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Healthy Whole Foods: Are They Worth It?

There is a lot of buzz about whole foods these days. Popular diets and grocery store chains are even using the name. What can healthy whole foods mean for you in your life?

Will whole foods make a big enough difference in the way that you feel? Is it necessary to spend hours every day peeling and chopping vegetables?

I can answer these questions and more. Let’s get started learning the difference between whole and processed foods, and how to transition over to a healthier eating plan.

My Whole Food Story

I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where we had little access to processed foods. In Nigeria, back in those days, we baked our own bread, cooked our own chickens, and ate fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies.

Coming home to the United States and walking into a grocery store was always a bit of a shock. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being able to eat potato chips and store bought pizzas and ice cream. I can still remember visiting a friend and being served my first amazing TV dinner. 

Then I started my education and career in Nutrition. I began to learn that the novelty and convenience of the grocery store aisles might just be too good to be true.

What is a Healthy Whole Food?

You might be wondering – what exactly are healthy whole foods? What are some examples of whole foods?

Whole foods are as close as possible to their original, natural state. They are just what their name describes – whole – with few (if any) of their parts removed by processing. 

A fresh apple is a whole food. Applesauce is a step further along the processed food scale. In applesauce the skin of the apple is removed, and it is subjected to heat. Apple flavored dessert bars are waaay down at the opposite end of the scale. They might contain only a small amount of apple, or might just have artificial apple flavoring. 

As food gets further along the scale of processing, it loses nutrients and flavor.  The connection with the life-giving energy that was in the plant or animal is broken.

Whole Foods are Healthier

My mother was not a nutritionist, but she did instinctively know that the food she prepared from scratch would be more nourishing than a packaged item bought from the store.

You might have this gut feeling as well. Here are some reasons why you are right about this.

More Vitamins and Minerals

The closer a food is to its natural state, the more vitamins and minerals it will have.

Vitamins and minerals are chemical substances that can be broken down or degraded. This looks different for every nutrient. For instance, vitamin B2 can be destroyed by exposure to sunlight, and vitamin E can deteriorate with exposure to air or heat.

Canning fruits and vegetables exposes them to heat that destroys nutrients like vitamin C. The process of refining flour destroys B vitamins such as riboflavin, and as much as 75% of vitamin B5. 

When a food is irradiated, dehydrated, heated, ground, or chemically modified it loses a portion of the nutrients and becomes more of a product, but less of a food. 

More Fiber

Whole foods still contain all of their natural fiber.

Milling grains removes the germ with its essential oils, as well as most of the fiber. Peeling fruits and vegetables during processing also removes fiber.

Canned vegetables have less fiber than fresh, since heat begins to break fiber down.

Why should you care about fiber? Adults need between 25 and 35 grams of fiber each day, and most Americans fall far short of that amount. Fiber helps you to feel fuller, regulates your blood sugar, and provides food for the good bacteria in your gut.

Phytonutrients

Fruits and vegetables come in an array of colors that spans the whole spectrum, from bright red pomegranate to deep green bell peppers, to indigo-colored blackberries. These pigments are the phytonutrients that give plants their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Some processed foods also come in a super-bright spectrum of colors. I am thinking of skittles, and fruit loops cereal. Food processors know that we naturally look for color in our food as a sign of health. 

Manufacturers add colors back with artificial chemicals. We’ll talk more about these chemicals further along in the article.

Better Taste

When I first prepared a meal for my husband-to-be, he made comments like “Wow, this food tastes so intense!” It was not because I was loading it up with spices. He normally ate packaged foods like boxes of macaroni and cheese, and store bought bread. 

The taste of real food was exciting and unusual to him. 

Nature knows how to blend flavors together perfectly, something a food manufacturer can only try to mimic. When you are used to eating real foods, you begin to notice that processed meals taste bland. 

Packaged foods with added flavors can also be just a tad too intense and artificial. When they try to copy nature, no one gets it quite right.

There is no doubt about it, healthy whole foods just taste better.

Nutrient Synergy

When nature packages up a food, the nutrients work together in your body to provide even more nutrition than each can do on its own. 

For example, we do not absorb the iron in plant sources as easily as iron from meats. One way to increase this absorption is by eating vitamin C along with the iron. Fresh spinach is high in both iron and vitamin C, in a package designed for best iron absorption. 

An apple contains a fair amount of sugar, however it is also high in fiber. You will absorb the apple more slowly because of the fiber, so that your blood sugar does not rise as quickly. 

The avocado is a good source of vitamins E and K, which are both fat soluble vitamins. This means you need some fat in your digestive tract in order to absorb them properly. It just so happens avocado is also high in healthy, monounsaturated fats. 

Real foods are a complex combination of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. This can’t be reproduced by adding vitamins to a processed food or taking a supplement.

Processed Foods can damage your body

So you can get more nutrients from whole foods. But do processed foods actually hurt you? The answer is yes! Here are a few of the ways that processed foods can damage your body.

Added Chemicals can be Harmful

Over 2500 different chemicals are intentionally added to foods by manufacturers. In addition, thousands more find their way unintentionally into the food supply because they were added to crops or fed to livestock, or are parts of food packaging materials (1).

Food manufacturers are doing a simple thing. They are taking cheaper ingredients, such as corn, and engineering them into a product that looks and tastes like some other food. They can make a much higher profit margin than if they sold a real, whole food.

However you are paying the price for eating products that are stripped of nutrients and have harmful chemicals added. You are paying in poor health, and even medical bills.

Many food additives are linked in the research with serious health conditions, even though they have been approved by the FDA. Here are some examples (2).

  • Nitrates and nitrites found in meats are linked with different types of cancer.
  • Propyl paraben is a preservative that may harm your reproductive system.
  • Food dyes cause hyperactivity in some children.
  • TBHG is a preservative that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.
  • Artificial sweeteners can mess up metabolism and actually promote weight gain.

To learn more about the chemicals added to foods and what they do, visit the Environmental Working Group’s website

Chemicals Harm the Microbiome

Think about it – pesticides are made to kill bugs. When you eat foods that are covered with pesticides, you are sending these chemicals right down to your microbiome, which is basically a community of bugs.

When you buy whole fruits and vegetables, you have much more control over whether or not to get organic produce. As foods become more processed, there is less of a choice. I am not saying you need to eat all organic foods. That is another whole discussion. But it will be better for your gut if you consume less pesticides.

Preservatives found in packaged foods are meant to slow down the growth of microbes. When you send these chemicals into your gut, that is exactly what they will do for your gut bacteria. 

More Sugar, Fat and Salt

Processed foods tend to be higher in sugar, salt and fat, all components of the diet that can lead to chronic disease. 

If these ingredients were not in the food, frankly no one would want to eat them. That is because all the flavor of the original food has been processed out. 

Manufacturers know that adding sugar, salt and fat will make these foods palatable, and even a little bit addictive, to the consumer, and that is you! 

How to Shop for Whole Foods

If you have always bought packaged foods, the thought of switching over to a whole food diet may seem daunting. Where do you even begin? Here are a few things to consider as you change your shopping habits.

Check Ingredients!

Let’s face it, you are still going to buy some packaged items. We live in a real world with deadlines and chores that consume our day. We don’t always have the time to make every meal completely from scratch.

When you are buying food, the ingredient list can help you make your best choice. 

For instance, oatmeal prepared from Old Fashioned rolled oats, or steel cut oats, is about as close as you can get to a whole version of oats. There is one ingredient – whole grain oats. 

On the other hand, Instant Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal contains a long list of ingredients. There are sugar, natural and artificial flavors, salt, calcium carbonate, guar gum, caramel color, and more. 

Look for products that contain only one ingredient, or have a short list of 5 or less, preferably ones that you recognize and trust. 

Shop the Perimeter of the Store

If you think of the store as a big box, you will find refrigeration units along the edges of the box. This layout makes it easy for store workers to access the refrigerators for restocking and to connect them with power.

So as you go through the store, perishable items that need to be refrigerated are found along the perimeter, or outside edges, of the building. This includes things like produce, meats, fish and dairy products.

The middle aisles contain foods that are shelf stable. These don’t need refrigeration because they are dehydrated, canned, and filled with sugar, salt and chemical preservatives. 

You will certainly get some of your groceries like rice, beans, oats or spices from the middle aisles.  However, try to fill most of your cart from the perishable foods around the perimeter.

Shop Locally for Fresh Foods

Even the sizable city where I live has a few different farmer’s markets that open regularly during the week. I can also find a butcher who sells locally grown meat, eggs and milk. 

Look around your area to find out where you can get food that is grown locally, organically, humanely, and whatever else matters to you.

If you have the space and time, grow your own produce. You can’t get less processed than pulling it out of the dirt yourself and carrying it into your kitchen. Even an herb in a window box is a good start towards growing your own food.

How to Transition to Whole Foods

Start Gradually

It might be overwhelming to suddenly come home with bags full of produce and whole grains. Start with one or two new foods so that you can experiment and work them into your diet. 

A sudden increase in the amount of fiber that you eat can cause symptoms like bloating or gas. If you build up the amount slowly, these side effects will be minimal as your body gets used to digesting more fiber. In the end, you will feel better. 

Do you need expert help in this transition? Find out how to work with me.

Sharpen Cooking Skills

Buy a book, watch a video or take a class. There are so many opportunities today to learn how to prepare foods. Make sure you have the proper kitchen tools like a cutting board, a good sharp knife, measuring cups and spoons, etc. 

Is there a vegetable that is your favorite, or that you simply find intriguing? A person you would love to surprise with a home-cooked meal? Cooking is a great creative outlet where you get to eat the results of your labor. 

What about all that chopping and dicing? It does take more work to prepare fresh produce. Sometimes it helps to set aside time when you finish your shopping and prep all of your veggies at once. You might need to rearrange your day and give more priority to preparing meals.

Is it worth the time? Absolutely! When you take the time to feed yourself properly, you have more energy and a stronger immune system. Feeling good is a great reward for time spent in the kitchen.

Try something new, and keep an experimental mindset. Remember that food is a great pleasure, and enjoy!

Final Thoughts

Whole foods are as close as possible to the state that they appear in nature, and have minimal processing and extra ingredients.

These foods contain more vitamins, minerals and fiber than their processed counterparts. Their beneficial phytonutrients are still there, and they taste better, like real food.

The nutrients in real food work together so that your body can absorb and use them efficiently.

Processed foods can contain a variety of harmful chemicals that damage your microbiome and other body systems. They are often high in sugar, salt and fat, all of which are linked with chronic illness.

Some simple tips for buying whole foods are to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, to buy locally grown foods, or if you can, to grow your own.

You might need to learn some new cooking skills as you transition over to a whole food plan. Add new foods like grains, beans or vegetables gradually, so that your body can get used to the extra fiber. 

Remember, this is not a short sprint that you need to do quickly. It is a life change and will have long-lasting benefits for your health.

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