As a Registered Dietitian, people I meet often ask me for quick nutrition advice, or a "secret tip" I can share. Of course, each person is different in their goals and where they are coming from. What might work for one person may not work for another so it's hard to give on the spot advice without knowing the persons background. BUT, if there was one piece of advice I would give every client I've ever seen, every patient I've ever come into contact with it would be this:
Eat more whole foods.
What exactly do I mean by a whole food?
A whole food is a food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances. A whole food is simply a food in its natural state, with all of its nutrients and health benefits intact.
So, for example, if you're making a salsa at home, the tomatoes, peppers and onions you dice to use in your salsa recipe are all whole foods. Apart from being grown, picked, and shipped those foods were mostly untouched and unprocessed when you bought them. Any processing thereafter you would do yourself (such as dicing them and adding spices or other various whole foods to make the salsa).
The opposite of whole foods are highly processed foods. Let’s take the potato chip for example. The whole potatoes are first sent to a processing plant where they are inspected. The ones that make it through the inspection are then placed on a conveyer belt, which moves them through the various stages of processing. The potatoes are then peeled, washed in cold water, passed through a revolving impaler that cuts them into paper-thin slices, thrown into a second cold-water wash, chemically treated to enhance their color, passed under air jets that remove excess water as they flow into troughs filled with hot oil for frying, pushed through the oil, salted and sprinkled with various flavorings, then onto the packaging process. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but I think you can see the difference between eating a whole food (a potato) that was simply grown and harvested, and a processed food (a potato chip) where many of the nutrients the original food had are lost in the refinement process.
Let’s put this in perspective of our normal every day lives. On one end of the spectrum you have someone who grows their own fruits and vegetables, has their own chickens that hatch their own eggs, and raises their own livestock that eats hay from their pasture and drinks the water from their own creek or well. This person knows exactly where all of their food comes from, the components of each food, and any processing that their food endures is in their own kitchen.
At the other end of the spectrum is the person who goes through the fast food drive-thru. They have no idea where their food came from, what kind of processing it went through, or how it was cooked or prepared. The meat in a single fast food burger could come from dozens or even hundreds of cows. And I’m not even going to start going through the steps of processing in a fast food burger or you would be reading for the rest of the day.
How can we get closer to the healthier end of the spectrum? By buying whole foods from the grocery store or farmers market and preparing them ourselves, and by knowing where our food came from and what was done to it before it made our way to our plates.
Another benefit of whole foods: they’re cheaper! A lot of people have the misconception that eating healthier means spending more money in the grocery store. But that’s simply not true. The more processed things are, the higher the food cost. A 16oz family size bag of potato chips (averaging $4.00) is going to cost way more than 16oz of plain potatoes. Five times more, to be exact.
Let's go back to the salsa example. It is often cheaper for you to buy the whole ingredients than to buy a pre-made salsa. It tastes fresher, has less sodium and preservatives and significantly more vitamins and antioxidants– which are intact because you started with whole ingredients like red peppers, onion, fresh cilantro and parsley.
Get started today: Try to stay on the outer perimeter of the grocery store, where all the good stuff like produce and dairy hang out. The closer to the center aisles you get, the more processed things are. Start paying attention to ingredient labels. If there's anything in there you don't recognize as "food," put it back. Remember, the more involved you are in your food, the healthier your meal will be.
About the author: Megan Ware is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Awareness, based out of Dallas, TX. She specializes in weight loss and has recently partnered with Fitness with Insight to offer their clients a whole-body approach to getting fit and healthy.