I recently had the opportunity to hear the famous Dr. Andrew Weil speak at Natural Products Expo West in California. A previous meeting made me a few minutes late to the event, and when I arrived, the packed room was overflowing with people waiting to hear what the good doctor had to say. In a world where what’s healthy, what’s not, and what’s going to kill us quickly or make us live forever changes daily, I was curious to see what was on his mind.
A Harvard-trained medical doctor, Andrew Weil is considered one of today’s foremost integrative physicians. Currently he is the director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. His latest book is True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure (Little, Brown and Company, 2012).
Without singling out any of the latest diet trends—paleo, vegan or Engine 2, for example—his emphasis on diet was on avoiding processed foods; he used a simple glass of orange juice to make his point. “The difference between a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and processed is huge,” he said. “In fresh-squeezed, there are so many compounds, fiber and phytochemicals that naturally occur, which affect not only how healthy that juice is but how our bodies process that juice—especially the sugars in the juice. For instance, when you process the juice, many nutrients are gone; but fiber is removed, and then your body turns the juice into glucose all that much quicker.”
Dr. Weil expressed concern for how many people today not only accept processed foods as the norm but prefer them. “I recently had some guests at my house and I served the friend’s son some fresh-squeezed juice. He wouldn’t touch it. He said it didn’t look like any orange juice he had ever seen,” Dr. Weil recounted to an amused audience.
Bread is another product that too often falls prey to overprocessing, he told the crowd. “We hear a lot these days about how bad grains are for us, but grains aren’t unhealthy; it’s what we do to them that makes them unhealthy.” This is good news for individuals confused by the constant diet trends touting death to carbs. Dr. Weil advised being wary of “whole grain” breads that can be mashed up and rolled into a little “dough ball.” “These aren’t truly whole grains,” he explained. “With whole grains, you can see a whole grain: the bran, the germ and so on. The beauty of these, in addition to their nutrients, is how long it takes your body to process them, so that they don’t turn right into sugar like the processed grains do.”
Indeed, there really aren’t any bad foods, according to Dr. Weil; we just too often make them bad. But it’s easy to avoid this by buying foods in their closest state to natural. “It’s the simplest way to good health and to lose weight,” he indicated. “You want to shed pounds? Just stop eating refined flour and sugar. While many diets will villainize certain foods, we are omnivores; we can handle all foods as long as they aren’t processed.”
Dr. Weil discussed the need for consumers to be vigilant in the organic and non-GMO movements. “In terms of the organic standards, some people and companies are always trying to get exceptions passed,” he remarked. He brought up the example of sewage sludge, commonly used as crop fertilizer “bio-matter,” being kept out of certified organic foods due to consumer demand. It was individuals standing up and saying no that kept the sludge out.
People should also not be deterred by the recent vote in California to not require foods containing GMOs to be labeled. “It’s up to us to continue to vote for change; it’s up to us to be the change,” he said.
Dr. Weil’s messages clearly resonated with the people in the room. Instead of giving more rules to follow, more restrictions to place, Dr. Weil seemed to make healthy eating a lot easier. Buy organic, non-GMO and local when possible, and avoid processed foods. Okay, Doctor; thanks for the prescription that doesn’t require a trip to the pharmacy!