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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Whole Foods: Not Just a Grocery Store


March 05, 2012


By Lisa Mancini, M.S., B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

"Whole Foods" may be the name of the market in your town, but it also describes foods left in their natural forms: They're unprocessed and have no artificial ingredients.

Here are examples of whole foods and their more processed versions.

Whole food

Processed version

Orange
Orange juice
Tomato
Canned tomato soup
Corn on the cob
Corn tortilla chips
Dried beans
Canned beans
Baked potato
Potato cips
Brow rice
White rice
Fresh egg
Egg substitute
Fresh fish
Frozen fish stick
Fresh chicken breast
Breaded chicken tenders

 

You might be asking yourself why a chicken breast is considered a whole food but a breaded chicken tender is not. Aren't chicken tenders made with all white meat? Not necessarily.

In many cases chicken tenders are made from the parts of the chicken left over after the good parts are packaged for sale. These may include leftover breast meat pieces combined with rib meat or other chicken parts. To bring these parts together and to make sure they taste good, the food processor uses additives. Between the processing and addition of additives, it's no longer a whole food.

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The Benefits of Eating Whole Foods

Eating a whole foods diet has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases and early aging. Interestingly, research has shown whole foods have more of a beneficial effect on disease compared to individual vitamin and mineral supplements. For example, a study examining beta-carotene showed that people eating fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene had a lower risk of lung cancer than those who were supplemented with just beta-carotene.

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Whole Foods Have Important Nutrients

Whole foods keep all of their vitamins, minerals, fiber and other healthy nutrients, such as phytochemicals. For example, a whole orange has six major vitamins and minerals, fiber and many phytonutrients. Processed orange juice, on the other hand, only has three major vitamins and minerals, no fiber and far fewer phytochemicals. So stick with whole foods to ensure you are getting the most vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals from your food.

Fiber is the part of plant foods that we can't digest. Eating foods high in fiber helps reduce total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, improve blood-sugar control and prevent constipation. High-fiber foods also help with weight loss by making you feel full.

Whole foods high in fiber:

  • Brown rice
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Nuts
  • Beans and lentils
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots

Vitamins are organic substances found in plants and animals. Minerals are inorganic elements from the earth (soil and water). Both are essential for normal growth and optimal health.

Whole foods high in vitamins and minerals include:

  • Iron: Meat, poultry, fish and beans
  • Vitamin A: carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach and kale
  • B12: Meat, poultry and fish
  • Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds and vegetable oils

Phytochemicals are chemicals made by plants. They are not essential to life, but they do have a positive effect on health. They have been shown to prevent several diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. They are found in fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.

Whole food sources of phytochemicals are:

  • Flavonoids: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries
  • Carotenoids: orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and winter squash
  • Lycopene: tomatoes
  • Isoflavones: soy foods such as soy beans and edamame
  • Resveratrol: red grapes
  • Catechins: teas

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The Bottom Line

Nothing beats the benefits of eating whole foods. Eating processed versions of food or taking supplements does not offer the same high nutritional value as eating foods in their natural forms. Nutrient-dense whole foods give you the whole package and provide numerous healthy benefits.

Nonorganic or organic, from a farmer's market or grocery store, all whole foods are beneficial to your overall health. The best way to gain all the benefits of a whole food diet is to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

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Lisa Mancini is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated from Simmons College with a B.S. in Nutrition and Food Science as well as a M.S. in Nutrition and Health Promotion and a certificate in Sports Nutrition.

 

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