Trying to eat a healthy diet is often times confusing because of the wealth of (contrasting) information out there. What we know about a healthy diet is constantly changing. For example, it was once thought that eating eggs would increase cholesterol and increase the chances of heart disease, but now we know that high cholesterol is caused by saturated fats, not by cholesterol itself. I started a series on healthy habits to highlight the pieces of a healthy lifestyle that I think are important and that I am working on in my own life. The first post I made was on New Year’s Day, where I wrote about my weight loss story, which is where my goals for healthy habits started.
I’d like to start by saying choosing whole foods is not a diet fad. Choosing whole foods has been trending recently because of the amount of processed foods that are made and marketed to Americans. If you look back, your parents and grandparents didn’t eat as much processed foods as Americans do today. It simply wasn’t available to them in the vast quantities that it is now. In fact, food consumption in other countries doesn’t include nearly the amount of processed foods as the American diet. Choosing whole foods doesn’t restrict you to eating only a particular type of food, like most diets do. We all make choices about the foods we consume every day. In my quest for a healthy lifestyle, I’m trying to make choosing whole foods a habit. So what are whole foods, and why do we care?
What are whole foods?
Whole foods are foods as close to their natural state as possible. Some foods are easier than others to figure out. Fruit and veggies are obviously whole and natural. Processed foods are manipulated in a way that decreases their value as a food, and can even add chemicals that aren’t food at all. Let’s look at flour for an example. Flour is wheat that is ground until it is fine. Does the grinding procedure make flour processed? In short, no, but let’s look closer. Whole wheat flours are considered to be whole foods because all parts of the wheat kernel are in the finished product, without unnecessary additives. On the other hand, all-purpose flour has had the germ and bran removed from the wheat kernel, and often times the flour is bleached to make it appear whiter. All-purpose flour is considered a processed food, not a whole food.
When it comes to packaged foods, there are usually a lot of ingredients to interpret, which makes figuring out whole foods complicated. As a general rule of thumb, if you can buy the ingredients in the product to cook with at home, you are on the right track. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, nor buy them at the store, you are looking at a processed food, likely with additives. This post is an excellent resource to help guide you towards what is a whole food and what is not.
Why are whole foods important?
For this discussion, we will continue to use flour as an example. All-purpose flour has had the bran and germ removed to make the flour softer, and lighter in texture. The bran and germ are highest in nutrients and fiber, which are also more difficult to digest. Without the more difficult to digest pieces of the wheat kernel, your body processes it much faster, raising your blood sugar, and if there is excess sugar in your system your body stores it as fat (Source). Wait, what? Fat? Yes, fat. That ugly little word that we are all trying to fight off like the plague. For this reason, refined (or processed) carbohydrates and sugars are being linked to heart disease (Source), because they contribute to fat build up in the body!
Whole foods are naturally higher in fiber and nutrients, which are important in your bodies digestive system. Whole foods diets have been shown to lead to weight loss and increase your intake of nutrients and antioxidants that decrease the risks of diseases and cancers. It makes a little sense, if you put the best foods into your body, you will see the best results. Check out Lisa’s website for more reasons to choose whole foods.
Whole Foods in a Healthy Lifestyle
Making whole foods a habit and a part of your healthy lifestyle is not easy. In fact it is hard because most products being made and marketed to Americans are full of processed carbohydrates, sugars, and oils. Those ingredients make them taste better and have longer shelf lives, but they are not good for long-term health. Don’t be worried, we still have options.
The first thing to recognize is that you don’t have to be 100%. This is not an all or nothing deal! You can work one step at a time towards including more and more whole foods in your diet. Before I realized this, I felt like I was never eating well enough. A healthy lifestyle was constantly an uphill battle. However, any effort you can make towards whole foods will be worth it for your health. Making real change is a process that takes time. Recognizing how to change and making steps towards a goal is what will drive us all forward in our individual quest toward healthy lifestyles.
Incorporating more whole foods
There are a few different ways to incorporate more whole foods into your habits.
- Start reading ingredients labels! You can find foods that are convenient and less processed, and even whole. Even if you choose to eat white bread (made with all-purpose flour), you should still be able to find a choice that cuts back on unwanted and unnecessary additives.
- Start cooking foods yourself! This means that we must invest time into making products ourselves instead of relying on pre-made products to simplify our lives. Life is crazy enough without becoming Betty Crocker right? Well, that investment of time in cooking is an investment in yourself – an investment in your health and well-being.
Choosing Whole Foods in My Life
Like I said before, this is not an all or nothing deal. I’m not a 100% whole foods consumer. A recipe like my whole wheat naan bread is still only made with 50% whole wheat flour. Whole wheat is important, but I still want the soft texture in my naan, so 50% is doing pretty good. I still tend to use white sugar in my dessert recipes, like these whole wheat chocolate zucchini muffins. I eat sweets so irregularly that I’m not very concerned about my sugar intake (I only have 6 dessert recipes on the blog out of 133 total recipes). Moderation is my routine when it comes to refined sugar.
I choose to try and make vegetables the highlight of my dishes so that I focus on whole foods. Sometimes I’m successful, like with these enchilada spaghetti squash boats. However, there are plenty of examples where vegetables seem to be lacking, like these carb heavy pizza baked potatoes, or my vegan chilaquiles. The point is, there is always room to grow and improve. When choosing whole foods you don’t have to feel like it’s a battle you can’t win. Find small steps that work for you and keep moving!
My Best Whole Foods Tips and Tricks
I love to cook, so I choose to invest time into making products myself. These are the top 7 things I do to increase the chances that I choose whole foods.
- Make some time to plan your menu. Planning ahead will help you cut back on the easy pre-made processed foods. More on this later 🙂
- I put at least 50% whole wheat flour into anything I’m going to make with flour. Do you eat gluten free? Remember to choose something like brown rice flour over just rice flour.
- Your freezer is your friend. There are a lot of Make-Freeze-Take recipes out there that allow you to make healthy foods when you have time to cook, and eat them when you don’t have the time. For example, I freeze leftovers in individual servings for an easy lunch. Also, I make large batches of bread over the weekend and freeze extra loaves.
- Invest in some equipment to make cooking easier. I love my rice cooker because I can hands free cook any grain to use later in bowls, salads, and veggie burgers!
- Keep whole snacks on hand for quick and easy options. Cut veggies, fruit, cheese and nuts (like salted roasted pistachios, yum) are always on hand at my house so you don’t have to cook to eat something whole.
- Even if a packaged food is not 100% whole, choose a version that has fewer additives and is less processed. We are trying to form healthy habits, not a strict diet.
- Remember to allow yourself to indulge. I still order pizza and eat potato chips. Small steps will realistically help you to make change.
What are your thoughts on whole foods? Do you have other tips and tricks? We would love to hear about them in the comments!