We hear a lot about the importance of eating whole foods. There's even a supermarket chain so dedicated to the concept that it bears “whole foods” in its name.
But exactly what qualifies as a whole food, and why are whole foods special?
The idea is simple: Whole foods are foods and ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. They are minimally processed and unrefined, and they typically contain no added sugar, salt, fat or synthetic preservatives, flavorings or colorings.
There are good reasons for all of us to value whole foods.
Whole foods have the nutritional advantage over processed foods of containing the most complete array of nutrients our bodies need. They not only contain vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber, but they are also likely to contain other health-supporting substances – phytochemicals – that don't come packaged in a tablet or added back to processed, packaged foods.
Here are some examples of whole – or nearly whole – foods and others that are not:
Dooked oatmeal, wheat berries, brown rice. Breads and pasta made with 100 percent whole wheat flour are good enough; those made from refined, white wheat flour are not. Shredded wheat is whole; cornflakes are not.
Fresh broccoli, apples, cauliflower and snap peas are whole foods. Fruit leather, fruit drink and pickle relish are not. Fresh or frozen counts; canned doesn't. That's not to say that canned peas and carrots don't have nutritional merit. They do, but not as much as vegetables that haven't been cooked and soaked in salt water.
Whole almonds, sunflower seeds, and dried beans that have been soaked and cooked are whole foods. Slivered almonds, nut butters with no added salt, and canned garbanzo beans (rinsed to remove most of the salt) are close enough.
Don't get overly concerned about whether a food fits the precise definition of whole. The aim is to build as large a proportion of your diet as possible from foods close to their natural state.