It's one of the most common refrains from anyone in the field of nutrition and wellness: "Eat more whole foods." But what exactly counts as a "whole food"?
It's a fair question. And one person's definition of a whole food may be different from the next person's. And I think it's important to say at the outset that just because something isn't a whole food doesn't mean it can't still have some health benefits.
But let's talk first about what we can all agree that a whole food isn't.
Whole foods are not the highly processed foods that make up most of packages lining the aisles of the grocery store. They are not the foods with lots of ingredients, most of them unpronounceable. The category of whole foods doesn't even include some of the foods that carry health halos today, like gluten-free baked goods or cauliflower pizza crust or organic granola or keto protein bars.
However, being processed isn't always a sign that a food isn't a whole food. Washing and chopping and bagging kale is technically processing kale. Canned sardines, shelled pecans, frozen berries, milled flour - all are processed, but all are still whole foods.
It's less a question of whether or not the food is processed, and more a question of whether the plant or animal part that the food was made from is recognizable. (I often use Cheetos as an example of this. I remember wondering what on earth they were until I finally looked at an ingredient label while studying nutrition in college. They bear absolutely no resemblance in either appearance or flavor to corn.)
A whole food also has all of the components that make the plant or animal itself nutritious. For example, whole grains keep their husk and germ. Oranges keep their fiber. Potatoes keep their skins. Milk keeps its fat. (Foods lose a lot of their nutritional value when we process them too much - especially the fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals.)
A whole food also ideally doesn't have added ingredients that aren't naturally present in the food, such as stabilizers, colorings, flavorings, gums, etc. Some additives aren't harmful and can actually increase the nutrient-density of the food- such as adding vitamin D to milk or mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) to oils - but I think we can all agree that we want less added sugar, salt, artificial colors and flavors, and gums in our foods.
Next time you're at the grocery store, try spending a few extra minutes in the produce section. (It's the section of the store that's the most packed with whole food options!) Wherever you have a choice between a whole grain product or a refined grain product, choose the whole. Opt for foods that are less-processed, recognizable for the ingredients they contain, and nutrient-dense. If you can plant a garden, plant fruits, vegetables, and herbs that grow well in your area.
When you do buy things that are processed in some way or contain multiple ingredients, think about what has been done to the food and whether it's something you could do at home in your kitchen. If so, it's most likely a whole food as well.
A few examples of foods that are less-processed and more nutrient-dense:
You get the idea.
As always, there's a balance here. There's no benefit to you if you're fearful or anxious about eating processed foods. You don't win any prizes for eating 100% whole foods, and trying to do better at choosing more nutritious foods is not the same as creating "food rules" about what you can and can't eat. You don't have to label yourself as being on a "whole foods diet" or make yourself feel guilty every time you eat something that is highly processed.
It's about eating well, enjoying and being grateful for your food, doing more in the kitchen when you can, eating more plants, listening to your body, being compassionate to yourself and others, and using food as a tool to improve your health rather than as an implement of punishment or guilt.
Want to learn more? If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or message me directly. If you’d like more personalized guidance, schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute discovery call with me! I’d love to work with you.
Erica Golden, RDN, LD, IFNCP
Erica Golden, RDN