Learn why skipping processed foods can help improve your overall well-being.

By Rania Batayneh, MPH
September 28, 2020
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A bag of chips or box of cookies tempt at the supermarket and packets of snacks lure us at the convenience store. Nutrition research has consistently shown that whole unprocessed foods that are straight from the ground, tree, or bush—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds—improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. On the other hand, processed foods (meaning foods that have been altered, refined, stripped of some of their components, or else foods that had ingredients added to them) tend to contribute to chronic disease. Think cookies, cakes, white flour, chips, margarine, and donuts. These foods are easy to spot; if they don't exist naturally in nature (or close to how they appear), they're processed.

Louise Hagger

The benefits of a whole foods-based diet include lower rates of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Whole foods tend to be lower in sugar and higher in fiber, which helps balance blood sugar. They also contain healthy fats, which boost cognition, as well as prebiotics and probiotics that improve gut health. They're also packed with important nutrients that help your body function optimally.

Why Are Foods Processed?

Foods are processed for several reasons: to increase shelf life, to improve taste, to improve consistency in size and shape, to improve their aesthetics, or to make them easier to ship and eat. Of course, there are different levels of processing: steel-cut oats, rolled oats, and instant oatmeal are all increasingly but still minimally processed versions of whole oat groats.

Donuts, on the other hand, are heavily processed: They are made of white flour, which has been stripped of its nutrients and fiber, and concentrated and refined sugar. Then, they're fried in oil. The degree of processing in a particular food is important, as some degree of processing can be beneficial. For example, freezing fruit and vegetables gives you access to fruit and vegetables all year long and lengthens its shelf life. Similarly, the blending of ingredients gives you delicious spreads like hummus and pesto. The processing of certain foods, like soybeans into tofu or soy milk, also allows vegetarians and vegans to expand the amount of foods they eat. Likewise, processing can fill in nutritional gaps for people who might be missing out on certain nutrients, like iron-fortified cereal or vitamin D-fortified orange juice.

How to Eat a Whole Foods-Based Diet

As much as possible, fill your diet with whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods. You want to focus on getting a balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat in every meal and snack. If you like to eat oatmeal for breakfast, lean towards steel cut or rolled oats, which have all of their fiber and nutrients intact, as opposed to instant oatmeal, which often has added sugars and other additives. For snacks, reach for foods like pistachios, which offer six grams of plant-based protein and three grams of fiber per serving and help fuel your body with essential amino acids. Plus, nearly 90 percent of the fats found in pistachios are the better-for-you mono and polyunsaturated type, which means they are a protein-fiber-fat trio that may help keep you fuller longer. Pairing pistachios with fruit bumps up your antioxidant and fiber intake as well.

At lunch and dinner, build your plate around vegetables like leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, bell peppers, mushrooms, and carrots; whole grain like brown rice and quinoa; and plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas, and tofu. For vegetarians, vegans, and those who want to eat a plant-based diet, there are plenty of whole foods-based proteins, like the aforementioned beans, lentils, and chickpeas, along with nuts, seeds, and whole grains; even vegetables contain small amounts of protein. Minimally processed plant-based foods like tofu, seitan, tempeh, store-bought hummus, and veggie burgers are also excellent options. The degree of processing associated with these foods is most often expelling, pressing, and mashing rather than adding ingredients like trans fats, sugar, and sodium and frying them in oils.

What Are the Health Benefits of Eating a Whole Foods-Based Diet?

One of the benefits of eating whole foods is that those foods are nutrient-dense: They are rich in micronutrients like iron, zinc, folate, calcium, and vitamins A and C (among others). Combining whole foods offers the most nutrients, and that's true not only because you're getting a variety of nutrients from different sources, but because combining certain nutrients actually increases their absorption. Iron absorption, for example, is enhanced when it's eaten with vitamin C—pair your leafy greens with lemon juice, or dip vitamin C-rich bell pepper strips into iron-rich hummus. Vitamin D and calcium, two nutrients that vegetarians and vegans often focus on, are another set of nutrients that are best eaten together; vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.

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