You’ve heard the positives (often via commercials) and the negatives (often from foodie purists) on meal replacement “foods”. These foods are designed to provide, according to the manufacturers, nutrition to fuel performance in easy, convenient packaging for athletes on the go. But our contention has been that something is lost when food goes through the processing it takes to pack all that powdered protein and lab created vitamins into a bar that has a decade long shelf life. Emily Deans just published a great article explaining, in clear terms, why our body NEEDS whole foods.
She, as a practicing psychiatrist with a bent toward how evolution and environment play into mental disorders, has broken down the need for whole foods into two easy to understand ideas (at least as it relates to brain development):
Our brains evolved to work with the raw materials provided by whole, minimally processed foods. Processed foods will interact poorly with the brain in two basic ways:
- Unbalanced, micronutrient-poor but calorie rich food leads to overabundant energy without sufficient cellular repair machinery to deal with it, leading to inflammation and damage. It would be like putting purified alcohol in the car in lieu of the gasoline the spark plugs are designed to work with.
- Processed foods will introduce novel chemicals, particularly from grains and food dyes that will cause inflammatory reactions in certain people.
As athletes, we know how critical optimal brain function is to high performance. Concentration, will-power, split-second decision making, and reaction time are critical brain functions. No matter how much raw fuel and muscle to utilize it the body has, if the brain isn’t functioning optimally, the body won’t be able to either.
So let’s get back to whole foods versus highly processed foods:
When you’re eating whole foods, the macro-nutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) are being consumed in ratios we have, through our evolution, learned how to utilize. Most high carb foods contain lots of fiber which slows the absorption of the carb, which eliminates the sharp blood sugar spike followed by dramatic blood sugar crash.
Micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, etc.) are also being consumed in ratios that are balanced to the body’s needs. Which means you are unlikely to miss a nutrient like fat that helps absorb other nutrients like vitamins. It is likely that nature has provided the means for us to utilize the nutrients in foods in the combinations they are naturally found.
We can’t say the same thing about a meal replacement bar that has had all the fiber stripped out of the grains. Along with the fiber, many of the vitamins and minerals have been stripped out, as well. But it all gets added back in, right? Well…some of the more well-known micronutrients do — but only the ones we have identified and understand. And adding back does not create the same outcome because micronutrient proportions are going to be much different that those found in nature.
Let’s face it, with water and air pollution, many of our foods (even whole foods) coming wrapped in plastic, we are not living in the world our bodies evolved in. We are going to suffer some of the effects of our changing environment because we just can’t help interacting with some of what isn’t ideal for us. And let’s be honest, sometimes, highly processed foods are the most sensible choice we can make.
But…we need to make sure we are truly balancing our short-term needs for convenience, portability, and athletic demands with the long-term needs of ensuring our body is getting the nutrients it needs in a form that it can make use of.