Food and Health

Whole Foods and Processed Foods: What’s the difference?

When I meet people who are interested in nutrition and begin answering the many questions they have, often their final question for me is this.  If you had just one piece of advice for everyone, or one diet you would recommend, what would it be?  My answer is always “eat a whole foods diet.”  After that, I would say about half of the people I’ve spoken with about this (most who I met while working as a rideshare driver) asked me, “What do you mean by whole foods?”

I’d like to say that this surprises me, but it doesn’t.  We currently live in a society in which the majority of people consume a diet that consists of approximately 90% of items that are not even food.  The population in the United States not only overwhelmingly eats less “real” food than ever before, but is quickly losing sight of what food really is.  I’ll be the first to admit that as little as six years ago, I was still struggling with these issues myself.

Whole Foods Are Real Foods

Whole foods are the foods that you can find in nature.  If you were trapped on a deserted island and had to live off the land, whole foods would be your only option.  They’re plants, animals, seeds, and nuts.  However, in the world of nutrition, there are additional foods that many practitioners include in the whole food definition.

Some foods that are “technically” processed but are still included in the whole foods diet by the majority of nutrition professionals, including myself are:

  • Healthy, oils – olive, coconut, avocado, walnut, etc.
  • Dairy from grass-fed cows or other naturally raised animals.
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Fats from naturally raised animals like grass-fed butter, ghee, lard, etc.

Basically, while these foods do have to go through some minimal processing to present them in the form that they are bought by the consumer, they are all primarily one-ingredient foods.  Also, there are frozen and canned foods that can be classified as whole foods.  For example, a can of organic pumpkin where the only ingredient is “organic pumpkin”, or a can of green peas where the only ingredient is “green peas.”

However, if you want to be really hard core, then you would eliminate anything in a package and purchase only fresh fruits and vegetables and meats grown organically.  By organically grown meats I mean animals raised on pasture or in another natural habitat that resembles their natural environment and provides the diet (feed) they would normally eat in nature.  Basically, this would be a Paleo diet.

Processed Food Are Not Real Food

Processed foods are anything in a package.  Again, if it is a whole food that has been packaged and the ingredients specifically list only that food, then I would not exclude it from a whole foods diet if it meant my client would not eat that whole food otherwise.  However, the majority of packaged food does not list one ingredient and these are the foods I’m talking about.

Granola bars, energy drinks, soda, protein bars, cereal, pre-seasoned meats, pre-seasoned dry foods like rice mixes, stuffing, frozen or canned ready-to-eat meals, meats from animals raised on industrial farms, and pretty much anything in a package.  These are not real food!  Well okay, technically the meat is still “real” food (BUT).  As for industrial-raised animals, their meat contains disproportionate amounts of omega-6 fats and far less minerals and antioxidants than animals raised in what mimics their natural environment.

As for the processed packaged foods, these are edible substances that contain damaging amounts of added sugar, salt, and fat designed to make you eat more than you should eat.  Furthermore, many additional ingredients in these foods are plain and simply not healthy.

I’m also talking about any seasonings, marinades, condiments, and salad dressings that contain any preservatives or added sugars.  Even when the label claims “all natural” ingredients, this does not mean it is healthy or excludes added sugars.  Sugar is a natural ingredient, but eating 20 teaspoons of it a day is not healthy.  I can assure you, many Americans are eating far more sugar than that each day when you consider one can of sweetened soda contain 6 teaspoons of sugar and a Green Tea latte from Starbucks contains nearly 11 teaspoons of sugar.  Imagine what it amounts to when you start looking at the “food” you actually eat.  Eating real, whole foods can keep your sugar intake in check while vastly increasing your fiber intake.

Yes, when you think about it, approximately 90% of the items in our grocery stores are not even real food.  Yet, no one ever taught us this.  We assumed we were being protected.  We assumed an industry creating a product so intimately linked to our health was being responsible.  We assumed none of these products were linked to chronic disease.  Today, there is overwhelming evidence to indicate that this Standard American Diet (SAD) of processed food is in fact largely responsible for the chronic illness we see in our society.  It is no wonder when other cultures begin to adopt it that the obesity rates rise along with all the diseases correlated with obesity.

Is Everything Bad for You?

No.  That’s the simple answer to that question.  Everything is not bad for you.  The problem goes back to what I stated earlier.  We live in a society where we are literally losing site of which foods are “real” foods.  For the average American, transitioning to a whole foods diet can seem overwhelming if not nearly impossible.  Some simply don’t care, but those who explore the world of whole foods and a path to better nutrition also unlock a newfound door to better mind, body, and soul.

Two simple steps to transitioning to a whole foods diet are:

1)  Cooking your own meals
2)  Season your food with fresh or dried herbs

Although simple, these two steps are seriously lacking in the average American diet.  Too many foods are already prepared, packaged, and marketed as healthy when in reality there are few or no substitutes for using your own ingredients and preparing a meal yourself.

A huge help when starting to transition to whole foods is using a simple search on the web to find whole food recipes.  There are dozens of sites offering free recipes.  However, healthy eating also dictates good meal planning and grocery shopping.  To ease the pain of meal planning and having the grocery list already made out for you, I recommend a subscription to Real Plans.  They offer monthly, quarterly, and annual subscriptions with a 30-day money back guarantee.  This is a meal planning subscription that supplies the recipes and the list of groceries you will need to purchase to make the meals.

Trying out a specific diet for health reasons?  No problem.  Real Plans allows you to choose from all the whole food diets including Paleo, Gluten-Free, Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), and more.  This will save loads of time and planning for anyone ready to cook and prepare their own delicious whole food meals!  If by chance there are any ingredients you have difficulty finding at your local grocer, be sure to check out Thrive Market, an online grocery store specializing in healthy ingredients!

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About Laura Cadoret, MS

Helping people see the big picture in food industry and nutrition
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