Looking for the healthiest—and most powerful—foods to fill your cart on your next shopping trip?
Skip the flashy labels, and go for whole foods instead.
“Whole” simply means food that’s close to nature: Nothing has been added and little or nothing has been removed. For example, a potato is a whole food, but potato chips fried in oil and covered in salt are not.
Whole foods are low in salt, low in sugar, free from additives—and delicious enough to appeal to the entire family.
Most of these foods don’t come in packages that proclaim their benefits. But don’t let the unassuming appearance fool you; whole foods can do amazing things for your health.
Why are Whole Foods Good for You?
When you want to get a wide range of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats in your meals, whole foods are your best bet. Food in its natural state has more nutrients than food that has been transformed into other products.
There seems to be a special benefit from getting these nutrients as unique, complete “packages,” as well, rather than from fortified foods or supplements. Researchers call this “food synergy” and are still investigating how it works.
It’s difficult to track the way nutrients and compounds in whole foods work together because everyone’s digestion and metabolism is a little different. And the same types of foods might not have the same levels of nutrients depending on where and how they were grown.
Despite how complex this seems, science does show that making a diverse variety of whole foods the foundation of your diet has positive effects on your health.
7 Benefits of Whole Foods
What kind of positive changes can you expect when you make the switch to whole foods? Here are just a few of the science-backed benefits:
- Increased fiber intake: Eating more fiber encourages a more diverse community of microbes in your gut, which as been linked to better overall health. High-fiber diets may also help reduce cholesterol levels, make you feel full longer and aid in maintaining a healthy weight.
- Higher levels of phytonutrients: Only found in plants, phytonutrients include a range of compounds that have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
- Antioxidant protection: Some phytonutrients act as antioxidants and may help you stay healthy as you get older by preventing cell damage associated with inflammation, aging and chronic disease.
- Healthier cells: Nutrients in whole foods support the membranes in and around your cells so that your DNA stays safe from damage and you can produce energy efficiently.
- Better brain function: Eating more whole foods can help you maintain better memory, focus and learning capacity throughout your life.
- Reduced salt and sugar intake: Because whole foods don’t have any added salt and sugar, you get the chance to appreciate natural savory and sweet flavors. You may also experience fewer food cravings and find that you get more enjoyment out of your meals!
- More energy: The combination of a higher nutrient intake and healthier cell function can give you more energy to do your job, hit the gym and play with the kids. You may also start to sleep better at night—which can also improve daytime energy levels.
Are Whole Foods Environmentally Friendly, Too?
The benefits of eating whole foods may not stop with your health; they might extend to the entire planet.
Focusing your diet mainly on foods in their natural states means you eat less of other foods, including ultra-processed products. While the ingredients in these products may not have high environmental footprints on their own, ultra-processed foods are so popular that the production required to meet demand can damage the environment.
Factors like where ingredients are sourced, the types of ingredients used, how far food has to travel and the amount of waste during production can also affect a processed food’s environmental footprint. It’s a complex topic, but it’s worth considering when choosing what to feed yourself and your family.
Examples of Whole Foods
So, what do foods that are “close to nature” look like?
Plant foods are the original whole foods. They grow in the “complete packages” where the magic of food synergy happens and require little or no processing before eating.
The best part? You can find them anywhere, from the aisles of the grocery store to the tents and booths at your local farmers market. Here’s what to look for (and load up on) the next time you’re shopping:
- Vegetables and fruits, frozen or fresh
- Whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa
- Beans and lentils, dry or canned with no salt added
- Raw or lightly roasted nuts and seeds
- Avocados (which are technically fruits!)
Products made from these foods, such as bread and pasta—as well as sweeteners and flours—aren’t considered whole but can have a place in a healthy diet. The key to getting the benefits of whole foods is to make them the majority of what you eat.
Is Meat a “Whole” Food?
Meat, dairy and eggs are sometimes included on whole food diet lists, but these foods don’t fit the definition of “whole.” They may contain other ingredients or be put through processes that can have negative effects on your body.
Meat is also missing the fiber and phytonutrients found in plants. If you eat a lot of meat and few plants, you’re not likely to get as many benefits from whole foods.
Plantcraft products provide a delicious alternative to meat. Our pates and deli slices are made with nutritious plant-based ingredients you and your family can feel good about eating. By using a unique blend that includes fiber, we’re able to provide the perks of eating plant-based and deliver a savory flavor that works on everything from sandwiches to tacos to pizza.
How Are Whole Foods Different from Processed Foods?
The foods often referred to as “processed” are made from ingredients missing some or all of the health-promoting parts of whole foods. When these parts are removed during processing, nutrients go with them. As a result, the final products are less nutritious and provide few or none of the health benefits you can get from eating whole foods. (This includes both processed animal-based and plant-based foods.)
But not all processing removes important nutrients. Simple things you can do in the kitchen—chopping, mixing, blending, cooking, freezing and canning—all count as “processing.” Packaged foods made using these methods are sometimes called “minimally processed” and provide the same nutritional value as those you’d prepare in your own kitchen.
Some foods are actually better for you if they’re put through minimal processing. Tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, peppers and broccoli are just a few of the vegetables that release more nutrients when boiled or steamed. Cooking mushrooms increases antioxidant availability, and dry beans and legumes become nutritional powerhouses when cooked.
So, the more whole and minimally processed foods you choose to eat, the better you’ll feel. Sounds like a great excuse to break out the steamer basket and whip up a colorful mix of veggies for your next meal!
Boosting Your Diet with More Whole Food
Ready to start building a daily foundation of whole foods for your diet?
It’s easy to get started. These quick and simple swaps will have you enjoying better health—and new, tasty flavors—in no time:
- Replace refined grains with whole. Try quinoa instead of white rice or steel-cut oats instead of instant.
- Replace sweet desserts and snacks with fruit and nuts. This is a great way to explore varieties you haven’t tried before!
- Replace meat with beans in recipes like chili or soup. Black and red beans are great for spicy dishes; white beans, lentils and chickpeas pair well with milder flavors.
- Make a big salad as a main meal once per day. Toss in some whole grains and beans for a heartier dish.
- Add vegetables to everything! Your meals will become more beautiful, healthy and delicious.
- Try a smoothie made with a combination of fruits and leafy greens when you need a meal on the go. Add some lentils or beans for a protein boost—they blend right in!
- Turn shopping into an adventure. Buy at least one whole food you’ve never had before, or let your kids pick out something they’d like to try.
- When you do purchase processed foods, choose products that use mostly or all whole food ingredients, like Plantcraft’s deli slices.
It’s All About Balance
Following these tips above help you eat more whole plant foods every day, which means there will be less room in your diet for ultra-processed foods. It won’t take long for you to start feeling the benefits!
And, if you look for prepared foods that emphasize whole ingredients, even the “processed” foods in your diet will be more nutritious.
The goal is to have an overall pattern of eating that puts more whole foods on your plate in a way that you and your family can enjoy every day.