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There has been some confusion about what constitutes a whole food. Some think of a food store chain, others of organic foods, and others just think “healthy.” Few dispute that whole food are good for you, but it is important to know what exactly they are, as not to be misled by marketing or labeling.
First, let’s consider what a whole food is not. A whole food is not necessarily organic, and organic foods are not necessarily whole foods. USDA Certified Organic foods have met tight regulations, including that they may not be grown using pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or sewer sludge. These are good, but you can have an organic potato chip, but a potato chip is not always a whole food.
A whole food is also not necessarily a “health food,” though they are healthy. They may include faddish things like alfalfa sprouts, but other “health foods” like tofu, acai berry tea, or hummus aren’t necessarily considered whole foods either.
A whole food, very simply, is a food that is as close as possible to its original state. An apple is a whole food. A peanut is a whole food. Whole foods are those that are not processed, have no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and have had no nutrients added or deliberately taken away. Processed foods, then, are the exact opposite of whole foods.
It is important to note that there is some disagreement as to what can be called a whole food. Some people would say that only raw fruits, seeds, nuts, and vegetables that haven’t been cut up or had anything done to them should count as whole foods. Others would go as far as to say that if you bake an apple pie, the apples would still be considered whole foods (as long as you started with raw apples). I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, because there are certain foods that just can’t be eaten by human beings without at least peeling them, such as avocados and bananas, and others that must be cooked to be safe or edible, such as squash.
Others, such as apples, don’t need to be peeled, but we don’t eat the whole fruit because we throw away the core. As humans, we do not always get the full benefit of the nutrients in many foods without cooking them, because the cellulose in many vegetables prevents our digestive system from effectively absorbing the vitamins and minerals in such foods.
What almost everyone agrees on is no matter where you fall on your definition of whole foods, these unprocessed, unpreserved, unrefined foods are much better for you than boxed, processed foods. Foods have their greatest compliment of nutrients when they are on the plant or, in the case of meat, on the animal. As soon as a food is harvested, nutrients are lost. The longer foods sit around, the more nutrients they lose.
They lose them faster when they are cut up or cooked. However, processing of foods tends to strip even more nutrients out of foods than does a simple steaming or baking. In the case of refined grains, they are stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and end up with the nutritional value of sugar. They are so denuded that, by law, the manufacturers are required to add some nutrients back in (labeled “enriching”) when they use these grains to make cereals and breads.
The problem with all this processing and the advantage of whole foods are that the closer a food is to its original source, the more it contains all the nutrients we need to live healthy diets. Which nutrients in plants do we need? There is a huge list, but the fact is that even if we were to list them all out, we would likely be missing some chemical or compound that we need to be optimally healthy. This is because we simply don’t know or understand all the nutrients we need to survive. Many plants contain nearly all of these essential nutrients, with the possible exception of the B-complex vitamins.
Processed foods do not, and can not because science doesn’t know how to make the perfect processed food. It has been shown that people who eat primarily processed foods are not as healthy as those who eat primarily whole foods. Higher overall cholesterol is one consequence. Processed foods do not typically contain adequate fiber, vitamins, minerals, while they contain too much fat, sugar, and salt. They depend on these, as well as artificial flavors and colors, to be palatable.
It is important to remember that whole foods are not exotic, rare, or necessarily expensive. There is no need to go to health food stores or special organic markets. For the most part, to buy whole foods simply means to shop the edges of your supermarket. Start with the produce section, then move on to the meats, the unprocessed cheeses (cheese isn’t technically a whole food, but buying cheddar, mozzarella, and other block cheese is better) and then on to other dairy products. If possible, avoid the cereal aisle, snack aisle, and if you buy grain products, remember to get whole grains instead of those made with refined flour.
It is exciting to start trying whole foods. You may discover flavors you never knew existed, try new recipes, and in the process, you’ll be improving your health and well-being.