A Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Food Diet Part 3
We’ve made it to the third and final part of the foundations of a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet. In Part 1 we discussed the staples that will ideally make up the majority of your daily food intake. Part 2 focused on foods to consume in moderation. In this article, we are going to explore the different foods that are best avoided. Before we jump in, I want to emphasize how important it is to not get bogged down thinking about what you can’t eat. Of course, you can eat anything you want, but your desire to optimize your health, recover from illness, improve your longevity, and/or enhance your performance, will help dictate what you choose to eat.
I grew up listening to my dad say, “you can have whatever you want, as long as you want it badly enough.” That is to say, as long as you are willing to do what is necessary to achieve it. In this case, optimizing your health means eating certain foods and avoiding others. Adopting a nutrient dense, whole food diet is a powerful choice and with it, you can turn your health and performance goals into your reality.
Foods to Avoid: Industrial Seed Oils, Grains, Soy, Peanuts, & Refined Sugar
The types of food we will discuss in this article are ones that need to be avoided completely to prevent damage and disease. They are inflammatory, deleterious, and/or micronutrient poor or robbing. Consuming them will not help you toward your health and fitness goals and may actually directly inhibit you from reaching them.
Just remember, don’t dwell on the foods you choose to avoid. Use the information below to help you make informed choices and focus on filling up on nutrient-dense staples. With time and practice new eating, cooking, and grocery shopping habits will make foregoing these foods a no-brainer.
Industrial Seed Oils → These highly inflammatory fats are a major source of oxidative stress.
Not all fats are created equally. In Part 1, we outlined the benefits of fat and why it should be a staple element of a healthy diet. Did you notice that the list of healthy fats (cold pressed & unrefined coconut oil, ghee/butter, grass-fed animal tallow/lard, avocado oil, and extra virgin olive oil) doesn’t include any industrial seed oils such as canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, or even refined coconut oil?
There are two primary problems associated with industrial seed oils:
- The chemical refining process generates a significant risk of increased oxidative stress.
- Seed oils are high in omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
When oils are produced using high heat, high pressure, and a chemical refining process, like all of the industrial seed oils listed above, the chemical integrity of the fatty acids in the oil is jeopardized. Chemical refining is a process that includes degumming, neutralizing, bleaching, de-waxing, and deodorizing crude oil using chemicals such as hexane . All of these steps negatively affect the oxidative stability of fatty acids. In other words, chemical refining increases the likelihood that an oil will oxidize . Oxidation is a chemical process in which a substance loses electrons and thereby generates free radicals. When an oxidized substance is present in the human body, tissue damage occurs. The body utilizes antioxidants (like those found in fruits and vegetables) to counter the harmful cellular effects of oxidized substances, but when the number of free radicals outnumbers the body’s defenses, oxidative stress leads to tissue damage and the development of diseases such as diabetes mellitus type 2  and Alzheimer’s disease . The cold-pressed unrefined oils on the staples list have a much lower likelihood of oxidation and contain more naturally occurring antioxidants. When cooking with virgin oils, take caution to only use them at temperatures below that which causes that particular oil to oxidize, also known as an oil’s “smoke-point.”
Seeds are also naturally high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). The problem here lies in the abundance of omega-6 PUFAs in modern diets compared to the relative scarcity of omega-3 PUFAs. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a nearly 1:1 ratio. This balance is crucial as elevated omega-6 PUFA consumption is pro-inflammatory and is associated with an increase in inflammatory diseases such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease . Avoiding industrial seed oils and consuming healthy fats and proteins (like grass-fed beef and fish) from the staples list, helps reduce omega-6 intake and bolster omega-3 intake to keep this ratio in balance. Therefore, avoiding industrial seed oils is essential to reduce overall inflammatory load.
- Avoid safflower oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, etc.
- All oils should be unrefined and cold pressed to preserves their chemical integrity.
- Coconut oil, ghee/butter, grass-fed animal tallow/lard, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and cold water fish are your best sources of fat.
- Check your labels carefully. “Good” brands that make healthy fats will often also make a less expensive refined version. Refined coconut oil may be cheaper, but it comes with a pro-inflammatory price.
- Packaged products are a sneaky source of industrial seed oils. Read ingredient lists carefully, even if an item labels itself as “Paleo,” to make sure no industrial seed oils are hiding inside.
- Make your own salad dressings and mayonnaise/aioli or carefully adopt a Paleo brand that uses only healthy oils. Even if a product says “Made with Olive Oil,” you will often find an industrial seed oil somewhere on the ingredient list.
- Try to avoid eating at restaurants, as most exclusively cook with industrial seed oils. If you must eat out, opt for steamed vegetables and a grass-fed protein or fish and ask if the restaurant uses real butter. California farm-to-table type restaurants often include such options.
Grains → Wheat, oats, corn, and other grains are responsible for chronic inflammation.
Cereal grains, even as whole grains, are not “health foods.” In fact, they are a major contributor to modern disease and are associated with a multitude of chronic health concerns ranging from cancer to diabetes.
Cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, corn, rye, and barley are cultivated from grasses. Pseudo-cereals are often referred to as “ancient” grains and are the seeds of non-grassy plants such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.
Certain grains are more problematic than others, but in general, there are 4 major problems associated with grains:
- Grains are made of simple carbohydrates just like sugar.
- Gluten is pro-inflammatory.
- Grains are high in phytic acid.
- The modern production process increases the toxic burden associated with consuming grains.
Whole grains are made of simple carbohydrates and are digested and absorbed just like sugar. A simple carbohydrate is a compound made up of one or two sugar molecules. As we talked about when discussing sugar in Part 2, simple carbohydrate consumption leads to a quick and significant rise in blood glucose which is associated with inflammation and the disruption of hormones. This is an even bigger problem when whole grains are refined into flour and stripped of their fiber content. In the absence of fiber, these simple carbohydrates are absorbed even more rapidly leading to an even greater spike in blood glucose and perpetuation of the inflammatory cascade. Keeping blood glucose levels relatively stable is one of the major goals of a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet and avoiding all grains, both cereal and pseudo in their whole and unrefined forms, is a great way to achieve that. If you are going to consume grains, it is best to opt for whole-grains. It is important to note that even a product labeled “whole grain flour” or “whole grain bread” is in fact not a whole grain. A whole grain looks like a seed, never like flour. Rice and quinoa are good examples of true whole grains.
Certain cereal grains, such as wheat, rye, barley, and some oats, contain a group of proteins referred to as gluten. Gluten is pro-inflammatory for everyone. Even for individuals who don’t have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease or any notable digestive symptoms relating to gluten consumption. The gluten protein is made up of two parts, gliadin and glutenin. Although both gliadin and glutenin, as well as their subparts, play a role in celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (also called non-celiac wheat sensitivity), gliadin peptides also stimulate a harmful immune response in otherwise healthy individuals .
The cells of the intestines are designed to regulate the absorption of digested food particles. Intestinal cells form tight junctions that selectively allow certain food particles to pass into the bloodstream and prevent unwanted particles from moving beyond their barrier. Imagine the intestinal cells are a ring of people holding hands. If everyone is pressed tightly up against their neighbor, only small things can fit through the small gaps between each person. If everyone takes a step apart and the gaps between the people widen, larger things can fit through those newly larger gaps. This is exactly what gliadin does to intestinal cells. Gliadin triggers the release of a chemical called zonulin which increases intestinal permeability by weakening the tight junctions between the intestinal cells . An increase in intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut,” allows larger than normal particles to pass into the bloodstream. These macromolecules are not recognized by the body’s immune system and thus an innate inflammatory immune response is triggered. In fact, there is a direct link between an increase in intestinal permeability and inflammation . It is associated with type 1 diabetes , rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis , inflammatory bowel disease [11,12], asthma , chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. In the case of celiac disease, the immune response progresses to the production of antibodies and an autoimmune process develops. But, even in the absence of autoimmunity, when gluten consumption is regular, the inflammatory response caused by gliadin becomes a source of chronic inflammation.
Besides the pro-inflammatory nature of grains due to their gluten and high sugar content, grains, in general, are also simply a micronutrient poor food. Grains are high in phytic acid which prevents the absorption of many of their naturally occurring micronutrients. Phytic acid also disrupts the digestion and absorption of proteins and starches because it inhibits the enzymes trypsin, amylase, and pepsin.
Last but not least, the modern production process of grains yields a very different product than what your grandmother picked up at the corner store 50+ years ago. Most modern grains have been bred to have a much higher starch content and contain more gluten. Wheat, in particular, is often harvested using the toxic chemical glycophosphate . Grains are also typically quite old before they reach your table. Grains are grown, harvested, stored, milled, stored, turned into a product, and placed on a shelf before they ever reach your stomach which further reduces their nutrient value.
I know giving up grains is a challenge. In fact, the other protein found in grains alongside gluten is called gluteomorphin. Recognize that suffix? Gluteomorphin is an opioid peptide and acts on the brain via the same neuro-pathway as morphine and heroin. Wheat and other gluten-containing grains are chemically addictive and scientists have known about this since the 1970’s ! Breaking the addiction is the hardest part, but fortunately, there are no lasting consequences of gluteomorphin withdrawal and within a few weeks, your chemical dependency on grains will disappear leaving you feeling better than you have in years.
I do want to mention that for some individuals, small amounts of whole grain rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and other naturally gluten-free pseudo-grains such as millet and amaranth, can be healthy when eaten in moderation. All grains, even pseudo-grains, should be avoided in individuals who are overweight, have an autoimmune disease, have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, have digestive problems, or any other health problems relating to blood glucose. In short, grains will never be on the staples list of a health-promoting diet and it’s a safe bet that going grain-free will improve your health and help keep your biological clock younger.
- The big 3 that should always be avoided are wheat, corn, and oats, followed by all other gluten-containing grains like barley and rye.
- For optimal health, avoid all cereal grains as well as pseudo-cereal grains such as quinoa, millet, amaranth, and buckwheat. Some people can consume pseudo-cereal grains in moderation without significant consequence.
- Be cautious with products labeled “Gluten-Free.” They commonly contain sugar and industrial seed oils. Always read the label.
- Paleo style grain-free baked goods are often much better than the typical gluten-free product. Experiment with almond, cassava, and coconut flours for baking. I’ve found paleo baked goods are often better in both texture and taste than their gluten-free pseudo-grain containing relatives.
Soy → A legume low in bioavailable nutrients and high in plant estrogens that hinder reproductive, endocrine, and immune function.
Soy, like other legumes, is high in phytates, preventing minerals (like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc) that naturally occur in soy products from being assimilated by the body. This renders soy a micronutrient poor food. As we’ve discussed previously, phytates also interfere with the digestive enzymes needed to break down protein and starch. Unlike other legumes, soaking, sprouting, and slow cooking are ineffective at reducing the phytic acid in soy. Lengthy fermentation, such as in the traditional preparation of miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce is necessary to increase the micronutrient value of soy.
Unfortunately, even after fermentation, soy remains high in isoflavones. Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen found predominantly in soybeans. “Phyto” is the Greek word for “plant”, and estrogen is a reproductive hormone found in all vertebrates, including humans . Phytoestrogens are hormones produced by plants that mimic the structure or function of mammalian estrogen. Plants are thought to produce phytoestrogens as a defensive mechanism to moderate herbivore (plant-eating animal) fertility . As you can imagine, fewer plant-eating animal babies is a good thing for plant populations.
How isoflavones affect you is where things get tricky. Dozens of studies from 1950 to present show a relationship between isoflavones and health problems such as infertility, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, malignant tumor growth, altered reproductive and neuroendocrine hormone production, impaired memory, and cognitive decline [18, 19, 20, 21]. That is a scary enough list for me to want to avoid soy altogether, but like the saying goes, the dose makes the poison. How much soy an individual consumes, how that soy is processed, and the challenges of extrapolating evidence from animal studies to human populations must all factor into our risk assessment. In fact, there is even some evidence to suggest that the phytoestrogens in soy can have health benefits for some people, especially perimenopausal women. Pharmacological researchers have also been investigating the potential for targeted isoflavone use to inhibit cancerous cell growth .
Before we throw up our hands over the complexities of the isoflavone debate there are a few other factors we need to consider. Eating a small amount of soy may not lead to harmful levels of estrogen in isolation, but in the presence of other exogenous (coming from outside the body) estrogens, the total amount of estrogen exposure may be significant enough to create health problems. Breast cancer is strongly associated with exposure to high levels of estrogen and as of 2018, 1 in 8 U.S. women and 1 in 1,000 U.S. men will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime . Both naturally occurring estrogen and xenoestrogens have been found to induce cancerous cell production in human breast tissue . Xenoestrogens (“xeno-” means of foreign origin) come from plastics and pesticides, like those used to grow conventional American soy . Keeping soy out of your diet is a good way to reduce total estrogen load and thereby reduce your risk of breast cancer.
It is also important to note that modern soy consumption is different from that of traditional Asian cultures, both in quality and quantity. Throughout Asia, soy was traditionally consumed in fermented form and/or in small amounts. It also wasn’t genetically modified or produced using modern pesticides. The relative health of soy consuming nations compared to that of 21st century Americans, must be evaluated carefully and subtle differences need to be taken into account for accurate cross comparison.
In light of the serious potential risks of isoflavone consumption coupled with the likelihood of exposure to other exogenous estrogens, it is best to avoid soy in its various forms unless under the direct supervision of a professional trained in the therapeutic use of isoflavones.
- Coconut aminos are a great brewed and naturally fermented soy sauce alternative.
- Depending on your individual health goals and needs, occasional organic gluten-free tamari sauce, miso, or tempeh may make their way onto your consume in moderation list but proceed with caution.
Peanuts → Another legume and a likely culprit for inflammation and toxic exposure.
To say this in a nutshell (no, peanuts are not actually a nut), the jury is still out on the relative safety of peanut consumption.
Peanuts contain two potentially problematic compounds; lectin and aflatoxin. Lectins are binding proteins that play a number of biological roles involving cells, carbohydrates, and proteins. Although the functions of some lectins are important, peanut lectin is a particular variety that may be best avoided. The operative word here is “may” as conflicting arguments abound in the research. Some studies suggest that peanut lectin may contribute to atherosclerosis , which in turn leads to coronary heart disease (the #1 killer of Americans!) . Other research, however, that focuses on peanuts and peanut oil as a whole, and not specifically on peanut lectin, found that peanuts and peanut oil reduced cardiovascular risk factors [28, 29].
Aflatoxins are compounds produced by fungi that contaminate crops (particularly peanuts and corn) and are associated with negative human health effects like hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) . Although the agricultural industry has regulatory standards that aim to keep aflatoxin content low, bearing in mind the conflicting data on cardiovascular risk and the potential for exposure to aflatoxin, peanuts fall on our foods to avoid list.
- Nuts, like almonds or cashews, make a great substitute. If a recipe calls for peanut butter, try almond butter instead.
Refined Sugar → Optimize your nutrient intake and reduce your metabolic disease risk by consuming a limited amount of sugar in the form of fruit and occasionally through honey and maple syrup.
There are no known health benefits to consuming refined sugar and eliminating refined sugar from your diet is one of the most powerful positive changes you can make. Even though we talked about the importance of choosing alternative sources for sweetness in Part 2, avoiding refined sugar is so important to your health that I’m going to reiterate the dangers of refined sugar one more time. There is a direct link between refined sugar and premature aging, inflammation, cancer, depression, dementia, stroke, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many more chronic metabolic diseases. Check out Part 2 for more details and research citations.
- Avoid organic raw cane sugar, turbinado sugar, refined cane sugar, agave, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
- Here are some common sources of sugars ranked from healthiest to worst→ Fruit (especially berries), honey, maple syrup, organic raw cane sugar, refined cane sugar, agave, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup.
- Artificial sweeteners like saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose found in things like Equal, Splenda, Nutrasweet, and diet sodas are toxic. Stay away!
- Use caution when buying packaged products especially sauces and bars. Sugar is a common additive and can be listed on the ingredient label under a variety of pseudonyms. Watch out for cane juice, barley malt, and brown rice syrup.
Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Food Wrap-Up
Changing your diet is a stepwise process and there is no plateau and no perfect, but with every little bit of extra nutrition you provide your body, the healthier you will be. Now that you’re familiar with all three parts of a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet, I highly recommend going back to Part 1. By focusing on consuming the food your body needs to function at its best, you can change your life.
A nutrient-dense, whole-food diet is micronutrient rich and anti-inflammatory. It is packed full of vegetables and relies on healthy fats as a primary fuel source. You are quite literally what you eat and adopting a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet at least 80% of the time, is a critical step towards reaching your health potential.
Remember, there is no diet that is one-size fits all and your optimal diet may be quite personal. This series is designed to give you a basic template that can be customized to fit your individual fitness and health needs. My suggestion is to adopt this basic template for 30 days and keep a journal of your major health complaints. How do your sleep, energy, digestion, skin, joints, etc. change over those 30 days? I often tell my patients, eat this way for 30 days and you will see improvement, eat this way for a year and it will change your life, adopt a personalized nutrient-dense, whole-food diet as a lifestyle and you will continue to push the boundaries of optimal health and performance.