What Are Whole Foods? Do You Know?

What Are Whole Foods? Do You Know?
May 22, 2012 Heather Nicholds, C.H.N.

What are whole foods? It sounds simple, but it can be hard sometimes to know what exactly a whole food is.

I always talk about the importance of getting as much of your diet as whole foods as possible.

They’re really healthy foods to eat, so they’re the ones that should make up most of your healthy balanced diet.

What Are Whole Foods?

A whole food is something that hasn’t had a piece of it taken away. For instance, white rice has been polished so that the bran has been taken away. For nutrition, the most important part of whole foods are that they maintain as many nutrients as possible.

  • Vegetables and Fruit: I’m sure you know what vegetables are, but the key here is to get them as freshly as possible. Getting them from farmers’ markets or growing your own is awesome. Frozen are fine in a pinch, but avoid canned vegetables because they lose a ton of nutrients.
  • Whole Grains: I’m not talking about the ‘whole grains’ listed on cereal boxes. What I mean by whole grains are things like brown rice, quinoa and oats. Rolled oats are still whole, they’ve just been pressed out into a flake.
  • Beans and Legumes: You can get them dried or in cans. If buying in cans, just look for a can that has no salt listed in the ingredients, and ideally a BPA-free lining and some kombu (a sea vegetable that helps break down and mineralize the beans). Eden Organic is the best brand for all those points. There are tons of different kinds of beans and legumes: chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), kidney beans, navy beans (for some reason these ones are white), black beans, pinto beans, aduki beans, mung beans, lentils (all different colors) and others.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Again, I’m sure you know what these are, but it’s important to get them as fresh and unprocessed as possible. When nuts and seeds are listed as ‘roasted’, that’s usually done with a refined oil. Whenever you can, buy nuts and seeds raw or dry-roasted, and unsalted. If you really like salted nuts, sprinkle a bit of sea salt on yourself when you eat them so that you can at least control the amount of salt going on. Nuts and seeds can also be ground into butters (like peanut, almond, sunflower, etc). In that form, they’re processed but they haven’t lost any major parts so I still consider them to be whole foods.

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If you feel like a diet of whole foods would be boring, you’d be surprised how tasty it can be! Check out this article for some tips on flavorful cooking.

Non-Whole Foods

Whenever a major part of a food has been taken away in processing, the food isn’t ‘whole’ anymore. Most of the time, that means that it’s not as nutritious as the whole foods above and isn’t a good choice to eat on a regular basis.

That doesn’t mean you can never eat these foods if you want to be healthy – it just means that they should make up a smaller part of your diet, and if you don’t need them just leave them out.

On a side note, there are some non-whole foods that are considered healthy. Like bran (which is just the fiber from a whole grain), molasses (the by-product of refining sugar into white sugar), fresh juice (like carrot or wheatgrass), vegan protein powders (brown rice, hemp or pea) and flaxseed oil.

I think these healthy but non-whole foods are useful for when you want to catch up for missing out on certain nutrients, like omega-3 or beta-carotene. They might not be necessary for everyone, but in certain cases they’re really helpful in being healthy.

Refined Foods

Refined foods are ones that have been processed to a point that most major nutrients have been taken away. These are foods that you should always steer clear of on a healthy eating plan.

These are things like refined oils (i.e. canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, hydrogenated oils, palm kernal oil, and the vague listing of ‘vegetable oil’), refined flours (white or unbleached) and refined sugars (white and brown are both refined).

Overall, I think it’s really important to shift towards whole foods. Long-term, the goal should be for most of what you eat to be whole foods.

The question of what are whole foods is a fairly simple one, and having a simple approach to healthy eating habits is often what can help you stick to it. If you have a choice of all kinds of different foods, having the default choice be to stick to whole foods helps narrow it down.

I don’t think you need to eat a strict 100% whole foods in order to be healthy, but they are definitely the best choice for nutrition. The more of them you eat (and the less of the refined foods) the healthier you’ll be.

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