The Whole-Foods Diet

6 reasons to switch to a less processed way of eating.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The more we learn about nutrition, the more it seems we should eat the way people did a hundred years ago. Recent research appears to be pointing us in the direction of eating mostly "whole foods" - that is, foods that are as close to their natural form as possible.

This could mean eating:

  • Whole grains instead of refined grains whenever possible.
  • Fruits, vegetables, and beans instead of supplements to provide the fiber and vitamins they contain.
  • A skinless chicken breast cooked with healthful ingredients instead of chicken nuggets processed with added fats, flavorings, and preservatives.
  • A baked potato with chopped green onions and light sour cream instead of a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips.
  • Fresh berries with breakfast instead of raspberry toaster pastries or breakfast bars.
  • A blueberry smoothie made with blueberries, yogurt, and a frozen banana instead of a blue-colored slushy or icee.

Many health experts believe that eating more whole foods is our best bet for improving health and preventing disease. Whole foods - like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes -- retain their fiber as well as the whole portfolio of beneficial phytochemicals and nutrients that are often removed in processed foods.

The idea of whole foods is catching on the popular imagination as well. Consider the now ubiquitous Whole Foods Market grocery chain, which started in 1980 as one store in Austin, Texas. Its mission was simple: "to provide a more natural alternative to what the food supply was typically offering at the time."

Whole Foods is now the world's leading retailer of natural and organic foods, with 184 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. Their 2005 revenue was $4.7 billion, and they have 78 new stores in the development pipeline between now and 2009.

Reasons to Eat Whole Foods

Here are six reasons we should eat more whole foods, according to nutrition experts:

  1. Phytochemicals. In the past 10 years, scientists have identified hundreds of biologically active plant-food components called phytochemicals (or phytonutrients). They include the powerful antioxidant lycopene, a red-colored carotenoid found mainly in tomatoes; anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant that gives deep blue color to berries; and pterostilbene, which appears to turn on a "switch" in cells that breaks down fat and cholesterol, and is found in blueberries and the Gamay and Pinot Noir varieties of grapes.

    The only way to make sure you're getting the phytochemicals we know about, as well as the ones we haven't yet discovered or named, is to eat plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form (or ground, if they're grains or seeds).

  2. Nutrient shortages. According to national survey results published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost a third of us get too little vitamin C; almost half get too little vitamin A; more than half get too little magnesium; and some 92% to 97% get too little fiber and potassium. Yet, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), these particular nutrients help lower the risk of our major health problems: cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

    What's the easiest way to correct this nutrient shortage? Two words: whole foods. "Almost all of the shortfalls identified by this survey can be corrected by eating a balanced, mostly plant-based diet," says AICR nutrition advisor Karen Collins, RD.

  3. Good fats. When you eat a diet made up mostly of whole foods, it's easier to decrease the bad-for-you fats (trans fats and saturated fats) often added to processed foods and fast food. At the same time, it's easier to emphasize the "good" fats (omega-3s from fish and plants, and monounsaturated fat from plant sources).

  4. Fiber. Most whole plant foods are rich in fiber; many processed foods, junk foods, and fast foods are not. Fiber helps your health in all sorts of ways; keeps the GI tract moving, helps you feel full faster, and it helps fight heart disease and diabetes.

    "Foods are a better way to get fiber than supplements. You get the whole package," says Martin O. Weickert, MD, of the German Institute of Human Nutrition. That's because most plant foods have both types of fiber (soluble and insoluble).

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