What are whole foods?
‘Whole foods’ is an umbrella term for foods that haven’t been processed, or have been as minimally processed as possible. With the latter, this means they’re as close to their natural form as can be, while still being okay for us to eat and enjoy. Think of whole foods as being products of nature and the earth, rather than food manufacturing – like comparing a potato to a packaged potato chip!
There’s sometimes inconsistency in thought regarding what foods are strictly deemed whole foods and what aren’t – plant-based items, like fruit, veggies, legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, peas, beans), nuts, seeds and whole grains (e.g. rice, oats, buckwheat or quinoa) are traditionally known as whole foods. However, the term may sometimes be interchanged or associated with ‘real or natural foods’, which include other foods in their natural state or close to it, such as animal products like fish, eggs and chicken.
Nutrition can certainly be confusing at times, so aim to keep it simple – no matter how you chose to eat, focusing on the quality of your diet is key, and opting for foods that been as minimally processed as possible is a great way to maximise nutrient intake and support your health!
Why are whole foods good for our health?
There’s a saying I like – as humans, we’re all natural so it makes sense to keep our food as natural as possible too! When we eat whole foods, we’re eating foods that have undergone minimal or no processing, and as a result are naturally nutrient-rich, containing a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre – in the way nature intends for us to enjoy them. When our diet contains plenty of these kind of foods we often find we naturally have more energy, our immune systems in tip-top fighting shape, our skin glows, and hair shines. Whole foods are also satisfying and satiating to eat – the natural dietary fibre, water and protein they can contain help leave us feeling full for longer!
The more processed a food item is, the less it’ll resemble its ingredients natural form, and may often have sugars, excess salt, and artificial ingredients added to alter taste, extend shelf life, or change texture. Can these kinds of foods still be enjoyed as a part of a healthy diet? Absolutely! But we want the foundation of our diet to be whole natural real foods, to ensure we’re receiving ample nutrients, in their nature form.
Where do I find whole foods?
Whole foods are easily accessible – they’re often the fresh foods lining the perimeter of your local supermarket, or the fruit and veggies down at your farmers market. There’s also loads of minimally processed packaged whole foods which are not only convenient, but are also great for our health – think items like canned beans, frozen fruit and veggies, tinned coconut milk, spices, oil (like olive oil, avocado or coconut) or tinned tomatoes.
What are some ways I can incorporate more whole foods into my diet?
- When supermarket shopping, read the ingredients list on the food label to determine what the product is made of – aim to mostly select products with as few ingredients as possible.
- When shopping aim to select as many foods as possible that line the perimeter of the supermarket, and then dash down the inner aisles to pick up the extra foods you need.
- Work with where you’re at – if you’d like to incorporate more whole food meals or snacks into your diet, start small by switching over a portion of your plate to more whole food rich foods. Anything above what you’re doing is still progress!
- Aim to eat at least five fruits and veggies per day – aim for at least 2 handfuls of veggies at lunch and dinner (and breakfast if you’re game!).
- Get creative in the kitchen with more plant-based dishes utilizing legumes – think chickpea curries, kidney beans chili tacos, or lentil bolognese!
- Having fun exploring ways you can turn real whole foods into new items – try fermenting, soaking grains, sprouting, canning fruit, or culturing.
Are you reducing processed foods in favour of whole foods?
Danijela Unkovich is a nutritionist from New Zealand. She divides her time between both public health and clinical work, and also runs the health blog Healthy Always, where she shares healthy recipe and meal ideas, and wellness blogs.
She is passionate about educating ways to live a healthier life, particularly with a focus on sustainable habits and making it work for you. She is a total foodie, and loves spending time in the kitchen or enjoying a delicious meal with loved ones.