Everyone left and right is talking about whole foods. “Eat a whole foods diet.” “Ditch the processed variety and go for the REAL whole foods!” “Do you shop at Whole Foods?”
Well, aside from that last bit, everyone is raving about whole foods. But what does that even mean? Let’s go over it, since I myself refer to whole foods quite a lot in my vlogs, social media, meal plans, and posts.
Exactly What You Think They Are
The name itself should give it away. Whole foods are whole foods. Meaning, they’re complete foods. Not meals, foods. But I get it- there’s a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to the name whole foods. So don’t trick yourself into believing something like a cracker is going to be a whole food (since it’s not).
A whole food can be found in nature. It is not made from a combination of ingredients or produced in a lab; it came from the earth. So think of things like fruits, vegetables, roots, and herbs. These are whole foods.
Here’s another tricky situation. Take a look at a product or supplement at the store. Many times, whole foods are used as extracts in order to flavour or provide a small amount of nutritional value to something. This could be a diet drink, meal replacement, or vitamin. Lemon extract, lavender extract, ginger extract, broccoli extract- while all of these are technically made from whole foods, the truth is that they’re not. The extracts had to be produced outside of nature, in a man-made setting. That’s not to say they’re bad; it’s way better than using sugars or artificial flavours. But they’re not the real deal. The extracts weren’t grown in the soil. And you don’t get all of the benefits that you normally would just be eating the whole food itself.
Take oranges for example.
The extract of an orange might provide some flavour or small amounts of nutrients, but it doesn’t compare to simply consuming the entire orange. If you ate the orange, you’d get a full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, prebiotics (a specific type of fibre that feeds the beneficial probiotic bacteria in our gut), and co-factors that aid in our body’s ability to properly absorb and utilize these nutrients. So to recap, the extract is just a speck of nutrition, whereas the whole food is an enormous amount. And the less processed a food is, the better. If anything, a whole food should never be processed in the first place!
Even animal foods are whole foods. They too exist from nature. I know this next part is going to unsettle some plant-based readers out there, but hear me out. Even if you exclude animal foods like beef, poultry, eggs, and fish, there’s no denying that they’re still complete foods compared to a heavily processed bottle of diet soda. But even animal foods are susceptible to manufacturing. A lot of deli meats and cheeses have undergone a process that removes a lot of their beneficial nutrients; most dairy foods today are pasteurized in order to destroy any bad bacteria that could infect the consumer. While this is a safety precaution, it still removes a ton of their nutrition. That’s why you’ll see Vitamin D and even calcium being added back to dairy foods to still make them “nutritious”.
Dairy itself is tricky ground- if you can tolerate it, great. As long as it works for you! But it’s also a bitter truth that a majority of the dairy out there today pales in comparison to its raw counterparts. And those deli meats I mentioned before aren’t any better. While more and more brands are waking up and offering just plain and simple meat with a bit of salt for flavour, most of the deli meat we’re familiar with is jam packed with extra ingredients like preservatives (nitrites and nitrates), table salt (devoid of minerals when compared to sea salt), and carrageenan.
Carrageenan is yet another riddle of the whole food world. While carrageenan is technically a real, whole food coming from red seaweed, it’s not the healthiest ingredient to consume. It’s used either as a thickener or stabilizer in foods like deli meats. The problem is, carageenan is also highly inflammatory. And this is no exaggeration: carageenan is used to induce inflammation in animal and cell studies.  It’s a controversial subject though, since many experts bounce back and forth between its safety and possible harm. Instead of participating in the debate however, pay attention to what got you here in the first place: the meat. Were you intending to buy and consume meat (and nothing more), or meat AND a controversial ingredient? The solution? Stick to the whole food. Cook your own meat, or find a cleaner source free of these added ingredients. That way, you’re eating a whole food.
On that note, the reason why sticking to whole foods is so effective for your health and fitness is because they take a lot of the guess work out of finding out which way of eating is right. Instead of getting lost over picking a “guilt free” brand of chips, just walk into the produce section and buy something that doesn’t come with an ingredient list. Swap out the fried, crunchy snack foods for a handful of nuts. Want something sweet? Why not have some seasonal fruit instead? They’ll give you a plethora of nutritious micronutrients, anti-aging and anti-inflammatory antioxidants (say that one five times fast!), and fiber to curb off hunger and feed those beneficial bacteria I mentioned before. If you want to up the stakes, think of it like an investment, both figuratively and literally.
From a health perspective, you’re investing in feeling AND looking good. Think younger-looking skin, a flatter stomach, easy digestion, and preventing disease.
And from a financial perspective, you’ll definitely be getting your money’s worth. Yes, snack foods are cheaper, but they do nothing more than satisfy your taste buds for a spin. You’re actually going to be spending more in the long run because these foods don’t provide any of the nutrition your body needs. It’s going to continue staying hungry because one, there’s no fiber to fill it up, two, because it’s not receiving any nutrients to function (after all, we’re hungry because we need REAL fuel in the form of those nutrients!), and three, because those types of processed foods were designed to manipulate your taste buds to want to eat and crave more of them. For some people, a small handful is not enough to satisfy them. They may want to eat the entire bag, or go out and search for other processed snacks and desserts. So when you think about it, you’re not saving any money.
The following quote by Lee Swanson says it best:
“If you think the pursuit of good health is expensive and time consuming, try illness.”
So what is a whole food again? Anything that is grown (or raised) in nature. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Beef, poultry, eggs, and fish, provided they aren’t heavily refined or processed with added ingredients like carageenan or preservatives. Stick to those, and you’ll be making enormous investments in your health and vitality.