A Whole Foods Primer: Back to Basics

Forget all the confusing, conflicting nutrition advice. There is no simpler concept than this.

Read more from our #WHOLEFOODS primer here.

If you’re the slightest bit interested in healthy eating, you’ve probably researched a number of different diets and their varying nutritional points of view. And you’ve probably heard the experts bat around the term “whole foods” when flogging their favored eating style. The fact is, no matter which dietary flag they fly, the importance of whole foods seems to be the one and only thing they all agree on. So what exactly are whole foods, and why are they so important? Don’t feel bad; there are plenty of smart people like you whose heads are spinning too.

Simply put, whole foods are foods that have not been processed or refined before you eat them. You can dig them out of the ground, pick them off a tree or pluck them off a bush. Examples, in that order, would be sweet potatoes, apples, and blueberries. An egg is a whole food. An avocado is a whole food. All fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains like brown rice are whole foods because they haven’t been altered from their natural state. Poultry, fish, and meat are whole foods (unless they’ve been processed, which we’ll get to in a moment).

Whole foods do not contain any additives such as salts, sugars, fats, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, or other ingredients you can’t pronounce. They are what they are. Therefore, bright orange (artificially flavored and colored) nacho chips are not a whole food. Nor are Snackwell’s devil food cookie cakes, or a Big Mac. Sorry.

The one exception are dairy products like milk or yogurt or kefir, which are considered whole foods but are also processed—pasteurized or fermented—before you eat them. (Pasteurization is considered a process that doesn’t affect a food’s nutrient value.)

And that’s the whole point of eating whole foods: They have lots of bio-available nutrients that nourish every cell in your body When more of them are on your plate, you’ll get the most health benefits from your meal. A study by David Katz, MD, MPH, and Stephanie Meller of Yale University, published in the Annual Review of Public Health states, “A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches.”

All this means is, whether you’re paleo, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or enjoy a Mediterranean diet, you’re still encouraged to consume your food in its most natural condition. And there’s nothing confusing or complicated about that.

Processed Food: The Nasty Alternative to Whole Food

Foods that have been transformed through processing and the addition of chemicals, preservatives or other non-natural ingredients are no longer food; they’re food-like products. At the same time, foods that have been stripped of their innate nutrients—think white flour as opposed to whole grain—are also not whole.

Author and real food advocate Michael Pollan’s much-quoted directive, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” serves as a basis for the whole foods approach to eating. If you’re filling up the tank with minimally processed edibles (as in five ingredients or less listed on the label) you’re off to a great start. Pollan, whose fresh take on the food chain helped galvanize a new approach to eating, would likely look at it this way: If it’s created in a factory or a company, chances are it’s not a whole food.

Here are some general guidelines.

Fruits & Vegetables

The basis of a whole food diets starts with lots of fruits and veggies. Whenever possible, buy local, seasonal or organic. Frozen works too, but avoid canned products, especially those with added sugar, salt and preservatives. Steer clear of commercial fruit juices; it’s better to eat an orange than drink a glass of store-bought juice, which is loaded with sugar. Use a juicer or blender at home to make your own juices and smoothies.

Grains

Quinoa, bulgar, barley, rice, farro, spelt, polenta … there’s a long list of whole grains to choose from. Avoid processed bread products that include high fructose corn syrup or other chemistry-lab sounding additives. Many grocery stores are stocked with minimally processed pastas made from whole grains, which are a great substitutes for traditional white flour pasta.

Legumes

All varieties of lentils, peas, beans and even peanuts make up the legume family–technically legumes are the seeds of that particular type of plant. While diets that are paleo-centric might shun legumes, these edible seeds come straight from the ground, and are absolutely included in a whole food diet.

Dairy

Eggs; unsweetened plain yogurt; many cheeses (again, check the ingredients list for five or less) all fit the bill. There is still some debate over whether or not milk should be considered a whole food. Purists argue that even organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free milk is processed, therefore it doesn’t qualify. (On the other hand, many food lovers can’t imagine life without cheese to pair with their bread and wine.)

Fish & Meats in Their Natural State

Organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken; grass-fed organic beef or other meats are whole foods. So is wild caught Alaskan salmon, and most other fish. Sliced deli meat, loaded with fillers, preservatives and added salt, is not.

Simple Tips for Making the Switch

  • Steer clear of the middle aisles of your supermarket. That’s where the bulk of processed and packaged products are stocked. You’ll find the real food around the perimeter of the store.
  • Avoid foods that claim health benefits, or say “low-fat” or “lite” on the package. Whatever was taken out to lighten things up has been replaced with something way worse.
  • Many stores sell dried beans, grains, nuts and other whole foods in bins, rather than pre-packaged, so you can buy as much or as little as you need.
  • Instead of buying commercial salad dressing, make your own from olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings of your choice. On the other hand using a can of organic tomatoes or Pomi brand—BPA and GMO free with no added water, salt or sugar—to make homemade tomato sauce works just fine. Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nutritionist who has a problem with (packaged) whole oats. They’re minimally processed, and a much healthier choice than Lucky Charms.

Happy Side Effects of a Whole Foods Diet

For anyone watching calories or concerned about weight gain, whole foods in their natural state are nutrient dense and fiber rich, so it’s usually hard to overeat. (“Bet you can’t eat just one” may be true of potato chips, but it’s unlikely that will be the case with apples or broccoli.)

If you’re time-starved and thinking it’s quicker to open a can of soup than to grill a chicken breast, roast a sweet potato and saute some string beans in olive oil, you may be right, but think of it this way: Your body will thank you in the long run.