There is an urgent need for health education and interventions that encourage Americans to eat nutrient-dense whole foods and that steer them away from processed foods and supplements. Yet, encouraging our clients to eat whole foods is a challenge in today’s food environment, which is saturated with processed goods that resemble anything but real food.

What Is a Whole Food?

By definition, a whole food is

  • processed as little as possible,
  • eaten in its natural state and
  • free of additives.

A processed food, on the other hand, is

  • most often packaged,
  • altered from its natural state and
  • consumed as an individual fragment of a whole food or as a combination of whole-food fragments containing additives.

Read the ingredient list on every packaged item you plan to purchase and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there five ingredients or less (Pollan 2008)?
  • Can I pronounce each of the ingredients; are they familiar to me (Pollan 2008)?
  • Would my great-grandmother recognize each ingredient (Pollan 2008)?
  • Can I find these ingredients in my kitchen (Wilder 2012)?

If the answer is yes to all of these, you most likely have a whole food. If the answer is no to any of these questions, put the item back and make a better choice.

The Benefits of Whole Foods

PHOTOGRAPHY: Natalie Maynor

Not all calories are created equal. In the metabolism of the human body, the benefits of whole foods overwhelm any good we might get from processed foods.

Use these tips to successfully increase whole-food consumption:


In the busy lives we lead, whole-food eating does not just happen; it takes preparation. Follow these three steps:

  1. Create a whole-food meal plan.
  2. Create a whole-food grocery list based on your meal plan.
  3. Schedule weekly shopping trips, purchasing only the items on your list.

Remember, the food you put in your kitchen determines what you will eat on a daily basis; you can’t eat what you don’t buy.

Shop the Perimeter

Most whole foods are on the perimeter of the supermarket: fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, raw nuts and seeds, minimally processed dairy products, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Venture into the center aisles only for 100% whole grains, dried beans and lentils, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and natural nut butters.

Increase Fruit and Vegetable Intake

Increasing fruit and vegetable intake is a great place to start in displacing processed-food calories with nutrient-dense, whole-food calories. With each meal, fill half of your plate with whole fruits and veggies (PBH 2012).

Choose Whole Grains

Switching from refined grains to whole grains can make a big difference in overall health and whole-food consumption.
Choose grains that make the following two claims: 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain. Avoid items that list the following refined ingredients or are described in these ways: enriched, bleached, refined, potassium bromate, white flour, wheat flour, bromated flour, degerminated, bran and wheat germ (Whole Grains Council 2009).

Avoid Added Sugars

Approximately 75% of foods in commercial supermarkets contain added sugars (Ng, Slining & Popkin 2012). Ignore foods that contain refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, and choose foods that contain natural sugars (raw sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup and honey). Avoid foods that list any type of sugar in the top three ingredients.

Try New Foods

It is proven that eating a wide variety of foods is important for optimal health (Steyn et al. 2006). Experiment with new fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes to keep your palate interested in whole foods.

Spend Time in Your Kitchen

Take pride in what you put into your body and cook whole-food meals. Choose the processed items you consume most often (salad dressings, pasta sauce, breads, tortillas, cereal, granola, soups, spice blends) and replace them with homemade, whole-food versions.

Remember, homemade meals don’t need to be elaborate or labor intensive; they just need to be whole.

To read the full article tat ran in the May 2013 IDEA Fitness Journal click here.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Vinoth Chandar