What are whole foods?


What are wholefoods?

In a world of trending diets and food fads, don’t forget the benefits of simply eating wholefoods.

With TV and social media feeds filled with new diets and quick-fix meal programs, it can be difficult to make healthy food choices. From detoxing and clean eating to fasting, eating healthy can feel like a daily challenge. So, where do you start?

According to dietitian Dr Tim Crowe, the best place to start is by following a simple food guideline: eat more wholefoods.

What does wholefoods mean?

The term ‘wholefood’ is normally applied to vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains that have undergone minimal processing, but it can also apply to animal foods too.

“It’s not as simple as neatly dividing foods into two groups – either wholefoods or processed foods,” explains Dr Crowe. “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.”

An example of this, he says, is when food has been frozen, which preserves food’s integrity and gives us access to a variety of foods all year round. This is different from fruit that has been canned or kept in sugary syrups, like canned peaches, or creamed, like creamed corn. These processes add extra ingredients to the mix and tend to reduce the nutritional goodness.

So, what are some examples of wholefoods?

A general rule is that a wholefood doesn't come with an ingredients list, and on the rare occasion there is one, like with hummus, cheese, wholegrain bread and healthy peanut butter, the ingredients panel contains minimal additions and mainly other wholefood ingredients.

Wholefoods fit into several food groups:

  • vegetables and fruits, all varieties
  • legumes, including chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, kidney beans and split peas
  • grains, including quinoa, rolled oats, wheat, brown rice, bulgur wheat and barley
  • nuts and seeds, including cashews, sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds
  • animal products, including unprocessed meat, eggs and some dairy products.

Not all processing is a problem

While processed food is common, 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, says Dr Crowe.

“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,” he explains.

And that can mean that we’re eating more salt and sugar than we might actually realise. How much more? Well, the US-led National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that almost 90% of the added sugar in our Western diets comes from ultra-processed foods. And a 2020 study found that in Australia the consumption of these ultra-processed foods has been linked to an increase in obesity levels.

Why are wholefoods good for you?

Nutritional research consistently shows that a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes brings health benefits.

An analysis by Yale University found that the claims of health benefits for many popular diets like 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”.

Various studies have confirmed that the benefits of a wholefood diet or a minimally processed diet include lower rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as some cancers. And a study from Tufts University, Massachusetts, found that people in their 50s who ate a diet of predominantly wholefoods had “smaller increases in waist size, blood pressure and blood sugar levels as they aged”.

Another advantage of eating mostly wholefoods actually comes from a vast array of nutrients acting together.

“Wholefoods such as fruits and vegetables are packed full of phytochemicals and these natural compounds can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases,” explains Dr Crowe.
“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.”

Eat more of the good fats

When you eat a diet made up mostly of wholefoods, it can be easier to eat less of the unhealthy fats – like 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 and plants (like linseed and chia); and monounsaturated fat from plant sources, like avocado, and nuts such as almonds, cashews and peanuts.

“Nutritional information can sometimes be confusing,” says Dr Crowe. “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 ways and ideas for improving your diet, go to Nutrition Australia.

Healthy wholefoods swaps

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

  • sugary breakfast cereals 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.

Looking to lose weight?

Carrying extra weight can take its toll at any stage and age. That’s why we’ve partnered with Prima Health Solutions, to give you free access to our Healthy Weight for Life program to help you develop healthy habits, lose weight, and improve your quality of life.

The program is available free to HCF members who are overweight and have osteoarthritis, or are at risk of developing chronic conditions. You must have had an eligible hospital product for 12 months and meet the program’s eligibility criteria

Words By Tim Crowe and Lucy Cousins
Updated August 2022

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