Times couldn’t be more confusing for someone trying to eat for better health.
Marketing messages from Big Food companies, health and fitness practitioners, and supplement peddlers crowd the marketplace. The government and food industry lobbyists pass guidelines serving their political and donor interests (that is, the bottom line rather than your waist line), which does little to curb behavior in a healthy direction. Add to the mix ingrained habits and behaviors based on flawed conventional wisdom, and we have the recipe for disaster that is our current knowledge about food and health.
While it can be hard to navigate all the noise, there’s really only one food principle you need to get started on the right path:
EAT WHOLE FOOD.
Whether you are overweight, have food sensitivities, or just want more energy, eating whole food can serve as a guiding light on your healthy eating journey. The principle is simple and easy to comprehend. Once you understand how to identify whole foods, why they’re beneficial, and some tips for integrating them into your life, chances are you’ll begin to feel results fairly quickly (that is, you’ll start to feel better and see positive physical changes).
What is Whole Food?
Whole foods are consumed as close to their natural state as possible. This means unadulterated by chemicals, pesticides, hormones, and genetic modification. Whole foods are also not processed or refined, and don’t come in cans, containers, or packaging.
An easy way to think about a whole food item is as the ingredient, rather than a food product made with many ingredients. Instead of a food-like product consisting of several disparate parts, when you eat real whole foods you’re actually eating the plant or animal product itself. Here are a few examples:
- An apple vs. apple sauce
- Rotisserie chicken vs. chicken cutlet
- Sweet potato vs. pre-made mashed potatoes
- Tomatos, peppers, and onions vs. canned salsa
Notice this definition does not refer to calories, fat, or good carbs vs. bad carbs. That’s because when you choose whole food products, you’ll naturally make choices that more closely align with the way your body has evolved to eat. You’ll recognize refined wheat products such as bread and pasta fall outside the definition, as do most dairy items such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, since they’re all heavily processed. And it goes without saying that all processed and packaged junk food is not considered whole food either.
A basic understanding of whole foods is enough to make health-enhancing dietary choices. But for those who are a little more curious, let’s explore why this simple approach is so effective.
Why eat Whole Food?
Below are just a few reasons why choosing to eat whole foods is beneficial for your health.
Addition by subtraction. When you eat whole food items in their natural form, you avoid the nasty chemicals and toxins present in processed, refined food. This alone can lead to positive shifts in your metabolism, mood, brain function, and energy levels. You’ll also reduce your exposure to harmful substances that have been linked to long-term health conditions.
Here are some of the biggest culprits you avoid when eating whole food:
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – A highly concentrated sweetener commonly used in soft drinks and baked goods. This highly refined sugar is synthesized from cornstarch, and comprises roughly 10-20% of the average American’s daily calories. Regular consumption raises triglyceride levels in the bloodstream, which is known to increase risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, among other disorders.
- Trans fats – These fats are created in laboratories through a process called hydrogenation. Manufacturers use hydrogenated oils to extend shelf-life, enhance texture, and add flavor to processed foods. Commonly found in margarine, shorteners, baked goods, and fried food, trans fats create free radicals and damage cell membranes. They are known to increase risk for heart disease, diabetes, and impaired arterial function.
- Artificial sweeteners – Many processed foods today are “super sweet” due to real sugar substitutes such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). These sweeteners are potentially dangerous, even though their use is allowed by the FDA. Discovered accidentally while scientists were developing pesticides, they are used as low calorie sugar substitutes in sodas, “diet” foods, and processed sweets. The chemicals in these sweeteners have be shown to alter mood and behavior, and are linked to associated problems such as seizures, migraines, and hives.
Nutrient density. Whole foods are generally more nutrient dense than your average processed food. The integrity of the plant or animal is left in tact, and generally contains all the vitamins and minerals lost during refining and processing. While there are additional choices you can make to further optimize nutrient consumption (organic, local, seasonal, for instance) simply making the whole food choice is a great first step in the right direction.
You know what’s in your food. Rather than relying on synthetic colors, oils, flavorings, and additives, you have the freedom to decide what goes into your body. You can add spices instead of rich sauces and breading to add flavor, and cook using healthy fats with low smoke points to prevent oxidation (such as coconut, olive, and macadamia nut oils).
It’s sustainable. When in doubt, choose the whole food. You don’t have to beat yourself up with a strict diet, just follow this rule of thumb most of the time, and learn to enjoy real food.
7 Practical Tips for Whole Food Living
Okay, enough preaching. Here are some tips I follow myself to eat right and stay on track:
- Go to your local farmer’s market when possible
- Shop on the outer edges of the grocery store (avoid the aisles)
- If packaged food is a must, impose a 5 ingredient maximum (the more ingredients listed, the more processed and refined)
- Ditch the microwave
- Use your freezer (buy in bulk to save money)
- Cook and eat leftovers
- Always have good food choices on hand (if junk is available, you will eat it)
Finally, remember not to stress about finding and maintaining the perfect diet. Enjoy the food you choose to eat, and follow the simple guideline – Eat Real, Whole Food.