While it may feel bewildering to some, life without processed foods represents the majority of human history. Yes, humankind has always adjusted, prepared, and stored food uniquely, but the recent development of highly-processed foods, ingredients, and additives, as found in things like chips, prepackaged dinners, and modern “fast” food, represents a big shift in what the dinner plate looks like for most people, especially in the Western World.

On the flip side of processed foods, you have whole foods and what’s known as the Whole Food Diet.

What Are Whole Foods

Whole foods can most simply be understood as foods as close to their natural state as possible. These foods do not go under high amounts of processing – that means these foods are not blended with other ingredients, like oils/fats, colorings, or other additives. Some examples of this are whole grains vs. refined grains, fruits & vegetables vs. supplements, homemade blackberry spread vs. squeezable preserve, or chicken breast vs. chicken nuggets made from mechanically separated meat.

So why eat whole foods?

What makes whole foods arguable better than processed foods comes down to one major factor: retained nutrients. Whole foods, by virtue of not being broken down during processing, often retain their fiber, a wide range of phytochemicals, and vitamins and minerals that are removed when processing foods. Some argue that “fortifying” processed food solves this problem, however, this isn’t always the case, as in the case of phytochemicals such as lycopene, anthocyanins, and pterostilbene. As explained by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, “The only way to make sure you’re getting the phytochemicals we know about, as well as the ones we haven’t yet discovered or named, is to eat plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form (or ground, if they’re grains or seeds).”

What is a Whole Food Diet

First, it’s important to note that a whole food diet is not a vegan diet. Some purport that the diet excludes meat/animal products completely, but this isn’t true. While meat is de-emphasized in the diet, and instead fruit and starches are emphasized, the diet itself does not prohibit meat. (I find this is an important distinction to make, largely  when one says ‘whole food diet.’ This can prevent them from making a healthy dietary switch that still includes meat!)

So what does a whole food diet look like? In variety, one should consume these core foods:

  • Leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and chard
  • Fresh fruit, such as citruses, pome fruits and tropical fruits
  • Lean, unprocessed meats, such as ham, turkey and fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and nut butters, such as almonds, cashews and walnuts
  • Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentil
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, couscous and wheat berries

You may feel as if this list is quite general, and that’s because it is. It’s important to realize that a lot of what defines the whole food diet isn’t a specific type of food group as much as a specific process that behind the foods you eat. For example, you certainly enjoy a ‘burger and fries’ on this diet – but you’d want to make sure the meat was lean and unprocessed (without additives), the vegetables were fresh and not prepared/packaged, and the bun was made from a whole grain, or even homemade by you.

In the case of a whole food diet, it’s more about following healthy principles, like starting your day with a wholesome breakfast and providing yourself with a variety of sources of nutrition that naturally occur in foods.

Whole Food Diet + Physical Activity

As you know, a healthier body doesn’t only come from eating good foods. It also requires physical activity, like yoga or the great exercises that go with it. Provide yourself with at least 20-30 minutes of exercise everyday, and don’t be afraid to sprinkle some weight training exercises in your routine

Remember: One of the best ways to improve your health is to simply listen to your body – satisfy yourself while remaining disciplined and active!