I'm the type of person who loves to look through cookbooks and even occasionally buy them but has a far poorer track record when it comes to actually, you know, cooking. So it was a high point for me to make (or help make) two recipes from a cookbook within five days of getting it—edamame succotash and spice-simmered red lentil dal with pan-grilled tofu.
The book is the Whole Foods Diet Cookbook by husband-and-wife team Ivy Ingram Larson and Andrew Larson, and it's full of recipes based on simple, minimally processed foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein (including some animal protein), and, in moderation, essential fats. (There's no connection to the Whole Foods grocery chain.) Ivy first got interested in the impact of diet on health when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 22; her husband, a surgeon, joined her in her research, and together they developed an eating strategy they say has improved their health. I recently talked with Ivy about the notion of eating a whole-foods-based diet. Edited excerpts of our interview:
How do you define whole foods?
Nutrient-rich foods, packaged the way nature intended, in their unrefined state. For example, apples instead of applesauce, eggs instead of Egg Beaters, oatmeal instead of a granola bar with oatmeal in it. How is that different from "all natural," "organic," or any of the other labels you see on foods?
You can have a product that is completely natural and not healthy. Butter, sugar, refined flour-they're natural, but not particularly good for you. I tell people that instead of reading the macronutrient information on a label, they should focus on the ingredients. If a jar of marinara sauce contains tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, and oregano, that's a whole food. If it has high-fructose corn syrup, it is not. If you don't count calories, though, how can you lose or maintain weight?
My research was inspired by my diagnosis, not a need for weight control. But I've worked with countless people [who want to lose weight], and my husband is a weight-loss surgeon. We both tell people that eating nutrient-rich whole foods will support a healthy metabolism and keep food cravings under control. Whole food takes up a lot of space in your stomach, so you'll feel more full for hours. This won't work if you eat when you're not hungry, though. Sometimes people eat multiple times in the day and are never quite satisfied. We'd prefer you to eat good foods until you're satisfied, then you can last for a long time before eating again. You say people should outright avoid trans fats, omega-6-rich vegetable oils (like soybean, corn, and safflower oils), refined flour, and refined sugar. Why?
If you read the label on packaged, processed foods, those are the main four that will be in there. Rather than memorizing long lists of chemicals, just look for them; the product is not going to be made up of whole foods. Clear up the fat picture. We've been told saturated fat is bad, but in your book you advocate the use of coconut oil, a saturated—albeit plant-derived—fat.
There has been some research suggesting that extra-virgin coconut oil— not the processed plant oil found in packaged foods—is not as harmful as the saturated fats in animal-based products. Epidemiological studies on people who live in the Pacific Islands [whose diets were very high in coconut oil] show a low incidence of heart disease. Of course, those people were also eating a whole foods diet. You can't add extra-virgin coconut oil to an already unhealthy diet and expect to get a benefit. But in moderation, say, in baking to substitute for butter, it's fine. How do wine and dessert fit into a whole foods diet?
I guess you don't really need dessert, but I feel like I do! I try not to ever make a totally junky dessert—and to get nutrients in there through things like nuts and fruit. There is really no reason to abstain from wine in moderation, unless you have a tendency to escalate your drinking. You know yourself and whether you're likely to do that. But from a weight-loss standpoint, you're better off having wine rather than dessert. [Read more about diets that promote health and always have. And check out the 7 things you must do before you buy a functional food.]