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There are a variety of diets that have grown in popularity recently, but few are as simple and, dare we say it, as good, as a whole foods diet.
The whole foods diet certainly puts to bed the confusion of what we should be doing and eating in the age of dieting—the reason for which we’ll be finding out below.
To some, whole foods might seem like an indefinte term, but it’s pretty quantifiable, and upon further examination you might find that you’ll learn a few interesting things about how your diet can change, and how those changes can affect your health.
Indeed, the whole foods diet might actually be the only diet to get all nutrients.
A whole food diet is simply a diet that uses whole foods the majority of the time, and a whole food can be considered something that hasn’t been heavily ‘processed’.
However, ‘processed’ requires qualification because ‘processed’ exists on a spectrum—there is minimally processed (such as you cooking something) to ultra-processed (having had lots of engineering gone into it).
Generally though, when the term ‘processed’ is used, at least in this context, it’s referring to the latter. As such, a whole foods diet is a diet that uses minimal ultra-processed foods.
And processed food (highly engineered food) is ubiquitous these days, and for sure most people get food from a grocery store of some kind, but the trouble with ultra-processed foods is that these foods aren’t good for us over the long term if we rely too heavily on them to satisfy our dietary needs.
This isn’t an argument between healthy food and unhealthy food, because unhealthy implies they cause ill health.
It’s also not fair (or accurate) to label these foods as bad, because, again, that would imply they’re harmful in some way.
The correct way to view these foods is that they just aren’t good or they aren’t healthy food.
That is, they don’t cause good health.
This isn’t semantics or wordplay, and it’s important to get your head screwed on straight and have the correct perspective on things so you aren’t susceptible to disordered eating.
What it means is that ultra-processed food is lacking the benefits of whole foods.
To explain, pre-packaged, highly engineered, convenience foods (colloquially called ‘junk food’) have had a series of operations performed on them (both mechanical and chemical) in order to change it. This is done for various reasons, such as taste and preservation.
But this heavy processing can strip out a lot of the goodness (fibre, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients).
Sometimes companies put some stuff back in that they’ve initially taken out (i.e. they ‘fortify’ the food), but this doesn’t compare to the nutrition found when they’re just left in the whole food state in the first place.
Fibre, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are good for us, indeed, they are even protective (for cognitive function, dementia, blood pressure, breast cancer, all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer, chronic diseases, and stroke, to name but a few of the benefits).
As such, decreasing the vitamins and minerals that we get from our food by relying too heavily on ultra-processed foods for our dietary needs, results in us getting less of these vitamins and minerals in our body, and thus decreasing the health benefits and protection that we can get from them.
Eating and pursuing wholefoods is not some fad or marketing trend—it’s simply eating foods that have numerous health benefits.
Not necessarily. As mentioned, the problem with eating junk food, or rather, eating junk food too frequently, is that it lacks the health benefits of whole foods. Remember, they are not ‘bad’ food, they are just ‘not healthy’ food.
Therefore, eating junk food is fine, as long as it’s not the staple of your diet and you are eating in moderation. There is no need to avoid junk food altogether, just as long as you avoid junk food most of the time.
To quantify this for you so it’s not so vague, a diet of 80% whole foods and 20% junk food is an excellent target to aim for. If you go higher than this, such as 90/10, then that’s perfectly fine as well, and is probably a good recommendation if you’re an elite athlete and/or your rely on your figure for monetary/image purposes.
But from a pure health perspective, 80/20 is adequate and you don’t have to avoid eating junk food altogether.
Further, having your diet consist of both healthy food and junk food is a robust way of making sure you can stick to a predominantly healthy diet over the long term because it’s not restrictive. Eating junk food is a treat. Avoiding junk food altogether can feel like a punishment.
So treat yourself! The effect on your long term health will be zero.
As we mentioned above, whole foods have a number of things that processed foods can be lacking (as well as provide protective benefits), so the next few paragraphs will be elaborating on a few of these things.
For over a decade, doctors have been doing their best to catalog important biological components that are known as phytochemicals. These phytochemicals appear to play an active and essential role in preserving health and even preventing different types of diseases.
[Side Note: The body can often extract more phytochemicals when the food is cooked (compared to its raw form).]
One of the most widely known of these phytochemicals is the antioxidant lycopene. This type of phytochemical is a carotenoid, a group that is most notable for their appearance in vividly colored foods like tomatoes, pumpkins and carrots.
These various chemicals appear to play a multitude of roles in the human body for protection, repair and communication between cells. Antioxidants, like lycopene, are well-known because, in laboratory studies, they show an ability to fight and eliminate free radicals.
Free radicals are just atoms that have a missing electron, and the missing electron means they’re unstable. Atoms that are unstable try and stablize themselves, and free radicals will search for and try and bind with another atom to do this. A process that is believed to damage human cells and even DNA.
If it appears that we’re hedging our bets here with less than definitive statements it’s because we are. The role of antioxidants and free radicals is not definitively known, but it’s a reasonable theory.
Free radicals are a consequence of metabolism itself as well as environmental factors, such as cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, and ultra-violet light.
Even if the anti-oxidant and free radical theory of aging turns out to be incorrect, or incomplete, this doesn’t mean that eating whole foods isn’t good for you, because it is, it’s just that the actual mechanism for how this is achieved is not entirely known.
You’ve probably seen commercials advertising different types of ways to get fibre. Some of these commercials show people stirring massive spoonfuls of powder or flakes into huge glasses of water, but is that really the right way to get your fibre? No, not really.
After all, wouldn’t you prefer to eat strawberries? Exactly.
Modern times have taught people to remove certain parts of plants so that they can eat their food more easily, but this can actually lead to a deficiency in fibre, something that continuously appears to be on the rise (due no doubt to the universal consumption of ultra-processed food).
Considering that we should be getting around 30g of fibre a day, and an apple contains only about 4g, it’s no wonder that many of us fall short of the fibre recommendations.
Fibre is beneficial for various reasons (such as binding to cholesterol, which your body then excretes), and a large portion of fibre even contains some of the rarest phytonutrients.
All the roles that fibre plays in fighting heart disease, as well as diabetes and hypertension, is still being worked out, but most of us can be content to know that it simply works and it’s good for you.
As you would guess from our coverage of it above, another serious aspect of modern food habits is the extreme decrease in the amount of nutrients taken in by the average citizen. The actual figures of nutritional deficiencies depends on the study, but they seldom look good.
Common deficiencies include minerals like potassium and magnesium, which play a vital role in the construction of cells, and even our DNA.
With various kinds of deficiencies being so common, it should be no surprise that there could be rising incidents of various diseases. The good news is that just eating wholefoods will likely fix the problem with the majority of nutritional deficiencies.
It’s easy to forget that plants produce fats that are very beneficial for humans and these are exactly some of the fats that people should be eating.
However, because of associations with negative food habits, people tend to shy away from learning about how important fat can be for you.
The unsaturated fats like the Omega-3s that come from fish and plant sources are great for your heart, and may even help you to fight off different types of diseases, including potentially having a protective role in cognitive ones (although the findings here are mixed).
Healthy types of fats are completely separate from those often found in processed food, which is predominantly saturated fat.
Monounsaturated fat is actually beneficial for heart health.
Let’s look a little more closely at some of the whole foods we eat.
Ignoring any of the appeal to nature fallacy connotations, one easy rule, that holds in the vast majority of instances, is that if it comes from the ground then you’re pretty safe to eat it.
If the fruits or vegetables are dried, but they haven’t had any ingredients of additives injected into them, then they should be in the clear as well, but you should check the labels to make sure that you aren’t being tricked.
Lots of companies like to use the colors and images of wholefood produce to trick consumers into thinking that the packet contains whole foods, so look at the label if you’re at all unsure.
Dairy is fine and good for you, unless you have a lactose intolerance, in which case just get lactose free.
Organic produce means different things to different people, pesticide free, GMO free, nutrient dense, small local farms, the list goes on… but organic stuff is not necessarily as good as you think. And it can cost a lot more.
In fact, milk from grass fed cows has nearly 150% more omega 3 than normal milk and 50% more than organic milk. So, as always, vote with your wallet.
Ideally, grains should be in their complete form as it’s higher in fibre and nutrients.
The breads with easily seeable grains are certainly nice and wholesome, but they’re often considerably higher in calories. As such, if your weight is something you’re monitoring then just go with the regular wholegrain forms instead.
You should not sacrifice a healthy body fat percentage for the sake of more wholefoods since excessive fat levels are a serious health issue.
If you wish to be more strict with your whole foods diet then there are quite a few different types of drinks that you can have, but it might actually be easier if you make your beverages yourself.
These can include coconut water, sparkling water that you flavored with different types of fruits, freshly ground coffee, different types of teas, smoothies with only natural and whole ingredients, almond or coconut milk, freshly squeezed and unsweetened juice.
Again, careful of calories with juice and smoothies if you’re monitoring your weight.
Again, if you’re being strict with your wholefoods diet then the main criteria here is that the alcohol doesn’t include any sort of preservatives, extra added sugars or salts, or any other chemicals for that matter.
The extra research required to find alcohol conducive to your lifestyle is only something that you can decide, but straight spirits and certain types of wine will get the stamp of approval from any wholefoods advocate.
If you wish to try the whole foods diet, then our best advice is to break yourself into it slowly and over time.
Here are a few things to implement that will get you up and running quickly.
Begin to avoid foods that come from factories. When you make your own foods, it’s a lot less likely to contain things that will be contrary to your wholefood desire. You might even want to consider learning how to make home versions of the condiments that you like.
Adding lentils or beans to a lot of your meals can help with increasing your intake of the above mentioned phytochemcials. Beans are an okay source of protein, and they can be prepared and flavored in a variety of ways.
When you make breakfast and lunch, have it with some kind of fruit or vegetable.
Eat whole grains. Wholegrains should have wholegrain as the first ingredient listed.
If it’s a fruit or vegetable then you’re good to go. Forget that nonsense about avoiding these things due to fructose or pectin. Eat your fruit and vegetables.
Generally speaking, anything in a packet is often highly processed, especially if they are dehydrated, so you can just default to thinking that they are not wholefoods—you’ll seldom go wrong thinking this way.
Snack foods and much frozen food is often not whole food. Simply avoiding things like this could allow you to avoid nearly 90% of processed foods.
Everyone is busy, and when time runs short it can seem difficult to commit to a healthy lifestyle and diet.
But this is because you don’t have a plan in place that can help you to stick to your health goals.
Try picking up some snack foods like hummus, trail mix and nuts (care with calories if you’re watching your weight), yogurt, and fruit so you always have wholefood snacks to hand.
Chop vegetables up, like celery, for even more healthy snack choices. Frozen fruit can also be lovely. I find grapes and banans (peeled) work particularly well.
Pre-cook all your meat and starch (say, on a Sunday) and stick it in the fridge. Frozen veg can simply be put in the microwave and ready in minutes.
Get tupperware so you can seal what you’ve made into boxes that can be opened, portioned out, and eaten on a whim.
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When considering all this, it can be important to have your reason ‘why’ in mind. This article has been about boosting your health with wholefoods, not necessarily a real foods lifestyle. Or at least not an overly strict one. They’re similar, but different.
A real foods lifestyle goes out of its way to only eat wholefoods and ingredients, while just boosting your health with whole foods does not.
To repeat what we said above, a ratio of 80/20 (wholefoods to not) is excellent, and is all that’s required for health. Your body, mind and health will do nothing but thank you for it.
As also mentioned, you can push this ratio a little higher if you have a specific requirement, such as making money with your body and figure, but it’s not necessary for health reasons (medical reasons not withstanding).
100% wholefoods is unrealistic, unnecessary for health, and is in danger of becoming an eating disorder, so be a little careful with your psychology if you decide to go down that route for whatever reason.
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