Diet can be a triggering word. A word that sounds like deprivation and promises of weight loss. In this series I use the word "diet" with its original meaning, "way of living", from the Latin word, diaeta. In this context, a whole foods diet is a sustainable way of living, that involves eating minimally processed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Why choose whole foods over ultra-processed foods? Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with the increase of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Sadly, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 in 10 adults in the US live with a chronic condition. And 4 in 10 adults in the US live with two or more chronic conditions. The Standard American Diet (also known as the SAD diet) is at the root of many of these common chronic illnesses. The SAD diet is a highly processed and calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor, diet.
The rule of thumb is that if you can identify the food as something that comes from the earth, it is likely a whole food (or a minimally processed food). For example, grilled corn on the cob is a whole food, while corn tortilla chips are a processed food (tortilla chips don’t grow out of the garden!)
However, a small degree of processing is not necessarily negative to our health. For example, the main ingredients in hummus, chickpeas and tahini, are minimally processed, without reducing their nutritional value. The chickpeas have been dried (to last longer) and later have been rehydrated, cooked, and mashed into a puree. Tahini is a nut butter made from sesame seeds. These processes are simple enough to be done at home, without the need for industrial equipment, bleach, chemical preservatives, additives, or artificial colors.
HOW TO SPOT PROCESSED FOODS
Food labels are your best resource, specifically the ingredient list! Ingredients will help you decide whether you are looking at real food or at an ultra-processed "food-like" product.
Here are some simple tips to keep in mind when reading ingredient lists:
- How long is the ingredients list? Generally, longer lists indicate a higher level of processing.
- What ingredients are listed first? These are the ingredients found in the highest quantity.
- What exactly are the ingredients? Do you recognize them?
- If you prepared this item at home, would you include the same ingredients that are listed on the label?
- A VERY TELLING PARAMETER: Would you buy any of those ingredients by itself? Do you normally eat those ingredients or use them in your cooking? If you don’t have some of those single ingredients at home or if you don’t know where you would find them (e.g. yellow #5, partially hydrogenated lard, BHT) this is a telling sign that you are looking at an industrially produced product and not something produced by nature.
A WHOLE FOODS DIET AT A GLANCE:
Fruits and vegetables (fresh when available, frozen and canned if minimally processed)
Nuts and seeds (and nut and seed butters)
Beans and legumes
Wild caught seafood (especially small oily cold-water fish)
Pasture raised eggs and poultry
Fermented grass fed dairy (yogurt, kefir, cheese)
Grass fed beef and other red meats (include in moderation as a side)
MINIMIZE OR EXCLUDE
Chips, crackers, and breads containing inflammatory vegetable oils
Deep fried food and fast food
Industrially raised animal products (meat, dairy) and processed meats (cold cuts and sausages with added nitrates)
Candy, soda and sweetened beverages
Margarine and hydrogenated vegetable shortening, heavily processed cheese (e.g. Velveeta)
Commercially baked goods with refined flour, hydrogenated oils, margarine, and added sugars
Highly processed cereal and granola (added sugars, inflammatory vegetable oils)
Frozen, prepared meals high in sodium and preservatives
In the next post, I will discuss the pillars of a whole foods diet and simple tips to incorporate a whole foods diet into your daily life.
TRY THESE SIMPLE WHOLE FOOD RECIPES TO GET YOU STARTED
- Shrimp and asparagus pesto pasta
- Asian veggie omelette with shiitake mushrooms
- Beet and arugula salad
- Almond chocolate chip cookies
NUTRITION FUN FOR THE KIDDOS
- Talk about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables with your child. Then help them find fruits and vegetables in this crossword
- Involve your children in cooking the shrimp and asparagus pesto pasta. Let them see how you prepare the asparagus for dinner. They can snap off the woody end and they can rinse them under cold water (if you have a child safe knife, they can get involved in cutting as well!).
- Coloring activity. Kids can color and hang this asparagus picture on the wall to help motivate them to try new foods!
- Get your kids into the kitchen with a simple overnight oatmeal recipe.
- Joking around: "What kind of vegetable do you need for a flat tire? A-spare-agus!"
Estefanía is a certified Holistic Nutritionist who helps individuals and families make healthy dietary choices in a simple and approachable way. She creates customized nutrition plans and teaches the practical tools needed to achieve realistic and sustainable dietary changes. Estefanía offers individual consultations, grocery store tours, pantry and fridge organization sessions, and custom meal plans. When she isn’t cooking or reading nutrition research, Estefanía enjoys gardening and spending time with her family at their small farm in the Willamette Valley. You can reach her at email@example.com