What do you picture when you think of a whole food? For me I think of a juicy red apple, a fresh salad, or pasture-raised chicken – foods that God made for us in their natural states to infuse us with life and health.
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. Genesis 1:29-30
In this post, we’re going to explore what qualifies as a whole food and discuss how to eat more whole foods in your diet.
Food as Medicine Series
Today’s post is part 3 in our Food as Medicine series. We kicked off the series with Food as Medicine Part 1, and Part 2, Eliminate Ultra-Processed Foods. Please Note: I’m not a doctor or other health care professional. I’m simply sharing what has worked for me personally. Please consult with your health care provider before making any changes that could affect your health.
Now, let’s get into today’s topic.
What Are Whole Foods?
As Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, says in his book The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World, (affiliate link) “Food is medicine, with both the power to heal and the power to harm … The best strategy for a long and healthy life is to eat your medicine— get your drugs at the farmacy, not the pharmacy, ( p. 5 ebook).” I love how he coined the word farmacy.
Based on what we’ve learned so far, here are examples of whole foods:
- Fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors
- Whole grains
Whole foods are unprocessed. Nothing has been added or taken away from them. They are in the condition that God created them in. The tricky part comes when trying to decide if recipes made from whole foods are whole foods themselves. For example, what about peanut butter or a granola bar? Are these whole foods?
Ask These Questions
My Fitness Pal recommends asking the following questions to decide if a food is a whole food or not.
- Can you imagine it growing in the earth, or did it have a mother? “The answer to this should be an easy yes,” says Liz Wyosnick, RD. “It is easy to imagine apples and nuts growing, but harder to imagine protein bars growing.”
- How many ingredients does it have? Usually, a whole food will have one ingredient: brown rice, kale, sweet potatoes, etc. If it has more than one ingredient, ask the following question:
- What has been done since it has been picked, and/or slaughtered, and can you recreate that process in your kitchen? “If yes, then it is most likely a whole food,” says Wyosnick.
Regarding point # 3, think of foods such as cabbage and onions that have been fermented into sauerkraut. That is a whole food. Or cucumbers that have been fermented into pickles. (Fermented means it has live cultures in it.) Note: This is not how most grocery store pickles or canned sauerkraut is made, so they are not whole foods.
In the case of peanut butter, look at the ingredient list. If it has sugar, chemicals, and other ingredients added to it, it has been processed, and it is not a whole food. You can find whole food nut butters, which are simply ground nuts with perhaps a bit of a healthy oil like avocado, coconut, or olive oil added.
Degrees of Health of Whole Foods
Another point to consider is how healthy the whole food is. For example, beef would be considered a whole food, organic beef would be a healthy step up, and pasture-raised and -finished beef is the best yet. As you might imagine, the healthier you get, the more expensive the food gets.
What to do when on a limited budget? Prioritize your purchases according to your budget and health. The Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group may be helpful to you when setting your priorities for purchasing produce.
How Do I Eat a Whole Foods Diet?
- As a general rule, when you go shopping, start in the produce aisle and build your meals around vegetables and fruits with some pasture-raised meat, dairy, and wild fish added in as the budget allows. Watch for sales.
- It is fine to start slowly so you don’t feel overwhelmed. You could choose to eliminate your least healthy food and replace it with a healthy alternative. For example, perhaps you cut out soda and replace it with sparkling water like Bubly, Spindrift, LaCroix, or herbal sun tea you make yourself.
- Another possibility is to start with what you feel is your unhealthiest meal of the day and do a meal makeover. If breakfast is a bagel and cream cheese, try swapping it for scrambled eggs with some sautéed veggies that you like (mushrooms or onions or peppers, etc.).
- Consult sources like the Pegan Diet, Whole 30, or Kelly Leveque for more in-depth ideas.
Food As Medicine Resources
These are two additional resources to learn more about food as medicine.
- Food as Medicine Everyday online course from the Food as Medicine Institute. In 2021 I took this class online. This is a wonderful course that I highly recommend, as it will give you a good foundation. We used the book Food as Medicine Everyday available on Amazon (affiliate link).
- Levels Health is an excellent program dedicated to improving your metabolic health by monitoring your glucose levels. Their blog and podcast are so informative with information you can use right away. If you want to closely monitor your blood sugar, check into their continuous glucose monitor (CGM) program. This provides real-time feedback on how diet and lifestyle choices impact your metabolic health.
What About You?
Do you have any favorite whole foods or ways to eat more of them? We’d love to hear your ideas. Leave a comment below!