What Are Whole Foods, & Why Are They Important for Health?
If you think eating healthy is boring and bland, you’ve not learned the incredible, palate-pleasing wonders of a whole-foods diet. But what are whole foods? Pure and unprocessed, whole foods include luscious fruits, nutritious and vibrantly-hued vegetables, hearty and wholesome legumes, snackable seeds, and more.
"Whole" does not mean you can’t cook these vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and grains, or chop them, puree them, or combine them with other foods. Rather, it means you buy (or grow and harvest) the items whole, without chemical preservatives, colors, and other additives. In your own home, you can cut, peel, or otherwise process them during preparation or cooking, as you wish. But they remain pure, whole, and natural — and if possible, grown organically. We do recommend you avoid making homemade versions of junk foods, like potato chips, if you want the benefits of eating a whole foods diet.
An architect from Barrington, IL, Amy had always been one of those people who could eat whatever she wanted and still stay fit — until she hit her 30s. After gaining some weight and seeing skin breakouts, a routine visit to the doctor’s office revealed that she had borderline high cholesterol. She consulted a nutritionist, who suggested she start eating whole foods. After just a couple of months of focusing on fresh and healthy veggies and fruit, Amy started to feel (and look) like her fit self again.
What Are Whole Foods?
As the name implies, whole foods are unprocessed or minimally processed foods in as close to their natural, whole state as possible. The best whole foods for health include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Unrefined whole grains like brown rice (preferably gluten-free)
- Herbs like cilantro or basil
- Spices like ginger, turmeric, and garlic
Eating a whole-food diet is sometimes referred to as "clean eating" because you avoid processed foods and focus on healthy, nutritious whole foods. Processed and refined foods contain preservatives, artificial colors, and other chemicals that may be toxic. Eating whole foods means you avoid these unwanted additives and get the full suite of antioxidants, digestive enzymes, and other nutrients in the foods.
How Whole Foods Improve Your Health
Clean eating offers many health benefits. Here are some of the ways whole foods can improve your well-being.
Whole Foods Enhance Overall Nutrition
When you eat a variety of whole foods, you give your body the nutrients it requires to function at its highest level. In addition to vitamins, minerals, protein, digestive enzymes, and fiber, whole foods can contain phytochemicals, including antioxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols, anthocyanins, terpenes, tannins, lignans, fatty acids, and more.
While a whole food diet can provide everything necessary to be healthy and strong, you may still have a few nutritional gaps. Where your diet falls short, consider using high-quality, organic dietary supplements.
Whole Foods Promote Gut Health
Many whole foods contain compounds called prebiotics that nourish good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the colon. This leads to a healthier gut, which is connected with healthy skin and mental wellness. Whole foods can include fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchee, which provide natural probiotics.
Another way whole foods benefit the gut has to do with what they don’t contain. If you eat a lot of heavily-processed foods — the opposite of a whole food diet — it negatively affects the microbiome, even promoting diet-driven diseases. Vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts, on the other hand, are all natural and do not contain harsh toxic chemicals.
Whole Foods Support Your Immune System
As Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." When it comes to staying healthy, food really is the best medicine. All your cells require nourishment to function well, including the cells in your immune system. Adequate nutrition, the kind provided by whole foods, fuels the immune response — and that keeps your whole body healthy.
Experts know that undernutrition impairs the immune system. Undernutrition means not getting enough nutrients, but it’s not as severe as malnutrition. It’s possible to be low on certain essential vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants and other phytonutrients, without developing an actual vitamin or mineral deficiency. Yet, there’s no obvious test or way to know what you lack.
Whole Foods Protect Your Heart
If you’re looking for ways to protect your heart, start with your plate! A plant-based, whole food diet can lower your risk of developing heart disease. People who follow this type of diet tend to be more active, and it can support healthy energy levels.
Eating whole foods is beneficial for people taking medication for cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure. In some cases, switching to a healthy, whole food diet can reduce or even eliminate reliance on these medications. Of course, always talk to your healthcare provider before making any changes to your medications. But eating healthier is always a win-win!
Whole Foods Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight
It’s no secret that a diet heavy on fast food and processed snacks can lead to weight gain. So it’s probably not surprising that people who follow a plant-based, whole food diet tend to be leaner than those who don’t. Eating healthy whole foods — especially if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet — is an excellent tool for weight loss.
Changing your diet in this way may not only help you lose weight but also improve your quality of life. Following a vegetarian diet may be useful for preventing and managing weight-related conditions, including type 2 diabetes.
Whole Foods Promote a Healthier Environment
When you eat an organic, plant-based, whole food diet, you are on your way to a sustainable lifestyle. Buying organic foods reduces the use of chemical pesticides and toxic chemicals on the land. Organic growers use practices that are gentle on the earth. Obviously, fewer chemicals on your food, in the air, and in the environment is also better for everyone's health!
In addition to organic options, you can choose locally grown whole foods or eat produce available according to the seasons to support the environment, too. When you buy food that is grown close to home rather than flown in from far away, you reduce your carbon footprint.
Best Whole Foods to Eat
Which whole foods offer the most health benefits? Below are the best whole foods to load up on at the grocery store or farmers market.
When eating a diet focused on whole foods, make vegetables your foundation. Here are some popular options:
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and lettuce
- Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage
- Peppers including bell peppers, cayenne, jalapeno, and poblano
- Summer squash like zucchini, Calabacitas (Mexican gray), and yellow squash
- Winter squash like pumpkin, butternut squash, and spaghetti squash
- Root vegetables like sweet potatoes, burdock, beets, and parsnips
Fruit is another important component of a whole food diet. Some good choices include:
- Berries like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and acai and goji berries.
- Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes
Gluten-Free Whole Grains
Whole grains are those that haven’t been stripped, separated, or otherwise processed. Avoid any grains with gluten, like wheat, because they cause issues with many people. Here are some examples:
- Brown or wild rice
- Unrefined, unbleached flour made from any of the above grains
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds pack a big nutritional punch in a tiny package, and they make great healthy snacks when you’re craving something crunchy. The best choices include:
- Nuts like walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, and cashews
- Seeds like pepitas, flax seeds, hempseed, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Legumes are an excellent source of plant-based protein, and they contain many different micro- and macronutrients. But try not to eat too many legumes, as your health will be better with more fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
- Beans like chickpeas, black beans, lima beans, and white beans
- Lentils (including green, red, yellow, and black)
- Peas (including snap, green, split, and snow)
If you’re looking for greater health, a stronger immune system, or even losing weight, eating more whole foods will make a difference. Try introducing more salads into your diet. Eat more raw foods. Juice or make fresh fruit smoothies.
And make it fun! When you go grocery shopping, turn it into an exploration of the produce department like you are discovering a new country or going on a new adventure. See if there are fruits or vegetables you’ve never tried and buy at least one each visit. Go home and find recipes to try. Or better yet, search the recipes beforehand, so you make sure you have all the ingredients on hand. Your body will thank you!
Points to Remember
Whole foods are those in their natural form, minimally processed and without preservatives, added sugars, and other additives. Eating more whole foods helps the environment by reducing the production of those chemical preservatives, colors, and artificial flavors that otherwise get added. Organic whole foods will be even better for your health and the environment. You can also grow your own.
Whole foods, especially plant-based ones, are nutritious and boost gut health and the immune system. Whole foods may also protect the heart and allow you to maintain a healthy weight.
When you head to the grocery store to shop for whole foods, be sure to fill your cart with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. Where you feel your diet falls short, use organic supplements to fill the gaps.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.