What Does “Whole Food” Really Mean?

October 2023 - Nutrition

Have you ever wondered what exactly is a whole food? Is it just fruit and veggies? Or does granola count?

At its core, a whole food refers to an unprocessed food as close to its natural state as possible. I think of whole foods as “ingredients”. They usually don’t contain packaging or ingredient lists because they’re the ingredients.

Whole foods haven’t been stripped of their nutrients or altered with artificial additives. Instead, they retain all their original goodness, including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and lean proteins.

But here’s the thing—processing isn’t always a bad thing. Cooking and even chopping up your vegetables are considered a form of “processing”. But there are different levels of processing to consider.

Minimally processed food is another very important category, and I would argue that these foods are as healthy (and sometimes healthier) as 100% whole foods. Minimally processed foods are a little different than what’s found in nature, but not much. They can be frozen berries or vegetables (which are often more nutritious than their fresh counterparts), canned beans or veggies, or food made from whole food ingredients, like granola. Cooking, fermenting and at-home canning also fall into this category.

What’s gotten a bad reputation, and for good reason, are highly-processed or ultra-processed foods. Think about the running joke about Twinkies®, that they’ll outlive the human species. This is because they’re so highly processed that they no longer contain anything that you can recognize as food. Ultra-processed foods are made from highly-processed ingredients, like refined flour, high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. There’s a good chance you’ll find chemical names (glucose/fructose) and names that include numbers (like yellow #5) in the ingredient list.

So, why opt for whole foods over heavily-processed alternatives? The answer lies in the nutritional value they offer. Whole foods are packed with essential nutrients your body thrives on. They provide a balanced combination of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in forms your body can easily recognize and utilize. By consuming whole foods, you fuel your body with the nutrients needed for optimal health and vitality.

But…there’s an important nuance
It can be easy to create a “good” list of whole foods and a “bad” list of Twinkies and other ultra-processed food. But this isn’t necessary and can lead to feelings of deprivation and restrictive eating. Real health is found in the grey area.

While I think we all agree that a diet totally composed of Twinkies isn’t the definition of a healthy diet, a healthy diet can include them. You don’t need to shun all highly-processed food entirely like it’s poison—it’s just best as a treat instead of a staple.

If your diet is currently high in those highly- and ultra-processed foods, you’re not alone. Before I became a nutritionist, my diet was full of these chemical-laden, nutritionally-poor processed foods. And I felt terrible.

Instead of giving up all of my favourite foods overnight, I focused on adding more healthy food to my diet each day. Slowly but surely, the whole food squished out most of the processed food and my body became happier and happier. The process felt easy and it was sustainable. Easy changes are key for sustainability.

If you’re looking to add more whole food and minimally processed food to your diet, there are some easy things to keep an eye on at the grocery store. Check out the list of do’s and don’ts when shopping.
Armed with these do’s and don’ts, you’re now better equipped to make informed choices at the grocery store. By opting for whole foods and reading the food labels, you can slowly squish out those more highly-processed foods and pave the way for a healthier, more nourishing lifestyle.

Remember, whole food isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a key principle for unlocking optimal health. By prioritizing real, unprocessed ingredients, we can fuel our bodies with the nutrients they need and promote overall well-being. So, let’s embrace the power of whole foods and let them squish out those ultra-processed foods to bring you toward a healthier and more vibrant life. 

Grocery Shopping Do’s & Don’ts

The Do’s

  • DO read the ingredient list
    Look for foods with short, recognizable ingredient lists. If you can’t pronounce an ingredient or it sounds like a chemical experiment, that’s a food to “squish out” with more whole foods. The best are foods without any ingredient lists (like an apple).
  • DO watch out for added sugars
    Scan the ingredient list for sneaky sugar aliases such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltose or dextrose. The closer these ingredients are to the top of the list, the more sugar the product contains.
  • DO prioritize real ingredients
    Look for real, whole ingredients. For example, choose peanut butter made from just peanuts rather than those loaded with added oils, sugars and preservatives.

The Don’ts

  • DON’T fall for marketing claims
    Be sceptical of claims like “all-natural”, “fat-free” or “low-calorie.” These terms can be misleading and may not accurately represent the nutritional quality of the product.
  • DON’T ignore order of ingredients
    Pay attention to the order in which ingredients are listed on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if processed ingredients like sugar or refined oils are listed at the top, it’s a red flag that the product may not be as wholesome as it claims to be.
  • DON’T rely solely on package claims
    Don’t be swayed by attractive packaging or flashy labels. Often, the real story lies in the fine print on the back.
  • DON’T disregard artificial additives
    Be cautious of foods that contain artificial additives, such as artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. These can have negative effects on health and are often found in ultra-processed foods. Choose products with minimal or no artificial additives whenever possible.

This article was published in The Good Life magazine.

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