Whole foods are generally those that remain close to their state in nature. They do not have additives such as sugars, starches, flavorings, or other manufactured ingredients. They are not primarily produced in a factory; in this way, they are the opposite of processed foods. Because they are not manufactured, they are not manipulated to be addictive. Choosing mostly whole foods will provide a nutritious diet and one that is probably higher in fiber.
What Experts Say
“While there’s no official criteria for a whole foods diet, most would agree it consists of minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible. Experts agree this is a smart way to eat, as it encourages nutritious options from all the food groups.”
—Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH
The whole foods diet is not a specific eating plan that can be tied to a particular book or expert. It may also be known as “eating clean” (although that implies a value judgment that a whole foods diet doesn’t necessarily have) and has become popular in recent years. The Whole30 diet may sound similar, but it is a temporary, highly restricted eating plan.
How It Works
The whole foods diet is more of a goal than a specific eating plan, and it can be interpreted in many ways. In general, the idea is to favor whole foods as much as you can: Potatoes instead of potato chips, grilled chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets, and so on. When purchasing food outside the produce department and fish or seafood counter, you will read labels and look for artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives. Those are foods to be avoided.
What to Eat
Sometimes it can be challenging to tell the difference between whole foods and those that are processed in some way.
• Fruits and vegetables
• Nuts, seeds, and beans
• Milk and some dairy products
• Meat, poultry, and seafood
• Minimally processed foods
• Prepared and ready-to-eat foods
• Heavily processed foods
• Refined carbohydrates
• Foods with added sugars
Fruits and Vegetables
In their original state, these are all whole foods. Those that are canned or frozen without additives (such as sweetened water) also retain their nutritional value. Fruit Roll-Ups, fruit drinks, and veggie chips, however, are not whole foods. Corn on the cob is a whole food, while Corn Flakes or anything that includes high fructose corn syrup or other molecules derived from corn is not.
Nuts, Seeds, and Beans
Similarly, these are whole foods in their original state. Some proponents of a whole food diet would avoid canned beans, preferring to soak and prepare them at home.
Milk and Dairy ProductsMilk is a whole food (although some would argue that only raw, unpasteurized milk is technically “whole”). Processed cheese is not. Regular cheese and yogurt are minimally processed, with the “processing” caused mainly by bacteria, molds, etc.
Meat, Poultry, and Seafood
Again, there is a gray area here in terms of processing. Some meat and poultry contains antibiotics and hormones that those on a whole food diet might prefer to avoid.
Minimally Processed Foods
This term refers to foods that are pre-prepared for convenience: Washed salad greens, sliced fruits, and so on. It could also include canned and frozen items, as long as they don’t have additives such as sugar or sodium. Also, note that some food additives are good for you, such as calcium added to fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Prepared and Ready-to-Eat Foods
These could be anything from jarred pasta sauce to potato chips to cookies to deli meat—foods that are prepared in a commercial kitchen or factory and delivered to your supermarket or convenience-store shelf. They include extra ingredients used to change their taste, make them more shelf-stable, and so on, which means they are not whole foods.
Heavily Processed Foods
One step beyond ready-to-eat foods are heavily processed ones, such as frozen meals, soda, baked goods, and candy. These may be packed with artificial ingredients, such as coloring, preservatives, flavorings, and so on.
Brown rice, quinoa, and barley are whole foods. Products which include refined carbohydrates or processed grains such as puffed rice, brown rice syrup, or anything made with white flour are not. Grinding grains into flour makes them more glycemic, and eliminates their resistant starch.
Foods With Added Sugars
Anything with added sugars, including anything from the list of hidden sugars, is not a whole food (honey is arguably an exception).
Resources and Tips
You’ve probably heard that shopping the perimeter of the grocery store helps you find the least processed products. You can also look for minimally processed options in the natural foods aisle of your supermarket.
• Safe and nutritious
• Suitable for most people
• May have health and weight-loss benefits
• Can be expensive
• Can be time-consuming
• Can lead to disordered eating
Safety and Nutrition
Since this diet covers all the food groups and eliminates unhealthy extras such as added sugar, it is generally safe and provides more than adequate nutrition.
Although it may take some planning and adjusting at the outset, eventually most people can adapt to this diet as a full-time, long-term way of eating.
This diet will work for most people, although those with health conditions such as diabetes may need some guidance from a medical professional to make sure it is right for them.
Eating whole foods is a good way to get plenty of nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber in your diet, which may improve your health. Concentrating on whole foods like fruits and vegetables leaves less room for higher-calorie, higher-fat options, so it may help some people lose weight.
The whole foods diet does have many benefits and is a healthy way to eat for many people. But it is not perfect.
Sometimes whole foods are more expensive (and less readily available) than their more processed versions.
Processed foods are also more convenient. Sticking with a whole foods diet means more planning and prepping than other ways of eating.
It is one thing to have a goal of eating whole foods. But feeling that you have to commit 100 percent to “clean eating” can lead to a form of disordered eating called orthorexia nervosa, or an obsession with avoiding all “impure” foods. The concept of “clean eating” also implies that all other foods are “dirty” which is simply not true.
How It Compares
As long as it is not taken to extremes, the whole foods diet meets USDA recommendations. And it shares characteristics with other diets often supported by nutrition experts.
Guidelines from the USDA suggest a balanced daily diet of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, grains, and dairy products, all of which can be included in a whole foods diet.
While there is no calorie count associated with the whole foods diet, many of the foods you eat on this diet are naturally lower in calories and in unhealthy fats (such as trans fats). So it may help you stick with the daily calorie budget recommended for you, whether you would like to maintain your weight or lose some.