Fresh vegetables & fruits, fresh meat & poultry, fresh fish & seafood, nuts & seeds, beans & lentils, whole intact grains, minimally processed dairy (like fresh plain yogurt).
There’s your “whole foods” list. Eat those. Done.
No, wait, there’s more!
If you’re not sure if something qualifies as a “whole food”, here are some qualifiers to look for:
You can recognize what they used to be. Fruits and vegetables look like they did on the ground or on the tree. Nuts and seeds look like, well, the nuts and seeds of the plants they came from. Most of us know what a chicken or a fish looks like.
They don’t come in packages, other than to keep them from leaking or rolling around.
They don’t have ingredient labels (with exceptions for some dairy products).
They take the minimum number of steps to get to you (either geographically or from processing)
They go bad fairly quickly.
Processed foods are generally the opposite of all those things, plus they’re sold at places that aren’t grocery stores, like gas stations and drug stores.
Notice the “fresh” in most of these descriptors. Fresh is always best, but frozen is a good option when fresh is not available, or you are concerned about the “going bad quickly” issue. A frozen pea still looks like a pea, and the only ingredient on the bag should be “peas”. After frozen, look for minimally processed, like canned tomatoes or peanut butter. Again, that ingredient list should be pretty short.
Why are whole foods better? Remember: what you eat should add value, give you more of the good stuff. And whole foods do that in all kinds of ways.
They contain chemicals and compounds that promote health (many of which are destroyed, removed or chemically altered by processing methods)
They contain these chemicals and compounds in a form that we can absorb and digest
They contain these chemicals and compounds in the right proportions (unlike single vitamin or mineral supplements)
Whole food nutrients work together, not in isolation – sometimes you need substance A to digest or absorb substance B, and often A and B are in the same food. Miracle!
Whole foods are closest to their original form – expect to get the maximum nutrition possible
Whole foods match our hunger and fullness cues better – it’s easier to stop when we’ve had enough.
Whole foods generally taste better – do a taste test and see!
If you’re unfamiliar, you’ll find most whole foods around the perimeter of the grocery store. You can shop for your better health, and avoid all those newly one-way aisles in the center of the store. See how many meals you can conjure up with only whole foods!
Information is sourced from my nutrition coaching program, powered by Precision Nutrition's ProCoach platform.