Food is a strong influencer of health. What you eat thus plays an essential role in how your body functions as food supplies energy needed by our bodies. The current modern diet is made up of highly processed foods like soda, chips, crisps, and fast foods like fries, burgers, pizza, and fried chicken.
Only a small percentage of what we eat is from whole foods. While there are many views about which diet is most suitable, everyone agrees that eating plenty of fresh whole foods and limiting processed foods is better for us. But what are whole foods, and how do you include them in your diet? Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Whole Foods?
What are whole unprocessed foods? Whole foods refer to foods that remain close to their natural state. They are minimally or totally unprocessed. Whole foods do not contain added sugars, fats, flavoring, or any other manufactured substances. They are not manufactured in factories like processed foods.
Since they are not manufactured, they are not addictive like many sugary and salty foods are said to be. Whole foods provide more nutritional value as they are nutrient-dense and do not supply empty calories. Choosing whole foods results in a nutritious diet as you get more minerals, fiber, and vitamins.
Our bodies need energy to perform life-sustaining functions. But they also need essential nutrients that play several roles in the body. For example, essential amino acids (amino acids are monomers that make up protein) are not synthesized by the body and must come from the diet. Only whole foods like legumes or quinoa can supply such nutrients.
Whole foods include nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, legumes, meat, fish, and whole grains. Most people are attracted to processed foods because they taste nice. They dread the green on their plates, yet foods such as vegetables or brown rice are delicious and more so nutritious.
Experts believe that whole foods are beneficial for your health and help prevent diseases. Whole foods retain fiber, phytochemicals, and nutrients, which are often lacking in processed foods. When you hear about whole foods, you might think they are expensive, but they can be affordable. Much as they are slightly more costly than processed foods, those extra dollars are worth it.
Whole Foods Vs Processed Foods
Whole foods are usually close to their natural state and are free of additives such as sugar and fat. Processed foods, on the other hand, are foods that have been altered during preparation. Ingredients such as sugar, fat, salt, and flavorings are added during processing. Processed foods are usually dried, canned, frozen, baked, or pasteurized.
Most processed foods also contain preservatives that extend their shelf life. Foods are also processed for other reasons, including making them more convenient to prepare, altering their nutritional composition, or changing the taste or look. Processed foods are often low in fiber and nutrients.
The degree of processing may vary from minimally processed to ultra-processed. With minimally processed foods, there are only slight modifications such as cleaning, portioning, freezing, removing inedible parts, and drying (4). They include refined grain flour, canned fruits and veggies with no additives, and instant rice.
Highly Processed Foods
Highly processed foods include added mixtures prepared industrially such that they are no longer recognizable as their original source (4). These include mayonnaise, ketchup, margarine, salty snacks, candy, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Moderately processed foods include breakfast cereals, crackers, white bread, tortillas and fruits, and vegetables with flavor additives.
Processed foods are calorie-dense; thus, they often supply plenty of empty calories. This means that you get extra calories but with little to no nutritional value. You might want to limit your intake of processed foods as they pose certain risks.
The downside of consuming too much processed foods include:
Processed foods are full of added sugar and fats. This means that they are easy to overeat since they are delicious. The result is that you fill your body with a lot of empty calories and you end up consuming more calories than your body needs.
Overeating ultra-processed foods may, over time, lead to unintentional weight gain (9). And more so if you are not physically active. Obesity increases the risk of several chronic conditions.
Increased Risk Of Heart Disease
Processed foods may cause the accumulation of byproducts such as acrylamide, nitrates, and BPA, increasing inflammation and oxidative stress, which are causes of heart disease. Obesity also increases the risk of heart disease.
Increased Risk Of Diabetes
Ever think about what stuffing yourself with candy and sugar-filled cookies, and energy bars does to your body? Eating sugar-filled foods interferes with normal glucose levels and increases the risk for type II diabetes (6). These foods can cause a spike in blood glucose levels.
Additionally, they can cause a spike in insulin levels. And over time, this may lead to diabetes type II. Processed foods also contain trans fat that can increase cholesterol levels in the blood. Cholesterol is a risk factor for diabetes, as is obesity.
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Depression And Anxiety
Consumption of processed foods is also associated with depression and anxiety. Over the recent few years, depression and mental health have become an area of concern. Individuals who consume more ultra-processed foods are often more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who eat whole foods (8).
Eating whole foods produces excellent results. They are nutrient-dense and offer a wide range of health benefits. Reasons why whole foods are best for you include:
Contain Essential Nutrients
Unprocessed plant and animal foods are rich sources of protein, carbs, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. For instance, meats and eggs are an excellent source of protein and choline crucial for proper cognitive function (2).
Vegetables and fruits supply vitamins. Oranges and other citrus fruits are rich sources of vitamin C. Also, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, and watercress are excellent sources of sulfur. Sulfur is necessary for DNA production, synthesis of glutathione, cellular function, and detoxification (5).
Are Rich In Antioxidants
Whole foods are a powerhouse of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that help protect body cells from damage by free radicals. When there is an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals, oxidative stress, a key contributor to the aging process, occurs (1).
Antioxidants are found in whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They are also found in unprocessed animal products but in lower amounts.
May Help With Weight Loss
Diet is an integral part of weight loss. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. You thus need to burn more calories than you consume. This does not necessarily mean you starve yourself.
Eating whole foods helps supply you with the energy you need even as you cut back on calorie consumption. With foods such as vegetables and fruits, you can eat as much as you want as they are mostly low-energy-dense. Plus they tend to make you feel full and satisfied due to their high fiber and protein contents.
Reduce The Risk Of Chronic Diseases
Whole foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help promote good health. All these nutrients help fight free radicals and reduce inflammation which contribute to heart and neurodegenerative diseases.
Integrating real foods into your diet helps lower the risk of disease. Several studies show that eating a diet heavy on veggies and fruits helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers (3).
The Whole Foods Diet
The whole foods diet is made up of unprocessed natural foods. It is more than just a diet but is a lifestyle. It emphasizes eating healthy, natural foods and reducing processed foods high in added sugar and trans fats.
A whole food diet follows these basic guidelines:
- Focuses on natural, unprocessed or minimally-processed foods.
- Limits or avoid the intake of ultra-processed foods.
- Avoids use of highly refined products such as white flour, added sugars like fructose and corn syrup, and processed fats and oils.
- Emphasizes food quality that is organic foods.
A whole food plant based diet is slightly different. It entails consuming vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods like legumes while minimizing or avoiding animal products. It is close to a whole foods vegan diet.
So, what are whole grain foods, and what are the best whole grain foods to eat? Whole grains refer to complex carbs that contain bran, germ, and endosperm, unlike refined grains. Refined grains only retain the endosperm. Unlike refined grains, whole grains contain more fiber and nutrients.
Whole Foods To Eat
Getting a whole food diet needs some planning. You may also need to get a few things right, including what are some whole grain foods, and what are examples of whole foods? The section below explores these questions.
Here’s what a whole food diet should contain:
- Fruits and vegetables such as spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli, watercress, cabbage, oranges, berries, pineapples, bananas, avocados, grapes, and apples.
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, barley, millet, buckwheat, oatmeal, and bulgur.
- Unprocessed animal products such as eggs, whole milk, meat, and poultry bred without antibiotics or synthetic hormones. It also includes fish such as salmon, tuna, cod, and shrimp.
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashew nuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds.
- Legumes such as beans (navy, black, and cannellini beans), peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and lupin.
Whole Foods 3-Day Meal Plan
Below is a 3-day meal plan you can use:
- Breakfast: Quinoa porridge with milk and mixed berries
- Lunch: Curry chicken salad sandwich with fresh fruit salad
- Supper: Pork chops with garlicky broccoli and orange juice
- Breakfast: Vegetable omelet with whole-grain toast and milk and bananas
- Lunch: Soba noodles with kale, sesame, and slivered brussels sprouts
- Supper: Roasted salmon with smoky chickpeas and greens
- Breakfast: Sweet potato cakes with whole milk or fresh fruit juice
- Lunch: Trapanese pesto pasta and zoodles with salmon with mixed greens
- Supper: Grilled fish with peperonata, a side of vegetables, and apple slices
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Whole Food Recipes
There are several tasty whole food recipes you can try. You can, however, choose to explore and create your dishes. Below are some recipes for you.
Quinoa porridge is high in protein and the perfect meal to get your morning started.
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 175g of quinoa
- 125g yogurt
- 4 tablespoons of chia seeds
- 15g creamed coconut
- Soak the quinoa overnight in cold water to activate it. The following day, drain and rinse the soaked quinoa through a fine sieve.
- Place the quinoa in a pan. Add the creamed coconut, vanilla extract, and 600mls of water. Cover and simmer for 20 mins, then add the chia seeds with another 300mls of water and cook for 3mins.
- Add the coconut yogurt and stir. You can serve the porridge with a topping of fruits.
Greek-Style Roast Fish
This recipe is excellent for a family weekend dinner.
- 5 small potatoes, cut into wedges
- 1 chopped onion
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- ½ tbsp chopped fresh oregano
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ½ lemon
- 2 fresh skinless pollock fillets (about 200g)
- Parsley, chopped
- Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Place the potatoes, oregano, onion, garlic, and olive oil in a baking tray. Mix with your hands and coat all the ingredients in oil. Bake for 15 mins, turn over and bake for another 15 mins.
- Add the tomatoes and lemon and bake for another 10 mins. Then place the fish fillets and cook for an additional 10 mins. Serve and then sprinkle parsley on the top.
Cutting out sugary and salty snacks and other highly processed substances might be difficult, but it is best. Eating more whole foods helps promote health and reduces your risk of disease. Much as you will spend a little more money and time shopping, they provide many benefits.
To get the best out of a whole foods diet, think of it as a lifestyle. Make sure your meal plan consists of well-balanced diets. Should you have any questions, address them to your general practitioner or a dietitian.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Antioxidants: In Depth (2013, nccih.nih.gov)
- Choline: an essential nutrient for public health (2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of cohort studies (2006, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The contribution of alliaceous and cruciferous vegetables to dietary sulphur intake (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes incidence: A prospective cohort study (2021, sciencedirect.com)
- Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé) (2019, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Ultra-Processed Food Is Positively Associated With Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adults (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)