A whole food is a food that has not been been processed nor refined and is free from additives or other artificial substances. Whole foods make up a large part of our daily lives and we often consume them without even realizing it. Examples include grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and both animal and plant protein sources. Whole foods are simple, honest and unbelievably rich in nutrients, making them an essential component of the diet. Unfortunately, our busy lives often lead us to push aside whole foods and reach for the convenient, processed and ingredient-dense foods. It seems simple to head to the grocery store before work to buy a pre-made salad or a frozen meal, but many do not pay attention to the lengthy ingredient list and the lack of nutrient density in these products. It is important to understand the risks of consuming processed foods and benefits of the consuming whole foods.
So, what exactly is the “problem” with processed foods? A processed food is defined as a food item that has had a series of mechanical or chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it. They typically come in a packaged box or bag and they always contain more than one ingredient. The main goal of the companies creating these products is to make a significant profit, and in order to do so, the product must be palatable to the consumer. With this being said, the best way to make a product palatable is to add excess sodium, sugar, artificial sweetener, and saturated and trans fats. Additionally, processed foods often contain health-threatening ingredients such as aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrates and nitrites, MSG, artificial food dyes and colors, and so many more. The long list of ingredients often added to processed foods are associated with obesity and chronic diseases.
It is important to understand that eating processed and packaged foods occasionally is not going to harm you immediately and likely will not contribute to poor health outcomes. There are also many companies who have created products free of harmful chemicals and with minimal ingredients. Many companies are also striving to replace excess sodium, sugars, and trans fats with healthier ingredients. However, buying these “healthier” packaged products does not come without a cost. They will definitely spike your grocery bill and make a dent in your wallet. So, what is the solution? The best way to eat healthy, minimize harmful ingredients and chemicals, and stick to your budget is to buy and consume whole foods!
The list of health benefits of whole foods is extensive, and each whole food subcategory offers its own unique and health boosting benefits. An overall increase in the consumption of whole foods benefits just about every realm of our bodies and our health. It is important to note that there is not one whole food that contains every important micronutrient or macronutrient. This is why a balanced diet, containing every subcategory of whole foods, is vital to ensure sufficient amounts of all micro and macronutrients and to optimize health. Below is an explanation of the health benefits of each whole food subcategory, as well as the nutrients they are rich in.
Whole grains contain all of the essential, naturally-occurring parts and nutrients of the entire grain seed in the original proportions. In order to be a whole grain, it must still contain the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples of whole grains include barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, and a variety of wheats. These foods are a great source of carbohydrates, which supply us with energy throughout the day.
So, what makes whole grains so much better for you than their counterparts? Whole grains are loaded with fiber, which aids in regulating bowel movements and relieving constipation, reducing risk of colon cancer, controlling blood sugar, lowering cholesterol, and staying fuller longer after a meal. Whole grains are also important in weight management and reducing risk of chronic disease, especially heart disease. Grain products are fortified with folate, which is vital for preventing neural tube defects during pregnancy.
These health benefits do not just magically appear, instead, it is the nutrients that are piled into whole grains that aid in producing the outstanding benefits. Whole grains are a great source of B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate). B vitamins help the body release energy and are important for nervous system function. Iron is also supplied by consumption of whole grains, which helps carry oxygen in the blood and prevent iron-deficiency anemia. Finally, whole grains are rich in magnesium. Magnesium functions in releasing energy from muscles and building bones.
Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are wonderful sources of plant protein. When you combine beans with a whole grain, such as rice, you get a complete protein, which supply all nine of the essential amino acids. This group contains all varieties of beans as well as peas, chickpeas, and lentils.
Folate is also found in beans and legumes and interestingly, canned beans contain more folate than many other foods. Along with reducing risk of neural tube defects, low levels of folate are associated with fatigue, weakness, heart palpitations, and irritability. Beans are also rich in iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. Finally, beans and legumes are a great source of antioxidants. Antioxidants help to fight the negative effects of free radicals in the body. These effects include inflammation, aging, and cancer.
The nutrients found in beans and legumes provide many benefits. Eating more beans is associated with a lower risk of dying from heart attack and stroke. This group may also help lower cholesterol, which reduces risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Beans and legumes also aid in stabilizing blood glucose because of their fiber content. Regulating blood glucose helps reduce risk of developing diabetes.
Nuts and Seeds
The list of different types of nuts and seeds is extensive. The benefit of this is that every individual has a wide variety to select from in terms of their unique taste preference. Nuts and seeds are an amazing addition to practically every meal and snack. Whether it is oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, or a stir fry for dinner, there is always a place for nuts and seeds.
Nuts are excellent sources of unsaturated fats, which help lower LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and raise HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). Another type of fat found in nuts and seeds is known as omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s are important for your health and they help prevent the development of heart arrhythmias and reduce blood clotting. The combination of fat, fiber, and protein found in nuts and seeds help keep you fuller longer. When you stay full and satisfied, you will need less food and calories throughout the days, which may help with weight management.
Arginine is an amino acid found in nuts that helps keep blood vessels elastic (stiffening of blood vessels introduces many problems). Nuts and seeds are also rich in vitamin E, B6, niacin, magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, copper, selenium, phosphorous, potassium, all of which have specialized and vital functions in the body.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are free of cholesterol and naturally low in calories, sodium, and fat, yet still boast a satisfying taste. Eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of developing health complications such as heart disease, heart attack, stroke, certain types of cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Filling up on these foods is valuable because they are lower in calories, which may help fight and prevent obesity and its associated health outcomes. The potassium found in fruits and vegetables may lower blood pressure and decrease age-associated bone loss.
Many fruits and vegetables are high in dietary fiber. This food group is also an important source of folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Aside from preventing neural tube defects, folate also helps the body form red blood cells. Vitamin A is important for eye and skin health and protection against infection. Vitamin C aids in healing cuts and wounds as well as keeping gums and teeth healthy. Iron absorption is also maximized with consumption of vitamin C. Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, which occur naturally and have many potential benefits. The different colors of fruits and vegetables represent the different types of phytochemicals. So, in order to gain the maximum benefit of a phytochemical, it is important to eat a wide variety of colors in the diet.
Consumption of whole foods is a very important component in optimizing health. A great way to prevent and reverse chronic disease and other health complications is by minimizing consumption of processed foods and increasing consumption of whole foods. Doing so will not only protect the body but will also make a financial impact because purchasing processed, packaged foods can really add up. Making the switch from processed to natural and fresh is a fun experience and is a great way to find and experiment with new ingredients and recipes!