Maybe you’ve read an article suggesting you eat more whole foods and wondered what the term means. Perhaps you get confused at the grocery store, wondering if staples like bread are truly healthy. Either way, you’re eager to improve your diet through better nutrition but aren’t sure where to start.

Although it seems straightforward enough, the words “whole foods” can be misleading in today’s world. Some staples you might have long considered good for you might not be as healthy as imagined, but getting creative can lead to finding new favorites. Here’s a quick overview of Whole Foods 101 and how they can improve your diet.

What Are Whole Foods and the Whole Food Diet?

Whole foods are foods that resemble their natural forms. It’s easier to see what they are through examples.

Whole foods include things like:

  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Bagged salad greens without dressing
  • Canned tuna or chicken in water
  • Fish and seafood

Whole foods are not:

  • Prepackaged convenience foods
  • Mass-produced baked goods
  • Snack foods like chips and pretzels

Processed Versus Ultra-Processed Foods

Here’s where the confusion begins. After all, a potato chip roughly resembles a slice of cooked tuber, if a bit warped and crinkly-edged. You process nearly every food you eat in some way by chopping it, removing the peel or seeds, cooking it or mixing it with another ingredient. The difference is the degree. While you may process whole foods, they are not ultra-processed.

Many of the meals on store shelves today fall into the ultra-processed category. What does that mean? They’re created from substances extracted from foods — various starches, fats or flavorings — mixed via machine. These are in no way substitutes for the real deal. For example, garlic contains roughly 2,306 known compounds that interact synergistically to produce healing effects. Isolating a few of them as “flavoring” won’t result in the same health benefits.

The problem is that this processing can render a traditionally healthy food much less beneficial. For example, bread. Your typical home-baked loaf contains only whole-grain flour, water and perhaps some seeds. A loaf of store-bought bread, however, may be made with ultra-processed flour from which manufacturers remove all the nutritious bran and chaff. The sugary stuff that remains then gets a bleach bath, so it stays fresher when sliced.

The result? The same sandwich has much less nutritional value and is akin to stacking your fixings between two slices of sugar. If you tuck in some ultra-processed bologna, what could be a healthy lunch becomes a recipe for diet disaster. The lack of natural fiber leaves you hungry for more calories, especially when paired with the shortage of necessary vitamins and minerals.

Your body feels the effects of a diet high in ultra-processed food. Failure to eat enough whole foods leaves you nutritionally deprived, and taking a vitamin isn’t enough. You’ll find you have less energy, get constipated more often and struggle with concentration and focus. Over time, such a meal plan significantly increases your disease risk.

How Do I Know If a Food Is Ultra-Processed?

It can be tough to tell ultra-processed food apart. Ask yourself these questions to determine if your meal consists of whole foods or not.

What’s on the ingredient label? Most whole foods, like nuts or bagged salad greens, have only two or three ingredients. Some, like apples, need no labels at all.

Would this item have appeared on menus 150 years ago? Industrialized food production only began in the 1800s. If the ingrediant is a word you cannot even pronounce, it’s not a natural, whole food.

Can I find it in nature? You can harvest an orange or walnut. Cheetos don’t grow on trees.

Healthy Diet

Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet

Many people turn to ultra-processed convenience foods to save time. However, anything worth doing is worth doing right, and this rule holds for your diet. Preparing whole foods need not be as burdensome as you think and provides you with the following impressive benefits.

1. Reduced Risk of Chronic Disease

Chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes have reached new levels in America. Caring for yourself when you don’t have your health isn’t easy, as the system ties your insurance to your employment, creating quite a predicament if you become too ill to work. According to a Commonwealth Fund study, only 62% of adults feel confident in their ability to afford health care, and taking a proactive approach is far better than the struggles that accompany disease.

Whole foods reduce your risk of chronic diseases in ways science doesn’t yet understand. Remember all the potentially beneficial compounds a single clove of garlic contains? Amplify that with the wide variety of plants humans evolved to eat, and you begin to see how a supplement can never come close to replacing the real deal. The molecule that prevents cancer from forming in your body might be somewhere in that freshly chopped salad.

2. Ease Gastrointestinal Distress

probiotic and fermented foods

Be honest — how many days of work have you missed due to an upset stomach? You might have lost count. Gastrointestinal problems can be downright embarrassing, keeping many folks out of the office, and not everyone can telecommute.

One benefit of a whole foods diet is that it prevents gut dysbiosis by nurturing your microbiome. What’s that? It’s a funky term for when the colonies of good bacteria in your intestine that help you digest go out of balance. You can rebalance them with whole foods, such as organic produce and legumes and probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi.

3. Treat Your Pearly Whites With Love

Did you know that your dental health has a lot to do with your overall wellness? Scientists have implicated oral bacteria in everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease. Too much sugar from ultra-processed foods harms your teeth, but whole foods protect your pearlies. Your mouth also has a microbiome, and improving it is only one way whole foods help your smile.

In addition, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower act like toothbrushes to remove debris and bacteria from tooth surfaces while you eat. The same goes for crunchy fruits like apples. Many of these foods also contain enzymes that reduce your risk of fatty liver disease, another adverse effect of consuming too much added sugar.

4. Cool the Burn

Systemic inflammation refers to widespread swelling and pain all over your body and is a hallmark of chronic disease. Diets high in ultra-processed foods contribute to systemic inflammation by robbing you of complete nutrition. Signs of widespread inflammation include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Brain fog
  • Rashes
  • Phlegm

Whole foods fight systemic inflammation by providing the nutrients your body needs to function at its peak. Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds contain potent antioxidants that protect your cells from damage. The healthy oils in fish and many plant-based foods protect your heart and other vital organs, including your brain. They also keep your glucose and insulin levels in check with a natural balance of sugars and fibers for long-lasting energy.

5. Ward Off Germs

Although the world has mostly moved on from the pandemic, you might be one of many wondering how to boost your immunity, especially during cold and flu season. Whole foods can help. Fresh foods like carrots, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens are high in vitamin A, a potent antioxidant.

Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries and tomatoes are all great sources of vitamin C, and nuts are powerhouses of zinc, selenium and magnesium. Both zinc and vitamin C have evidence showing their ability to shorten a cold’s duration, but only if you have plenty of them in your system when symptoms first appear. Eating a whole foods diet ensures you always have the nutrients your body needs in sufficient amounts because you can’t predict a wayward sneeze.

What to Eat on a Whole Foods Diet

The staples of a whole-foods diet include the following:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes and peas
  • Healthy oils
  • Lean meats

The trick is to find these ingredients with minimal processing. Although fresh is best, frozen or canned is also acceptable as long as the package remains free of added salt, sugar and other additives like coloring or preservatives.

A whole foods diet can test your cooking skills. However, there are ways to make it more manageable regardless of your budget or lifestyle.

Barriers to a Whole Foods Diet — and How to Leap Over Them

Money and time are the biggest barriers to a whole-food diet. While ultra-processed convenience foods are fast and inexpensive, here are some ways to slash your budget and prep time without sacrificing nutrition and health.

1. Learn to Meal Prep

Meal prep doesn’t mean eating the same thing day after boring day. Yours might consist of chopping your veggies on your day off and storing them in stay-fresh containers or freezer bags until you need to grab a handful for the wok or a salad.

You can also assemble complete meals in bags but make a little extra each week. While it takes time, you’ll eventually build a freezer full of healthy variety by prepping a few additional servings each time you cook.

2. Make Friends at the Farmer’s Market

Most farmer’s markets have far friendlier prices than your grocery store. Additionally, you can buy organic without the hefty markup — talk to vendors about how they grow their food. You’re also more likely to find markdown deals on slightly nonconforming produce and might cut a deal if you go at days’ end and the market doesn’t open again till the following week. Many sellers will rather part with produce at a discount than take it home to rot.

3. Grow Your Own

While saving the seeds from your produce doesn’t always work because of hybridization, over time, you can get some bumper crops by breeding those that do survive. Furthermore, seeds cost little, and even urban studio dwellers can put a few tomatoes and beans in pots. A kitchen windowsill herb garden provides fresh fare.

4. Buy In Season

In-season produce is generally less expensive. When there’s more to go around during harvest season, you’ll be able to find better deals.  Check out Pinterest for lots of free In Season tip sheets and guides for your geographic area.


5. Support Community Garden Projects

Unlike ultra-processed snack foods, apples do grow on trees — but you need a place to plant them. Supporting community gardens in urban locations brings whole foods to areas that might otherwise lack many such offerings at prices residents can afford.

Whole Foods and Planetary Health

Are you still unconvinced about adding more whole foods to your diet? Consider this. Processing food takes energy. Energy these days primarily comes from fossil fuels, which means its use results in emissions.

Therefore, eating whole foods does more than protect your body. It also protects planetary health. Furthermore, sourcing most of your food from local farmer’s markets cuts down on transportation costs and emissions, reducing your footprint even more.

Whole Foods 101

Whole foods resemble what you would find in nature. They’re much better for you than ultra-processed foods because of their superior nutritional value, and adding more of them to your diet can substantially bolster health.

Use this free guide to get more whole foods in your diet. You might be amazed how a few small, natural adjustments in your daily intake can improve how you feel.


Written in collaboration with Mia Barnes of Mind + Body Magazine