What Is a Whole Foods Diet?

whole foods diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff 

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Whole foods are generally those that remain close to their state in nature. They do not have added 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, whole foods are not manipulated to be addictive like many foods containing added sugar. Choosing mostly whole foods will result in a nutritious diet that is naturally higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

A whole foods diet is not a specific eating plan that can be tied to a particular book or expert. It may also be referred to as "eating clean," although that can imply a value judgment that a whole foods diet doesn't necessarily have. The Whole30 diet may sound similar, but that is a temporary, highly restrictive, elimination diet. Close comparisons to a whole foods diet are the flexitarian diet and TLC diet, which are healthy and balanced eating plans.

A whole foods diet is a way of life versus a temporary diet. Because this lifestyle emphasizes healthy, real foods, those switching to a whole foods diet from a standard American diet high in processed foods and saturated fats may lose weight and improve their overall health.

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

What Can You Eat?

A whole foods diet is not a specific eating plan and 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 or butcher and seafood counters, you will read labels and look for artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives. Those are foods to be avoided.

What You Need to Know

While the breadth of what you can eat on a whole foods diet is surprisingly large—meat, cheese, grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, and more—there are a few tell-tale markers of foods that don't fit the bill.

For instance, many ready-to-eat foods such as frozen meals, soda, baked goods, and candy may be packed with artificial ingredients, such as coloring, preservatives, and flavorings. You'll also want to steer clear of any foods containing added sugars. Anything including an ingredient from this list of hidden sugars is not a whole food (although honey is an exception).

A gray area in a whole foods diet is meat and poultry, which often contain antibiotics and hormones. Some people may choose organic animal products only or avoid them entirely, but it's really a personal preference. Similarly, some proponents of a whole foods diet would avoid canned beans, preferring to soak dry beans and prepare them at home.

What to Eat
  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Nuts, seeds, and beans

  • Milk and some dairy products

  • Meat, poultry, and seafood

  • Minimally processed foods

What Not to Eat
  • 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.

Milk and Dairy Products

Milk 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.

Minimally Processed Foods

This term refers to foods that are pre-prepared for convenience, including 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 salt. Also, note that some food additives are added for their nutritional benefit, such as calcium and vitamin D added to fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Refined Carbohydrates

Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and barley are whole foods. Products that 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.

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.

Many prepared ready-to-eat foods may look like whole foods, but they often include extra ingredients used to change their taste and make them more shelf-stable, which means they are not whole foods. Those who follow a whole foods diet typically prepare most of their meals at home.

Sample Shopping List

It's not always easy to tell the difference between whole foods and those that are processed in some way. 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.

The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on a whole foods diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots)
  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, olive oil)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice)
  • Dried legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Meat and poultry raised without antibiotics or hormones
  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, cod, salmon, snapper, sea bass, shrimp)
  • Dairy products (feta cheese, parmesan, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese)
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

For those who rely on the convenience of packaged or pre-made meals, the idea of cooking meals from scratch using whole foods may seem daunting. Fortunately, there are countless, easy-to-follow recipes using just a few fresh ingredients that can be prepared in no time at all.

The following three-day meal plan is not all-inclusive, but will give you a general sense of what a few days on a well-balanced whole foods diet could look like. If you do choose to follow this type of eating plan, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Safe and nutritious

  • Sustainable

  • Suitable for most people

  • May have health and weight-loss benefits

Cons
  • Can be expensive

  • Can be time-consuming

  • Can lead to disordered eating

From quality nutrition to promoting weight loss, there are some great benefits of a whole foods-centric lifestyle.

  • 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.
  • Sustainability: Although it may take some planning and adjustment, eventually most people can adapt to this diet as a full-time, long-term way of eating.
  • Suitability: 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.
  • Health benefits: 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.

While a whole foods diet has many benefits and is a healthy way to eat for many people, it is not perfect and has its drawbacks.

  • Cost: Sometimes whole foods are more expensive (and less readily available) than their more processed versions.
  • Practicality: Processed foods are also more convenient. Sticking with a whole foods diet means more planning and prepping than other ways of eating.
  • Disordered eating: Feeling that you have to commit 100% to "clean eating" can lead to an unhealthy obsession with avoiding all "impure" foods.

Is a Whole Foods Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Current dietary guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages while staying within the recommended limit of 2,000 calories a day for weight management. These products include:

  • Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
  • Dairy products, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

The USDA also recommends limiting foods and beverages with higher amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and also limiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages. As long as it is not taken to extremes, a whole foods diet adheres to USDA recommendations.

While there is no calorie count associated with a whole foods diet, many of the foods you eat on this plan are naturally lower in calories and in unhealthy fats (such as trans fats). Still, it can be helpful to follow a daily calorie budget to avoid overeating. Whether you would like to lose or maintain weight, use this calculator tool to determine your individual needs.

A whole foods diet is closely aligned with federal dietary guidelines with a focus on consuming real, unprocessed foods and avoiding additives like sugar, artificial ingredients, antibiotics, or hormones. While it is a healthy, balanced diet, it is not always a realistic diet for everyone.

Health Benefits

In addition to promoting weight loss and weight management, a whole foods diet can also improve overall health. A 2018 review published in American Family Physician shows strong evidence that similar diets (like the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean diet) that focus on unprocessed foods, whole fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins, legumes, whole grains, and nuts may prevent heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cognitive decline.

However, a key difference between these healthy diets and a whole foods diet is they encourage less consumption of animal products, which may be associated with some of the health benefits.

Health Risks

While there are no common health risks associated with a whole foods diet, it's possible to develop an obsession with "clean eating," which could create an unhealthy relationship to food and cause a disordered eating behavior known as orthorexia nervosa.

Additionally, with no rules or guidelines to follow, some people may not have the knowledge base for the right portion sizes, which could contribute to weight gain over time.

A Word From Verywell

Eating whole foods can provide an optimum diet if you are willing to put in the time to purchase and prepare unprocessed foods for the majority of your meals. It helps to think of eating whole foods as a goal, not an absolute must for every morsel you consume. Leaning too much in that direction can lead to an unhealthy obsession with what you are eating.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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