What Is a Whole Foods Diet?

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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

Background

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.

Compliant Foods

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Nuts, seeds, and beans

  • Milk and some dairy products

  • Meat, poultry, and seafood

  • Minimally processed foods

Non-Compliant 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 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.

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.

Refined Carbohydrates

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.

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

Pros

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 adjusting at the outset, 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.

The whole foods diet does have many benefits and is a healthy way to eat for many people. But it is not perfect.

Cons

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

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.

USDA Recommendations

Variety

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.

Calories

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.

Similar Diets

Other diets that are considered healthy share some common ground with the whole foods diet. The Whole30 diet, on the other hand, is actually quite dissimilar, despite its name.

Whole Foods Diet

  • General nutrition: This diet includes all food groups, so it should meet basic nutritional needs.
  • Flexibility: The whole foods diet is open to interpretation in terms of how strictly it is followed, and since it does not cut out entire food groups, it is not overly restrictive.
  • Sustainability: Although there is some risk of developing an unhealthy fixation with food, in general this diet can be followed long-term.
  • Practicality: It can be hard to adopt this diet, especially at first. It takes planning, time, and money.

Flexitarian Diet

  • General nutrition: Sometimes called "semi-vegetarian," this diet focuses on eating mostly vegetarian, while still eating meat sparingly. Like the whole foods diet, the flexitarian diet also suggests limiting refined carbohydrates and added sugar. It covers all the nutritional bases, with the possible exception of iron.
  • Flexibility: Since no food groups are off-limits, this diet offers plenty of choices in what to eat and how to prepare it. Flexibility is right there in its name.
  • Sustainability: This is the type of diet that is more of a long-term eating pattern, not a temporary change. It's possible, and generally healthy, to continue eating this way indefinitely.
  • Practicality: The foods necessary for a flexitarian diet are readily available, and you should be able to find suitable options at restaurants as well.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: The Mediterranean diet is similar to the flexitarian diet, in that it emphasizes some foods (many of the same ones, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) without completely excluding others. For example, meat is a part of both diets, but in small amounts.
  • Flexibility: Again, since no food groups are restricted entirely and no foods are specifically required, people on this diet can choose foods that work best for them.
  • Sustainability: Also like the flexitarian diet, this one is meant to be followed for the long term, and experts say that for most people, it is safe and healthy to do so.
  • Practicality: Foods on this eating plan are easy to find, and it may even be cheaper than consuming a lot of meat.

Whole30

  • General nutrition: The Whole30 is a 30-day diet that eliminates sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, and most legumes. That makes it challenging to get all the nutrients your body needs. You could also easily get too much of foods you don't need (red meat and saturated fats).
  • Flexibility: This diet has very rigid rules, including the requirement that if you cheat or slip up in any way, you must start over from the beginning.
  • Sustainability: This diet is meant to be a short-term "reset" of your body, with the end result being that you no longer crave the eliminated foods. Experts say this result is unlikely.
  • Practicality: Since the diet's rules are so strict, it can be tough to follow, although specialty foods and supplements are not required.

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 to much in that direction can lead to an unhealthy obsession with what you are eating.

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