By: Megan Ware, RDN, LD
The terms “whole foods” and “clean eating” are big buzzwords these days, but what exactly are whole foods and why should you be eating more of them, especially if we are working toward weight loss?
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 strawberry is a whole food. A potato is a whole food. Apart from being grown, dug up and shipped, a whole potato is as unprocessed as possible, available for consumption in its most natural state.
Whole foods like potatoes or strawberries may be organic or locally grown, but not necessarily. A whole food is simply a food in its most natural state, with all of its nutrients intact.
The opposite of whole foods are highly processed foods. Let’s take the potato chip for example. Once the potatoes are harvested, they are sent to a processing plant where they are inspected, placed on a conveyer belt, peeled, washed in cold water and impaled into paper-thin slices. The slices then fall into a second cold-water wash that removes the starch released when the potatoes are cut. The potato remnants are chemically treated to enhance their color and passed under air drying jets as they flow into troughs filled with hot oil for frying. Excess oil is drained and the chips begin to cool. Flavored chips are passed through a drum filled with powdered seasonings. Then the packaging process starts. I’m not going to bore you with those 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 creek. This person knows exactly where all of their food comes from, the components of each food, and any processing that their food endures takes place in their own kitchen.
At the other end of the spectrum is the person who grabs dinner from the fast food drive-through, as 25% of Americans do daily. 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 from all different regions and processing plants. Chemicals, additives and preservatives are added to processed foods so that they will last for as long as possible without affecting the flavor of the food.
Not all of us have the ability to be self-sufficient and grow our own foods, but we all have the ability to get more involved in our meal preparation. We can set aside time at the beginning of each week to pick out a few recipes, buy locally available produce from our grocery or farmers market, plan our meals for the week and really take initiative to know where your food is coming from and how it was prepared. And what better way to do this then to buy and prepare it ourselves?
When you are dining out, don’t be afraid to ask questions. How was this fish prepared? Was it doused in oil or butter? Is it farmed or fresh-caught? The lesson here is that the more involved you are in your food, the healthier your meal will be, and your body will thank you for it, whether you’re working on weight loss or not.