HealthAgenda

Nutrition

What are whole foods?

In a world of trending diets and food fads, don’t forget the benefits of simply eating whole foods, says dietician Dr Tim Crowe.

Health Agenda magazine 
October 2017

Trying to eat healthier, but confused by mixed messages about the best foods for your health? It can be difficult to see through diet recommendations such as detoxing or clean eating to find the healthiest foods. Start by following a simple food guideline that has stood the test of time: eat more whole foods.

What does ‘whole foods’ mean?

The term ‘whole food’ is normally applied to vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains with minimal processing, but it can apply to animal foods too.

It’s not as simple as neatly dividing foods into two groups – either whole foods or processed foods. Most foods we eat have undergone some degree of processing, whether it's washing, chopping, drying, freezing or canning, and that’s not always a bad thing. For example, freezing and canning food gives us access to a variety of foods all year round.

Not all processing is a problem

However, there’s a big difference between ‘ultra-processed’ and ‘minimally processed’ healthy foods that are close to their natural state. Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are all close to the state they were in when harvested and come loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and other essential nutrients. But as the degree of processing and refining increases, the food’s nutritional value decreases.

With more processing, the likelihood that less-beneficial ingredients like fat, salt and sugar are added goes up and the likelihood of vitamins and minerals being present goes down. The US-led National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 90% of the added sugar in our Western diet comes from ultra-processed foods.

The whole food advantage

Nutritional research consistently shows that a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes brings health benefits. A 2014 analysis by Yale University researchers found that the claims of health benefits for many popular diets such as low glycaemic, Paleo and vegan were exaggerated. The one consistent finding was that “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention”.

The benefits of a whole food or a minimally processed diet include lower rates of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Another advantage of eating mostly whole foods comes from the vast array of nutrients acting together.

Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables are packed full of phytochemicals and, according to a study by the Institute of Nutrition Sciences, Germany, these natural compounds can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. Fruits and veg also contain nutrients and fibre, and the best way to make sure you’re getting these beneficial elements is to eat them in their natural form.

The good fats

Another benefit is that when you eat a diet made up mostly of whole foods, it’s easier to eat less of the unhealthy fats – such as trans fats and saturated fats – often added to ultra-processed foods and fast food. At the same time, you’ll be boosting the amount of healthier fats such as omega-3 oils from fish, nuts like walnuts, and plants like linseed and chia; and monounsaturated fat from plant sources such as avocado, and nuts such as almonds, cashews and peanuts.

Nutritional information can sometimes be confusing. But there’s no need to try the latest food fad, as eating healthily boils down to having a balanced diet of foods in their natural state, or as close to it as possible. This way you are getting foods in the package of nutrients that nature intended.

For more information about improving your diet, go to Nutrition Australia.

The big swap

Eating more whole foods doesn’t mean you need to cut out all ultra-processed foods. Try replacing:

  • sugary breakfast cereal with a bowl of porridge with banana or berries
  • a muesli bar with a handful of mixed nuts
  • white bread with wholemeal or wholegrain bread
  • fruit juice with whole fruit
  • ham or other deli meats with roast chicken or pork. 

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