What are whole foods? 5 reasons you need them.

When I first started eating a whole foods diet, when I was studying nutrition in Vancouver BC, I heard the term “whole foods” a lot, and that a whole foods diet is very health-promoting. But I felt a little silly that I didn’t know what “whole foods” meant, exactly.

And when I assume (you know what happens when you assume, don't you?) that my clients know this too, I am reminded that, well, no, not always is this the case. So I'm here to explain it.

I soon learned eating whole foods didn’t mean I had to only eat my food whole, or that I could only eat food from Whole Foods Market; (being a starving student that would definitely be a challenge for me!) but that it means eating food that still looks as it did growing in nature, or very close to it. Basically, food that has not been played with or altered... or only minimally altered. This is because everything (all the nutrients and fiber) in that whole fruit, vegetable, grain, legume (beans, peas, lentils), nut or seed has already been perfectly arranged by our Mother Nature.

The human body runs most effectively on food that is in its natural form, or very close to it. When the body sees an oily, salty potato chip or white sugar coming down the hatch, it has to work harder to do its job to digest it, because its missing parts. If we make the body’s job and digesting easier, it will make the rest of our life easier.

Food that is no longer perfectly arranged by mother nature is food that has gone through processing and refining. Sugar, salt, and oil (as well as other chemicals and preservatives) are often added in with whole foods during processing, while other things may be removed, such as all-important fiber and water. (Really important for bowel health!)

There are many reasons manufacturers process food, but I'll let you in on a little tidbit.. it's mainly to create a product that lasts longer on the shelf which is better for their profits. It's also convenient to store and cheap to buy, increasing their profits. Food that is full of salt, sugar and fat is very tasty, which keeps us buying. Since it's cheap to process (sugar and cheap oils are not expensive) there is lots of profit involved. Yikes.

However, all processing needn’t be avoided: we process whole foods ourselves when we make applesauce from apples, blend down a carrot juice from carrots or make a green smoothie from fruit and kale. I processed down oats when I ground up oats to make oat flour for muffins.

These things in our own house have been minimally processed. The upside to this is that you made it so you know what’s in it and you know the quality of the whole food (how fresh it is, if it’s organic and GMO-free) and any ingredients that you put into it. 

You can also find minimally processed packaged foods at the store, such as: cooked whole foods (beans, tomatoes, vegetables); frozen fruits and vegetables; and non-dairy milks and condiments (salsa, mustard, vinegar). The best choices will be those that do not contain any salt, sugar, and oil, so label-reading comes in handy lots when you are trying to become a whole fooder!

Processed food products that are best to avoid (or go light on) are those that have been overly manipulated and are full of salt, sugar and oil, such as: potato chips and crackers, snack bars and candy, prepared soups and frozen dinners/desserts, most boxed cereals and breads, jarred spaghetti and pizza sauces, and yogurts and other refrigerated prepared foods and condiments. 

Here's my favourite example for describing whole foods and processed foods. The whole foods version of an apple-cinnamon flavoured granola bar is cooked whole oats with chopped up apples and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Perfectly sweetened with fruit and has no added oils or white sugar.

Unless you’re dealing with a whole fruit, vegetable, grain, legume, nut or seed, check out the ingredient list on the package so you know what you’re putting into your body, and that you’re okay with it given your current health goals.

It may taste good at the time but . . . .

Is this going to feel good after you eat it?

In your quest to eat more whole foods, keep the following 5 reasons in mind:

Fresh is best: As soon as a plant is plucked from its life-source (the soil, the tree branch) it begins to deteriorate and lose nutrients. Eating whole fruits and vegetables within a day or so of picking them or buying them will yield the most nutritional benefits for your body. Frozen whole fruits and vegetables can also be a nutritious choice, as they are flash-frozen very soon after picking. Check labels.

Support Local: Local farmers markets and farm stands (we are so lucky here in the Okanagan!) are ideal places to find an abundance of nutritious whole foods since the food has usually been picked within the last 12-24 hours. Your grocer’s produce section also carries whole foods, although this food will typically not be as fresh as what you’ll find at farmers markets, since the food has often been picked while unripe, and flown or trucked in from afar. Ask around or check online for “farmers markets,” “produce stands,” and “CSAs” (community supported agriculture) in your area to locate the freshest local produce.

Bowels & Digestion work better: When not stressed with processed foods, our digestion can handle foods better and it really takes a load off our stomach and digestive organs. This is so incredibly helpful for wanting anti-inflammatory support as well. Our bowels also function better because we'll be eating more fiber, water and minerals. So watch out for that great-feeling side effect of more whole foods.

Lose weight: All clients I work with, especially those on a weight loss trip are taught a whole foods diet and how to search out more whole foods. In addition to the digestive benefits above, a whole foods diet gives the body the vitamins and minerals we need, so the body can worry about healing weight loss rather than just surviving.

Daily Inspiration: Consume a variety of whole foods throughout the day to adequately meet your body’s nutrient needs. It feels sooooo good to eat clean. That's truthfully reason enough, isn't it? If it feels good, do it! I usually start my morning with a bowl of cut-up fruit and/or cooked whole-grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) . My lunch might include a green salad with a variety of veggies and beans or a fruit salad (summer!), or a bowl of hearty vegetable soup (winter time is best for this!). Later in the day, I’ll grab a couple pieces of fruit(summer!), and for dinner I might have baked potatoes/sweet potatoes/squash topped with raw and/or cooked vegetables, or a hearty chili (winter!) or organic bratwurst with a salad (summer!)

What are your favorite whole food snacks, tips or suggestions? Comment and let me know!