What does unrefined mean? Unrefined can mean vulgar and rude but can also mean pure and untouched. Sometimes it means all these things at the same time!
This article is going to look at the benefits of a plant-based, whole food diet. In other words, unrefined foods that are, as much as possible, pure and untouched.
When people talk about unrefined food, they mean food that has not been treated or processed. Of course, unless you pick something from the midst of a deep, dark wood and eat it, it will have been treated in some way. But, as an example, white rice will have been processed substantially more than brown rice. Brown rice is more unrefined and more whole than white rice. Brown rice retains the bran and germ which are nutritious. However, these nutritional elements have been removed from white rice via various processes to give it a different flavour and, some people may think, a nicer aesthetic on the plate. Note the irony here that white is normally aligned with ‘pure’ whereas, in the case of rice and many other foods, the reverse is actually true: it is the brown rice which is purer than the white.
So let’s further examine some of the benefits of unrefined – pure and untouched! – food.
Simple carbs and complex carbs
You may think you need to avoid carbohydrates, but they are an essential part of a healthy diet. However, there are different types of carbohydrates and they can be found in many different types of food.
As well as bread and pasta, dairy products, fruit and veg, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, sugary foods and sweets all contain carbs. And although it is sometimes obvious, labelling does not always make it easy to understand the different types of carbs and therefore the nutritional value of the food we eat.
Brown rice and white rice are perfect examples of the differences between simple carbs and complex carbs.
Carbohydrates are made up of fibre, starch and sugar. Fibre and starch form complex carbs while sugar is a simple carb.
Because white rice does not have bran or germ, it becomes an “empty” carbohydrate because of its reduced nutritional value. Simple carbs may taste good but they break down rapidly and raise blood sugar quickly. Simple carbohydrates do not reward your body with good stuff that nourishes it and helps you feel full for longer. This is not one of these times when simple is best!
On the other hand, brown rice is a complex carbohydrate and provide you with a lot more than a simple carbohydrate can. It contains fibre, starch, and more natural vitamins and minerals. It’s not empty at all. Instead, brown rice is filled with good stuff that helps you get healthier and deeply satisfies your body.
A plant-based, whole food diet
Another way to look at it is to understand what a plant-based, whole food diet means.
It is important to note that eating a plant-based diet is not necessarily the same thing as being vegan or vegetarian. Vegans don’t eat any meat, fish or animal-derived products whereas some vegetarians do choose to eat products such as eggs, dairy and honey. But in both instances, they may still eat highly processed foods like white rice meaning their bodies are still not properly nourished.
An easy way to understand the difference between whole foods and processed foods?
As a general rule of thumb, most things that come in a foil package or a box are processed. On the other hand, whole foods fill the produce section of the supermarket. You might still eat some meat or animal fats on a plant-based, whole food diet but you would need to increase your intake of unprocessed foods that nourish you more and, similarly, increase the ratio of plant-based products versus how many animal products.
What does the science say?
In the UK, the NHS estimates that 1 in 4 adults, 1 in 5 children between 10 and 11 years old, are obese.
In some parts of America, 39 per cent of the population is obese.(1) That means they are more likely to experience chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is a real problem that is spreading across the world. It is following the spread of the Western diet and the Western sedentary lifestyle.
Scientists and doctors have been trying to find solutions. Among them are Dr. Michael Greger, who has collected data about the benefits of a plant-based, whole food diet for your health. Many people might be attracted to this diet as a way to lose weight. Research does support that.(2) However, a plant-based, whole food diet has many benefits that go deeper, too.
Scientists think that this diet helps lessen your chances of getting several types of cancer.(3) Further, research has suggested that diet and lifestyle are the largest contributors to your chances of getting chronic diseases in general.(4) Researchers have also pointed out that only 10-20 per cent of our chances of suffering from chronic diseases is due to genes.(5) That means that you are in control of much more of your own health than you may realise.
The University of East Anglia (UEA) is currently leading on a pioneering nutrition research programme to see how a plant-based diet can be beneficial for people’s health.
Food as medicine
Even if you already understand that diet and lifestyle are closely tied to health, you may be surprised to know how a change of diet may work on diseases you already have.
Research has suggested that patients who have heart disease may see the effects of the disease lessen once they start a plant-based, whole food diet. One study recorded a reduction in plaque in arteries once a new diet was begun!(6) In other words, the bad, poisonous stuff that builds up in your blood vessels may rinse out through a more deeply nutritious diet. Think of it as a highly organic, highly holistic drain cleanser for your body. Isn’t that a good image? If possibly a not completely scientifically and medically accurate one!
Another study suggested that 82% of heart disease patients who started a plant-based, whole food diet reported improvement of some sort in their condition. Isn’t that an impressive figure?(7)
Alexis Hodgkins RGN/DN/MSc is a registered nurse and specialist in diabetes care and management. She also stresses the importance of a whole food diet as part of the treatment protocol for patients with diabetes.
Choose your fat
Here’s one more statistic to round it all off whole for you (see what we did there?!).
First, some background. Just like there are simple carbs and complex carbs, there are fats that are more heart-healthy than others. Plant-based fats include avocado, nuts, and plant oils like olive or hemp seed. On the other hand, animal fats will be known to most people. Dairy, meat, and eggs all contain animal fat.
Scientists observed that when people increased their intake of plant-based fats, their chances of death went down by 16%. Conversely, when they increased their intake of animal fats, chances of death went up by 21%.(8) Just think – which gamble would you make if you were presented with these odds in a betting shop or at a horse race?
What plants to eat and what they can give you (everything!)
So, if you’d like to start including some more plant-based whole foods in your diet, how do you start?
Dr. Michael Greger, who we mentioned earlier, suggests basing your diet around a “daily dozen”. These are cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli; nuts; legumes; whole grains; berries; other fruits; flaxseeds; spices; leafy greens; other vegetables. Finish with healthy beverages and exercise.
You can get everything your body needs from a plant-based whole food diet, including protein, calcium, and other nutrients commonly associated with animal fats.
The Association of UK Dietitians has a very helpful guide which may be useful at first.(9)
We’d really rather be unrefined, vulgar, pure, whole, rude, and untouched, at least when it comes to our food.
How about you?
Article by Erbology
(1) Tuso et al, “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets”, The Permanente Journal, Spring 2013, https://bit.ly/2CHFvSx.
(2) Turner-McGrievy et al, “A plant-based diet for overweight and obesity prevention and treatment”, Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, May 2017, https://bit.ly/2NLfFmU.
(3) Lanou, Amy Joy and Svenson, Barbara, “Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports,” Journal of Cancer Management and Research, December 2010, https://bit.ly/2pkgp9l.
(4) Willett et al, “Prevention of Chronic Disease By Means of Diet and Lifestyle”, Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2006, https://bit.ly/2Xe4WVf.
(5) Willett WC. “Balancing life-style and genomics research for disease prevention”. Science. 2002.
(6) Medical Learning Network, https://go.cms.gov/2qWiJn7.
(7) Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001–7. DOI: https://bit.ly/372B4zE. [PubMed] [Google Scholar].
(8) Harvard Health Publishing, “Plant-based fats: Better for the heart than animal fats?,” June 2018, https://bit.ly/32MCZ8b.
(9) BDA, Plant-based diet, https://bit.ly/2O9493M.