What Are Whole Foods?
Nutrition wasn’t always so complicated.
Throughout the vast majority of human history, people didn’t rely on so-called “experts” of nutrition like myself, doctors, and authors of diet books to tell us what on Earth we should eat each day. Our great grandparents and great-great grandparents (and so on) didn’t spend anywhere near as much time, effort, or money as many of us do on analyzing food packages and deciphering new diets. Their supermarkets (which more often included their own gardens) didn’t offer even half the number of processed food products that line the shelves today. Previous generations effortlessly ate mostly whole foods without actually having to ask themselves what are whole foods?
Fast forward to the present day when 60% of the calories in food we buy are from highly processed food products.¹ Plus, more than 80% of the calories we buy are in ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat forms – which typically contain far more unnatural, unhealthy ingredients than anything you would add to a meal cooked from scratch.
Here’s a bold statement: The most important step you can take towards better nutrition is to choose to whole foods over processed foods.
What are whole foods?
Whole foods – aka real foods aka unprocessed foods – may be the latest buzzword in nutrition and health, but this is not just another passing fad. Ten points to you for taking the time to learn about them! So…. What are whole foods?
Whole foods are the plants, animals, and fungi that humans have been eating for generations, which includes: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Whole foods are food in their most natural, unprocessed form. They don’t have any crap added (think: sugar, cheap oils, binders, etc.), or any nutrients taken away (think: fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients etc.).
Next time you’re reaching for a food in the supermarket and wonder is this a whole food? ask yourself these questions² :
Can I picture it growing or living?
It’s easy to picture a tomato growing on a vine or chicken laying an egg, but can you imagine a field of marshmallows?
Have any of the edible parts of the plant been removed?
Juice is only part of a fruit. Oil is only part of an olive. When we eat isolated parts of foods, we are missing out on many vital nutrients that our bodies require.
How many ingredients does it have? Can you recognize and pronounce them all?
Whole foods don’t have nutrition labels or ingredient lists. The only ingredient is itself. When choosing food products, the fewer ingredients the better. Another good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t keep an ingredient in your home (hello high fructose corn syrup) then you probably shouldn’t eat the ingredient in your food product.
How long has this food been known to nourish humans?
Humans have been eating plants, fungi, and animals for centuries. Let’s be weary of whatever the FDA just approved last month.
But don’t just trust me…
I’m an absolute geek for digging into the research, but to save you from information overload I’ll summarize (and link to) just a few of the more interesting studies I’ve read. It’s truly incredible to see how quickly we can improve our health by making dietary changes!
A diet high in whole and unrefined foods favorably alters lipids, antioxidant defenses, and colon function.³
This study observed improvements in blood cholesterol and immune and colon function after just 4 weeks of switching to a diet high in whole foods!
Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet.⁴
These researchers concluded that, “Hunger was not an unpleasant experience while on the high nutrient density diet, was well tolerated and occurred with less frequency even when meals were skipped.” In other words, whole foods are more satiating and can help you feel less hungry throughout the day!
A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.⁵
This review analyzed many different types of studies and concluded that plant-based, whole food diets can treat type 2 diabetes and reduce related health complications.
Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet Alleviates the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis.⁶
After just 6 weeks of eating a whole food diet, participants experienced reduced osteoarthritis symptoms independent of weight loss.
The research is remarkably clear: eating more whole foods instead of processed food can improve all aspects of your health - from reducing your risk of chronic disease to helping you feel better throughout each day.
Where do we draw the line between whole foods and processed foods?
When you’re looking at a package of Oreo cookies, It’s pretty darn obvious you’re holding a highly processed food. But other times a food’s “whole-ness” can be tougher to discern. Are seemingly healthy foods like fruit-flavored yogurt, almond milk, whole grain bread, and 100% juice considered whole? Where do we draw the line when deciding what a whole food is?
Generally speaking, the less we alter, add to, and take away from a food the better. It really is that simple. Plain yogurt is healthier than flavored yogurt. Almonds are healthier than almond milk. Whole grains are healthier than whole grain bread. Whole fruit is healthier than juice. The less that’s been done to a food, the better. When whole foods are processed, they almost always lose some of their natural nutrients (often it’s the fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients) and gain new unhealthy additions (usually sugar, cheap oils, thickeners, etc.).
Important caveat: When I talk about processing, I don’t mean your basic home cooking. Humans have been cooking their food practically forever - and in many cases cooking actually increases the healthfulness of a food. Another healthy, natural form of food processing is fermentation because it fosters the growth of healthy bacteria, but that’s a story for another post.
While less processing is healthier, many foods can’t be categorized into black and white buckets; instead, there are many shades of grey. There’s aren’t good foods and bad foods - only better foods and worse foods. Every food product lives somewhere on a spectrum of processing.
Apples are healthier than unsweetened applesauce which is healthier than sweetened applesauce which is healthier than 100% apple juice which is healthier than apple juice from concentrate.
Plain yogurt cultured at home is healthier than store-bought plain yogurt which is healthier than minimally sugar-sweetened yogurt which is healthier than highly sugar-sweetened yogurt.
Every food product lives somewhere on the spectrum of processing and it’s up to you to decide where you want to fall on that spectrum.
So, You’re Ready to Make a Change?
Should you start a whole food diet and attempt to avoid all processed foods, all the time? NO. Extremely restrictive diets are generally unrealistic, unsustainable, and can lead to unhealthy relationships with food. Instead, let’s take a more moderate, sustainable approach – let’s work towards eating more whole foods, more of the time. Healthy eating is a lifestyle, not a crash diet or quick fix.
The first step towards healthier eating is to be more mindful of the level of processing (and thus, healthfulness) of the foods in the supermarket and in your kitchen. Look at the ingredient lists of the food products you eat; choose more foods with ingredients you would keep in your own kitchen. That means avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup, carrageenan, xanthan gum, etc. Better yet, commit to eating more fruits and vegetables, which don’t have an ingredient list at all.
Challenge yourself to commit to one or two specific goals.
Switch from flavored yogurt to plain yogurt
Swap your processed granola bar for a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit
Cook dinner one extra night each week
Eat an extra serving of vegetables every day
Purchase fresh whole grain bread from a bakery rather than from a package
If you want some help on your journey towards choosing more whole foods, schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation with me now! I’d love to help you create an individualized plan to reach your health goals.
Thanks for reading!