Whole foods are those that have either no processing or undergone minimal processing. Examples include whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. In most instances, these are foods you will recognise in their natural form, with a perishable date, and without a list of preservatives and additives.
Whole foods retain their features additional to energy, such as micronutrients, phytonutrients, and fibre that promote health more than any overly refined food.
But, not all processing is bad. Some processing can save and protect whole foods nutrition quality and provide you fresh food all year round and in environments beyond your kitchen fridge.
Good processing and bad processing
Food processing can do one of two things; protect the nutritional quality of food, or decrease the nutritional quality of food.
Examples of non-beneficial processing often see ingredients processed further and percentages of fat, salt, and sugar increase, while vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients decrease. Milling, cooking, and processing that increases heat, light, or oxygen exposure can strip foods of their health benefits to improve shelf-life, taste, texture, and food safety. Too often, ultra-processed foods also go through an additional step where additives, flavours, colours, preservatives, extra sugar and fats are added, decreasing the nutritional value even further.
Examples of beneficial processing enable ingredients to have extended shelf life, palatability, and safety while minimising the loss of nutritional value. Freeze-drying is a great example of this and the gold standard in food processing. It takes frozen fresh ingredients and removes the water at very low temperatures. The ingredients remain in their whole and natural form through this technique, and micronutrients, phytonutrients, and fibre are retained.
What are the benefits to a whole food diet?
When talking about the “benefits” of a whole food diet – it is probably necessary to start by understanding whole foods are just real foods. The benefits of such a diet are what our bodies expect and what we should expect from eating in general. Any shift from a whole food diet decreases the quality of food we ingest and, to various extents, deprives our bodies of what they need to thrive. Any shift from the optimum and we won’t feel our optimal.
Whole foods not only contain energy by way of macros that our body requires in larger amounts to sustain life and provide energy, but they provide essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre that our bodies require in smaller amounts to function optimally and maintain good health
A diet consisting of regular consumption of whole foods is strongly associated with health promotion and disease prevention - particularly the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes1.
Vitamins and minerals are required in the body as micronutrients and play vital roles in all body systems from energy production to DNA repair, disease prevention and everything in between2. Clinical deficiencies to prevent disease are relatively easy to determine. However, the optimal intake of micronutrients to promote health is less clear and often not achieved. Eating more whole foods is one of the best ways to support our micronutrient intake to support our best health2,3.
Phytonutrients are the colourful compounds that exist naturally in our plant-based foods. They exert powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and may assist in the reduction of risk for cardiovascular disease1,4,5, among others.
Finally, fibre – a non-digestible carbohydrate supports our body through our digestive system and gut health6. Fibre promotes regular bowel motions and provides a source of prebiotic fibre. This prebiotic dietary fibre supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and a healthy gut – supporting metabolism, immunity and even mood7. Regular intake of sufficient dietary fibre helps support overall metabolic health and is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease8.
While we can get these nutrients from supplements, the best way to get them is to obtain them in their natural and balanced form.
Easy whole food swaps
Eating more whole foods does not need to be difficult. Imagine shopping from the outside edges of the supermarket and expect expiry dates. If a product is in packaging – investigate how it is processed. Is it as close to its natural state as possible? Does it require preservatives and additives to exist, or like Radix, has it been preserved naturally to retain benefits?
Whole foods may sometimes appear more expensive but think of food as medicine in the long run. If we eat well now, we give our bodies the best chance to thrive and may reduce our risk of ongoing health concerns that ultimately cost more to our bank accounts and enjoyment of life.
Ready-to-heat Supermarket Meal vs. Radix Meal
Supermarket Smoothie vs. Radix Smoothie
- Liu, R. H. Health Benefits of Phytochemicals in Whole Foods. in Nutritional Health: Strategies for Disease Prevention (eds. Temple, N. J., Wilson, T. & Jacobs Jr., D. R.) 293–310 (Humana Press, 2012). doi:10.1007/978-1-61779-894-8_13.
- Huskisson, E., Maggini, S. & Ruf, M. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Energy Metabolism and Well-Being. Integr. Med. Insights 2008, 277–289 (2007).
- Thiel, R. J. Natural vitamins may be superior to synthetic ones. Med. Hypotheses 55, 461–469 (2000).
- Seyidoglu, N. & Aydin, C. Stress, Natural Antioxidants and Future Perspectives. Heal. Benefits Foods - Curr. Knowl. Furth. Dev. (2020) doi:10.5772/intechopen.91167.
- Leitzmann, C. Characteristics and Health Benefits of Phytochemicals. Complement. Med. Res. 23, 69–74 (2016).
- Slavin, J. Fiber and prebiotics: Mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients 5, 1417–1435 (2013).
- Lockyer, S. & Stanner, S. Prebiotics – an added benefit of some fibre types. Nutr. Bull. 44, 74–91 (2019).
- Barber, T. M., Kabisch, S., Pfei, A. F. H. & Weickert, M. O. Nutrients-12-03209.Pdf. Nutrients 12, 1–17 (2020).