Eat more whole, minimally processed foods. That’s the advice you’ll get from most nutrition experts today. That’s because these foods, which come as close to their natural form as possible, are usually rich in all of the good stuff such as fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and low in all of the bad stuff, including saturated fat, trans fats, sodium and added sugars. For example, when you refine a grain such as in white flour, you strip off its nutrient-rich outer coating, and when you create highly processed snack foods like chips or cookies, they often contain added salt, sugar and fats.
Natural health benefits
If you made just one change in your diet for better health, you’d probably get the biggest bang for your buck by transitioning to a diet based on whole foods. “Highly processed foods such as refined carbohydrates have a lower nutrient profile; they are lower in fiber that makes you feel fuller. This is important, especially if you’re trying to lose weight,” says Jessica Crandall, R.D., C.D.E., dietitian for Sodexo Wellness and Nutrition and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines emphasize including more whole foods such as whole grains in your diet in place of refined grains and limiting your intake of added salts, sugar and fat to your diet.
Defining whole foods
Choosing whole foods is simple. You select foods that come as close to the earth as possible, including animal products such as whole fish, eggs and fresh milk; whole fruits like apples, bananas and oranges; vegetables such as lettuce leaves, broccoli and onions; whole grain kernels like oats, barley and wheat berries; nuts and seeds like walnuts and sunflower seeds; legumes such as lentils and beans. It’s easy to spot whole foods such as potatoes and lettuce in the supermarket produce aisle, but it can be more difficult to determine which foods are minimally processed in the inner supermarket rows, which contain breads, crackers, snacks, canned goods and frozen foods.
Not all processed foods are bad
The most wholesome diet you can imagine would feature foods prepared from scratch using fresh, unprocessed foods without the addition of large amounts of salt, sugar and fat. But let’s face it, most of us don’t have the time or desire to do this every day, and these foods may not be available in your region year round. Consider that food processing follows a spectrum, ranging from minimally processed to heavily processed foods. For instance, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are minimally processed foods, while candy and frosted donuts are heavily processed.
Based on cultural traditions that date back hundreds of years, food companies preserve fresh fruits and vegetables by drying, canning or freezing so that we can enjoy them year round, thus contributing important nutrients to our diets. Food companies also use traditional processing techniques to create whole grain flour out of grains, and to turn milk into yogurt or cottage cheese. Processing techniques such as pasteurizing milk also help keep your food supply safe. You should include nutrient-rich, minimally processed foods in your diet. Just read the labels to ensure they are low in added ingredients, such as salt and sugar.
Better prepared choices
There are times when it’s convenient to reach for moderately processed foods such as a frozen dinners or canned soups. How can you make the best choice? The only way you can really tell is to flip over the package and read the ingredients list. Is the product made from real food ingredients found in nature such as grains, legumes and vegetables? Or are there multi-syllabic ingredients such as sodium benzoate or food dyes that you might never find in your cupboards? Let the ingredients list be your guide to choosing wholesome prepared foods.
A whole, minimally processed food guide
Take a look at these minimally processed foods that you should include in your diet most often.
• Animal Products: Fresh milk, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, eggs, fresh or frozen fish, poultry or meat (with no added ingredients).
• Grains: Whole grains in their natural form (whole kernels) or made into 100 percent whole grain flour such as oats, wheat, amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, brown rice.
• Legumes: Dried beans, lentils, peas and minimally processed soy foods (edamame, tempeh, tofu, soy milk) in their natural form, including cooked or canned (no added salt).
• Nuts/Seeds: Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pecans, pistachios, sesame, sunflower, flax, and hemp; butters made out of nuts and seeds (with no added ingredients).
• Fruits: Whole fresh, canned, frozen, and dried (no added sugar) fruits such as berries, citrus, pears, grapes, melons, peaches, cherries, bananas, mango and plums.
• Vegetables: Whole fresh, canned, frozen, and dried (no added salt) vegetables such as greens, lettuce, cucumber, squash, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and broccoli.
• Beverages: Coffee, green, black, white or oolong tea; herbal tea (no added sugar).
Sharon Palmer, RD is a Registered Dietitian and writer covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews and entertainment. She is passionate about environmental issues, eco-friendly culinary practices, sustainability, food safety, humane animal practices and food security. Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications, including Better Homes and Gardens, Prevention, Oxygen, LA Times, Cooking Smart, Delicious Living, Food Product Design, Today’s Dietitian and CULINOLOGY. She has contributed to several books, including Food & Cultural Issues for the Culinary, Hospitality and Nutrition Professions.
Her upcoming book, “The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today,” is due to hit bookstores on July 17, 2012. For more information, please visit http://www.sharonpalmer.com.
This article was first published in Environmental Nutrition, May 2012. It was re-published with permission by the author. The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.