Fruit and vegetable consumption makes up a mere 8% of overall calorie intake in the average American diet, while processed-food consumption is at an all-time high (NFVA 2010). Americans consume 31% more processed foods than whole foods, and approximately 50% of Americans rely on vitamin and mineral supplements (Canning 2012; Bailey et al. 2011).

These statistics reveal 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. As first responders to the whole-food crisis, fitness professionals must sound the alarm. The most important questions we can ask ourselves are these: How do we effectively communicate the importance and ease of whole-food consumption to our clients, and what tools can successfully help them become 100% whole-food consumers?

Communicating the
Importance of Whole Foods

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.

Although the definition of a whole food may ring clear as you read this article, it can be incredibly challenging to identify whole foods at the supermarket. To shop for whole foods with ease, 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, then you most likely have a whole food in your hands. If the answer is no to any of these questions, then put the item back on the shelf and make a better choice.

The Benefits of Whole Foods

As long as we meet our recommended nutrient intake, why does it matter if we do it with whole foods or with processed foods? A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong! In the metabolism of the human body, the benefits of whole foods overwhelm any good we might get from processed foods.

Processed Foods, Obesity
and Chronic-Disease Risk

Money spent on processed food has doubled since 1982, and the consequences have been obvious: Adult obesity rates have also doubled, and childhood obesity rates have tripled (Vo 2012; CDC 2011). The correlation between processed food and obesity was illustrated in a 2009 study that measured weight gain in relation to various levels of processed-food purchases.

In comparing households, researchers found that spending 10% more on partially processed foods led to a body mass index increase of 3.95% in ages 10 and above (Asfaw 2011). Households spending 10% more on highly processed foods experienced a 4.25% increase in BMI (Asfaw 2011). Thus, even foods that are partially processed cause excessive weight gain.

Processed food is also strongly correlated with disease risk. A recent study found that 62% of a typical North American diet consists of processed foods. When analyzed, such a diet exceeds the recommended upper limits for calories, fat, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium, and fails to meet fiber recommendations. All these dietary characteristics increase the risk of chronic diseases (such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke) and premature death (Moubarac et al. 2012). An article in the November 2012 issue of the European Journal of Preventive Cardi­ology says “excess energy intake, saturated fat, sugar and salt derived from processed foods are a major cause of [the] disease burden” (Dunford 2012).

and Food Synergy

Whole foods—specifically fruits, vegetables and whole grains—are abundantly rich in nutrients called phytochemicals: biologically active compounds that are found in plants and that protect our bodies from disease by reducing inflammation, lessening DNA damage and boosting immunity (Holt et al. 2012; Talalay & Fahey 2001). Consuming single phytochemicals is a healthy start, but consuming combinations of them actually multiplies the protection they offer. For example, phytochemicals in whole grains reduce the risk of chronic disease, and eating whole grains with fruits and vegetables further reduces disease risk (Jacobs & Steffen 2003).

The effect of these potent combinations is called food synergy, which is sensitive to changes in food composition, air quality, temperature, light and time—factors that occur when food is processed, packaged and stored for extended periods (Johnson & Williamson 2003). Consequently, phytochemical activity and food synergy in processed foods are often dramatically reduced or even destroyed during nutrient extraction and industrial processing (Olsen et al. 2012; Alvarez-Parrilla et al. 2011; Kwok et al. 2004). [Editor’s note: To learn more about food synergy, read “Dynamic Duos” by Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, in our April issue.]

Furthermore, there is growing evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective in nourished populations and may even increase disease and mortality risks. A March 2012 study reviewed 78 randomized supplementation trials, which together included approximately 300,000 participants, to assess “the beneficial and harmful effects of antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in adults.” The study concluded, “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary [mortality] prevention. Beta-carotene and vitamin E seem to increase mortality, and so may higher doses of vitamin A” (Bjelakovic et al. 2012). Following these findings, a recent study reviewed the health benefits of multivitamin/mineral (MVM) supplements in large-scale randomized trials and concluded that, “for the majority of the population, there is no overall benefit from taking MVM supplements. Indeed, some studies have shown increased risk of cancers in relation to using certain vitamins” (Kamangar & Emadi 2012). These large-scale reviews illustrate that there is no processed substitute for whole foods.

How to Become a
Whole-Food Consumer

Now that you can define a whole food and know the importance of whole foods in promoting optimal health, use these tips to successfully increase whole-food consumption:


We are surrounded by ready-to-eat processed foods, and we lead busy lives that leave little time for cooking. In such an environment, whole-food eating does not just happen; it takes preparation. Carry out 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. Prepare!

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. Shop the perimeter first for these items. 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

While it is recommended that adults consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, 89% of Americans continually fall short of this recommendation (CDC 2011). 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). Still hungry? Grab seconds of fruits and veggies only. Try shopping the seasons (find what’s in season here:, buying frozen produce and starting your own vegetable garden ( as money savers.

Choose Whole Grains

Grains make up a large percentage of the American diet, so 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). Remember, organic, whole wheat, whole grain, wheat and multigrain do not mean whole. Whole-food grain products without processed additives can be challenging to find; consider finding a whole-food bakery or making your own.

Avoid Added Sugars

Added sugar is often a marker for highly processed foods. Approximately 75% of foods in commercial supermarkets contain added sugars (Ng, Slining & Popkin 2012).

How do we avoid such large quantities of added sugar? Ignore foods that contain refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, and choose foods that contain natural sugars (raw sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup and honey). As a rule of thumb, avoid foods that list any type of sugar in the top three ingredients. Food companies use tricky names to hide added sugars. For an extensive list, go to www.cho

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. Each time you go to the store, purchase a new whole-food item; for example, red cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, beets, amaranth, quinoa, rolled oats, star fruit, plantains or dried beans, lentils and legumes (as opposed to the canned varieties).

Spend Time in Your Kitchen

Registered dietitian Teresa Hamilton-Johnson, who has focused her research on phytochemicals, emphasizes the health benefits of cooking: “[Whole foods] work best if we subject them to some sort of mild processing, like cooking or chopping. . . . Lycopene, a compound found in tomatoes, has been shown to reduce risk of prostate cancer. But the benefits of lycopene are greatly enhanced by cooking—as much as tenfold.”

Take pride in what you put into your body and cook whole-food meals. Choose the processed items you consume most often and replace them with homemade, whole-food versions. These items may include salad dressings, pasta sauce, breads, crackers, tortillas, cereal, granola, granola bars, soups, spice blends, etc. Make your homemade versions in bulk, freeze them and store for convenience. Check out this real-food cookbook for a boost in your whole-food conversion: The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila (Clarkson Potter 2012).

Remember, homemade meals don’t need to be elaborate or labor intensive; they just need to be whole. Make it a priority!

Behavior Modification
Tools for Whole-Food Eating

Use these tips to help your clientele kick their processed-food habits:

Educate Yourself

The best teaching tool is experience. If we, as fitness professionals, are dedicated to increasing our own whole-food consumption, what works for us can help us teach our clients what will work for them. Practice what you preach. Check out whole-food authors Michael Pollan and David Kessler as you embark on your own whole-food journey. Not a registered dietitian, but want to expand your nutrition knowledge? There is a wealth of credible nutrition information at your fingertips. Check out these public resources for nutrition education:

Hold Your Clients Accountable

It is easy for fitness professionals to ignore nutrition, since it’s not our area of expertise. Yet our clients look to us as role models of health, and often we are their only nutrition resource. Engage your clients in discussions about nutrition and whole foods, using publicly accepted knowledge from the resources listed above. Check in with your clients weekly, and discuss their nutrition struggles and successes. Make nutrition an extension of your sessions together and encourage clients to seek nutrition counseling if needed. Remember, if you make nutrition a priority, your clients will make it a priority.

Set Short-Term Nutrition Goals

Goal setting works (Shilts, Horowitz & Townsend 2004). Set goals to encourage your clients to consume more whole foods. Each month, have your clients replace one processed food they regularly consume with a nutrient-dense, whole-food version of that food. At the beginning of each month, use this four-step goal-setting process to help your clients stay on track:

  1. Identify a frequently consumed processed food.
  2. Commit to replacing the processed food with a comparable nutrient-dense whole food.
  3. Attempt the goal, and monitor success throughout the month.
  4. Reward if the processed food is successfully replaced (Shilts, Horowitz & Townsend 2004).

The end result: eliminating 12 regularly consumed processed foods a year.

Encourage Food Journaling

People who keep food journals are more likely to reach their dietary goals (Yon et al. 2007). Encourage your clients to keep a daily food journal. Review the journal weekly to identify processed foods and drinks, and work with your clients to replace processed fare with nutrient-dense whole foods.

Cultivate a Relationship
With a Registered Dietitian

Because fitness professionals have limits on the nutrition advice we can offer, it is important to form relationships with nutrition professionals. Get to know a dietitian in your area. Utilize his or her resources for referrals, nutrition education seminars, cooking demonstrations, meet-and-greets and consultations for your clientele. The possibilities are endless and the gains invaluable!

Teach Patience

Many of our clients are so dependent on processed foods that reducing their consumption is incredibly challenging. Let your clients know that while healthy eating habits may take years to develop, small changes toward a whole-food diet are important and can lead to large gains in health.

With this mindset, your clients will be more likely to stick with the challenge and less inclined to abandon their focus on whole foods at the first sign of failure.

As a health and fitness role model, use this information and take the challenge to transform Americans into whole-food consumers, one client at a time.


Alvarez-Parilla, E., et al. 2011. Antioxidant activity of fresh and processed jalape├▒o and serrano peppers. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 59 (1), 163-73.
Asfaw, A. 2011. Does consumption of processed foods explain disparities in the body weight of individuals? The case of Guatemala. Health Economics, 20 (2), 184-95.

Bailey, R.L., et al. 2011. Dietary supplement use in the United States, 2003-2006. The Journal of Nutrition, 141 (2), 261-66.

Bjelakovic, G., et al. 2012. Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Mar. 14), 3:CD007176.

Canning, P. 2012. Food processing costs per food-at-home dollar rose in 2009 and 2010. Economic Research Service/USDA. Amber Waves, 10 (3), 1.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2011. Obesity: Halting the epidemic by making health easier.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Dunford, E., et al. 2012. International collaborative project to compare and monitor the nutritional composition of processed foods. European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, 19 (6), 1326-32.

Holt, R.R., et al. 2012. The potential of flavanol and procyanidin intake to influence age-related vascular disease.Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics, 31 (3), 290-323.

Jacobs, D.R., & Steffen, L.M. 2003. Nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns as exposures in research: A framework for food synergy. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3 Suppl.), 508S-3S.

Johnson, I., & Williamson, G. 2003. Phytochemical Functional Foods. Cambridge, England: Woodhead Publishing and CRC Press.

Kamangar, F., & Emadi, A. 2012. Vitamin and mineral supplements: Do we really need them? International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 3 (3), 221-26.

Kwok, B.H.L., et al. 2004. Dehydration techniques affect phytochemical contents and free radical scavenging activities of Saskatoon berries. Journal of Food Science, 69 (3), SNQ122-SNQ126.

Moubarac, J.C., et al. 2012. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health. Evidence from Canada. Public Health Nutrition,; retrieved Dec. 10, 2012.

NFVA (National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance). 2010. National action plan to promote health through increased fruit and vegetable consumption. 2010 report card.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Ng, S.W., Slining, M.M., & Popkin, B.M. 2012. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112 (11), 1828-34.

Olsen, H., et al. 2012. Antiproliferative effects of fresh and thermal processed green and red cultivars of curly kale (Brassica oleracea L. convar. acephala var. sabellica). Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. doi: 10.1021/jf300875f.

PBH (Produce for Better Health Foundation). 2012. MyPlate and what is a serving of fruits and vegetables? Fill half your plate.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Pollan, M. 2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin.

Shilts, M.K., Horowitz, M., & Townsend, M.S. 2004. Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: A review of the literature. American Journal of Health Promotion, 19 (2), 81-93.

Steyn, N.P., et al. 2006. Food variety and dietary diversity scores in children: Are they good indicators of dietary adequacy? Public Health Nutrition, 9 (5), 644-50.

Talalay, P., & Fahey, J.W. 2001. Phytochemicals from cruciferous plants protect against cancer by modulating carcinogen metabolism. The Journal of Nutrition, 131 (11), 3027S-33S.

Vo, L.T. 2012. “What America Spends on Groceries.” Planet Money, National Public Radio.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Whole Grains Council. 2009. Are we there yet? Measuring progress on making at least half our grains whole.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Wilder, A. 2012. October unprocessed 2012.; retrieved Jan. 4, 2013.

Yon, B.A. 2007. Personal digital assistants are comparable to traditional diaries for dietary self-monitoring during a weight loss program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30 (2), 165-75.

Leslie-Ann Berg, MSPH

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.