A Date With Disaster: The Pleasure Trap of
Whole Natural Foods
Jeff Novick, MS, RD
Healthy foods are healthy foods.
Sounds silly, but it is amazing how much is often promoted as being healthy when it isn’t—and how many terms are associated with health that may or may not be healthy at all.
For instance, we often hear words such as “whole,” “natural,” “plant,” “unprocessed,” etc., in relation to the health aspects of a food. Foods, recipes and products are frequently promoted as being healthy and often solely based on these descriptions.
However, these terms, in and of themselves, are not always synonymous with health and, in and of themselves, have no real health meaning. Whole foods can be healthy or unhealthy. Same with foods that are labeled “natural,” “vegan” and/or “unprocessed.” You can actually consume a diet that is unhealthy, yet it is made up of mainly whole, plant, natural and unprocessed foods.
In fact, I just analyzed a recipe that was made from 100% whole, unprocessed foods; but it was 40% saturated fat and 26% added sugars. It may have been whole, natural, plant and unprocessed, but I wouldn’t touch it.
Yet, at the same time, there are many “processed” foods that are extremely healthy. Part of the confusion over this issue has to do with understanding exactly what a processed food is (or isn’t) and the impact of processing on food. Some processing actually increases the health value of a food, while some processing decreases the health value of a food. So, while this is an important issue in and of itself, we will save this topic for a separate article on another day. 🙂
In the meantime, it is important to move beyond terms such as “whole,” “natural,” “vegan” and/or “unprocessed” as the defining criteria of what is healthy. In and of themselves, these terms have no real “health” meaning. So, while a healthy diet tends to be one that includes more foods that are whole, plant, natural and unprocessed, these, in and of themselves, do not define what is healthy.
What really matters most are the numbers, and the numbers don’t lie.
Americans are sick and fat mostly from consuming excess calories, excess added sugars/sweeteners, excess added salt, excess saturated fat, excess refined grains/carbohydrates and excess cholesterol. Not just calories, salt, sugar, saturated fat, refined grains and cholesterol, but the amount and, as you will see, especially the concentration.
This is especially an important issue for those of us who find ourselves caught up in “the pleasure trap.” We may find that we still have problems with some whole, natural, plant foods, especially in regard to fat and sugar. Salt is not really an issue in regard to whole natural plant foods, as it does not show up anywhere in any whole, natural, plant food in a concentrated amount. Neither does cholesterol. But, fat and sugar do.
So, lets take a closer look at those two and see why they can be a problem.
In regard to “the pleasure trap” and to food addictions, no substance is 100% addictive. Not fat, sugar, or even alcohol, heroin or cocaine. In fact, only about 24% of people who try heroin become addicted.
In addition, the exact same molecules (glucose, fructose, etc.) that make up “sugars” in concentrated refined sugars, are the same exact molecules found in many “whole, natural, unprocessed, plant” foods such as corn, beets and fruits. So, the questions is, why do they seem addictive when we consume them in the form of table sugar or honey but not in the form of fruit or corn?
The answer has to do with concentration. Same as with cocaine. Coca leaves are not very addictive. Cocaine, a more concentrated form, has a much higher potential for addiction. Crack, a much more concentrated form, is much more highly addictive.
Let’s look at sugar.
(The same example will also hold true for fat.)
Sugars that occur in most foods (fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, whole grains, etc.) are not very concentrated as they come in a package that is high in water and fiber and full or vitamins and minerals. Rarely do these foods ever cause anyone to feel as though they are addicted. Few, if any, would say they can’t stop eating and/or are addicted to beets, corn or even fruit.
But, when we extract and concentrate the sugars in the form of table sugar or we use other refined sugars, such as brown sugar or turbinado sugar, or even when we use naturally occurring sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup (which are equally concentrated in sugar even though they are “natural” and “unprocessed”), suddenly we find many people feeling they are addicted to these foods and getting caught in “the pleasure trap” from them.
So, the real issue is not sugar, or whether the sugar is “whole,” “natural,” “plant” or “unprocessed,” but the concentration of the sugar. Again, concentration is the real issue.
So, lets look at some foods that are sources of sugar and see how they compare in their concentrations of sugar, or “sugar density” (grams of sugar per lb of food)
- Apple – 47
- Orange – 42
- Banana – 55
- Pineapple – 44
- Watermelon – 28
- Blueberries – 45
- Peas 21
- Corn 28
- Potato 5
- Medjool Dates – 301
- Deglet Noor Dates – 287
- Raisins – 268
- Honey – 372
- Sugar – 453
As we can see, there is a large difference in the sugar concentration between concentrated sugars (honey, sugar) and fresh fruit and between concentrated sugars and starchy vegetables.
However, notice that the sugar concentration of dried fruit is very similar to the sugar concentration of many natural, unprocessed and refined, concentrated sugars. This is why for many people, foods like dried fruits, and dishes that are based on dried fruits, may need to be minimized or avoided.
For example, someone who has a problem with sugar may have a problem with dried fruit (i.e. dates) and not an apple. Why? Both have sugar, but dates are far more concentrated in sugar than an apple is in regard to sugar density (301 to 47), and it is the concentration that is the real issue.
As such, someone who has a problem with fat may have a problem with nuts but not oatmeal. Why? Well, they both have fat, but in regard to fat density (grams of fat per lb of food), nuts are far more concentrated in fat than oatmeal (224 vs. 7), and it is the concentration that is the real issue.
As with foods high in calorie density, you can avoid a problem with a food concentrated in sugar (or fat) by diluting it with another food that is low in sugar (or fat) density.
So, adding a little but of sugar or dates to a large bowl of oatmeal will have little effect on someone as the total sugar concentration will be low, regardless of whether the sugar came from a concentrated sugar or dates. The oatmeal will dilute out the total concentration of the sugar in the total meal.
Same with fat. Adding a little bit of nuts or avocado to a large dish of rice, beans and veggies will have little impact on someone as the total fat concentration will be low. The rice, beans and vegetables will dilute out the total concentration of fat in the total meal.
However, mixing a concentrated sugar (sugar or dates), with a food concentrated in fat (i.e. nuts), can be very problematic in regard to “the pleasure trap” and food addictions. The reason is that we now have a food concentrated in both sugar and fat (i.e. date/nuts truffles), which may really set off “the pleasure trap” for many people.
That’s why even though a date/nut truffle made be made up of only “Whole,” “Natural,” “Unprocessed,” “Plant” foods, it is hard for many of us to eat just one.
I know. 🙂
Now, clearly, a date/nut truffle is a much healthier food than a snickers bar, but the date/nut truffle is still a food concentrated in calories, fat and sugar; and, for many of us, it can easily trigger “the pleasure trap” again.
So, if these foods are problematic for you, then avoid them and stick to foods and recipes that are very low in sugar density, fat density, or both and/or have no added, concentrated sugars and/or concentrated fats.
If not, then enjoy them.
All reference to “the pleasure trap” refers to the concept as defined by Dr Alan Goldhamer and Dr Doug Lisle in their book, “The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness.”