Unprocessed: How to Achieve Vibrant Health and Your Ideal Weight

My name is Abbie Jaye, but everyone calls me Chef AJ. I would like to share with you my personal story and tell you what I have learned about nutrition in a life that has often seemed to be centered around food.

What you eat affects all aspects of your being, probably more than anything else you do. What you eat has a profound effect on how you feel and look. Food can cause disease, or it can prevent and reverse it.

Unfortunately, I did not have this awareness for the first four decades of my life, so I would now like to share it with you in the hope that you won’t have to experience the same suffering I went through and watched my loved ones endure.

Both of my parents died from preventable diseases (coronary heart disease and bowel obstructions) that were brought on by diet, and I nearly destroyed my health as well. It makes me angry and it makes me determined to help others do better.

Your diet can be your undoing or your salvation. The difference is the difference between processed and unprocessed food. I’m being generous in using the term “processed food” because many processed foods scarcely deserve the label “food.”

When there are no nutrients in a product, why do we even think of it as food? When you eat junk, you aren’t nourishing your body, just your waistline.

What do I mean by unprocessed versus processed food? Whole foods found in the produce section or the bulk section of your grocery store or farmer’s market, and found there in more or less the same state that they were harvested on a farm, are unprocessed; packaged foods with long lists of ingredients are processed.

Foods that have been stripped of fiber and refined are processed. Foods that have been concentrated and separated from the rest of the plants they come from—sugars and oils top this list—are likewise processed. Fruits, vegetables, pulses (beans and lentils), whole grains, nuts and seeds are unprocessed; Fruit Loops and potato chips are processed. Brown rice, unprocessed; white rice, processed. You get the idea.

Combining unprocessed, and only unprocessed, ingredients together by cooking or blending or mixing leaves you with a dish that remains, by my standard, unprocessed. My simple rule of thumb is this: If I can make it in my kitchen, using whole ingredients, it’s unprocessed.

I can cook lentils and add carrots and onions and spinach to make a soup, so that’s unprocessed. I can blend fruits together to make a smoothie, so that’s unprocessed. I can bake a potato or cook corn, so that’s unprocessed.

But I can’t make a Fruit Loop. I can’t slaughter a cow. I can’t make vegetable oil, so any recipe calling for oil involves a processed ingredient. And I can’t make sugar or maple syrup or agave nectar. But I do use dates as a sweetener, either whole or as date syrup or date paste, which I do make in my kitchen, so they pass my test.

All the foods that pass my test contain fiber, which fills you up with very few calories. Most of the foods that don’t pass my test contain little or no fiber. The benefits of fiber to human health are gaining ever greater scientific appreciation.

Yes, there’s a grey area between processed and unprocessed food. I don’t often make applesauce in my kitchen, but if the only ingredient in a jar of applesauce is whole, ripe apples, it passes my test.

Tofu is another food I can’t easily make in my kitchen, but it’s a comparatively simple food made by boiling soybeans and adding nigari or calcium sulfate, coagulating agents that separate the curd, which is then pressed. It has been made for thousands of years by the Chinese.

Tofu is surely a less processed food than another high-protein form of vegan meat substitute: isolated soy protein, a highly processed ingredient that has been used as food only since 1959.

How about a whole grain bread, you might ask? Processed or unprocessed? Well, if you buy a bread whose principal ingredient is sprouted organic whole wheat berries, you’re in the unprocessed end of the grey area.

If you buy a bread made of white flour, you’re in Fruit Loops territory. Trust me, you don’t want to go there. To give a ranking to breads: sprouted whole grains should be preferred to whole wheat flour, and whole wheat flour should be preferred to (refined) wheat flour or, worse yet, white flour. The superior choice is eating the whole grain itself from which the bread is made.

Now, I’m a vegan and I am passionate about recommending a vegan diet—a diet containing zero animal products—to everyone. It’s better for your health, better for the environment, and better for animals.

But from the perspective purely of health, I’d rather see you eat a diet that is 90% vegan and 90% unprocessed (meats are by my definition inherently a processed food; most of us don’t make a hot dog from scratch, starting by slaughtering the various animals whose least valuable parts wind up inside it) than a diet that is 100% vegan and only 10% unprocessed.

It’s very possible to eat a lousy, junky vegan diet, full of oil and sweeteners and fake meats and highly processed grains. Those foods don’t require animals to die, but they won’t help you live in the best of health, either. Your biological protection comes from nutrient-rich foods, not from the good karma of grateful cows.

Now, let me tell you about my long and hard road to these dietary conclusions.