Issue 21, 5 November 2003, Pages 1578–1586
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  13. Micha R, Peñalvo JL, Cudhea F, Imamura F, Rehm CD, Mozaffarian D. Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States. JAMA. 2017;317(9):912–924. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.0947
  14. Sesso HD, Buring JE, Christen WG, et al. Vitamins E and C in the prevention of cardiovascular disease in men: the Physicians' Health Study II randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2008;300(18):2123–2133. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.600
  15. Chung-Yen Chen, Paul E. Milbury, Karen Lapsley, Jeffrey B. Blumberg, Flavonoids from Almond Skins Are Bioavailable and Act Synergistically with Vitamins C and E to Enhance Hamster and Human LDL Resistance to Oxidation, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 135, Issue 6, June 2005, Pages 1366–1373
  16. Keller Bulla, Milena & Isabelle Simionato, Julliana & Matsushita, Makoto & Coro, Fabio & Shimokomaki, Massami & Visentainer, Jesui & Souza, Nilson. (2018). Proximate Composition and Fatty Acid Profile of Raw and Roasted Salt-Dried Sardines (Sardinella Brasiliensis).
  17. Kim YS, Xun P, He K. Fish consumption, long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and risk of metabolic syndrome: a meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2015 Mar 24;7(4):2085-100. doi: 10.3390/nu7042085. PMID: 25811108; PMCID: PMC4425132.
  18. Goel A, Pothineni NV, Singhal M, Paydak H, Saldeen T, Mehta JL. Fish, Fish Oils and Cardioprotection: Promise or Fish Tale? Int J Mol Sci. 2018 Nov 22;19(12):3703. doi: 10.3390/ijms19123703. PMID: 30469489; PMCID: PMC6321588.
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  20. Rosen R et al. Health Outcomes and Quality of Life Indices of Children Receiving Blenderized Feeds via Enteral Tube. J Pediatr. 2019 Aug;211:139-145.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.04.023. Epub 2019 May 23.
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  23. Anthony Fardet, Edmond Rock.From a Reductionist to a Holistic Approach in Preventive Nutrition to Define New and More Ethical Paradigms. Healthcare 2015

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