Whole vs. Processed Foods

One of the more interesting food debates of recent times centers around whole foods. Whole foods are pitted against processed foods in this face-off. Processed foods have been cast by many as a villain, responsible for perhaps causing the rise in childhood obesity and spike in diabetes. It is easy to make assertions like these without evidence, but hard to even form an informed opinion. Part of the problem lies in the labels themselves.

Even distinguishing whole foods from processed foods can be tricky. There are truly ‘whole’ foods, which anybody could pick out at the grocery store: uncooked vegetables, raw nuts, grains, and beans. But what about ‘whole-grain bread’? If I have to cook my black eyed peas before I eat them, are they technically ‘processed,’ even though they just had to boil in water and are still super healthy?

Technically speaking, if the food has been processed or refined at all it can’t be considered a whole food. In reality though, the relationship between whole foods and heavily processed foods is a continuum, and you can enjoy the benefits of eating whole foods with a little bit of ‘processing’. As a matter of fact, some processing is necessary to eat many foods. How would one eat those black eyed peas from before if we didn’t cook them a little? Who is going to claim that uncooked chicken is healthier than cooked? Unless you are planning on starting an extreme raw food diet, you’ll need to eat processed food.

Do keep in mind, though, that processing food more than the bare minimum often means a few things happen to the food. The more food is processed, the greater the chance that nutrients in the food will get stripped in the process. Fiber is a huge casualty of food processing, but all vitamins and minerals are at risk. These days processed foods risk gaining a number of unhealthy additives as they are processed as well. Hydrogenated oils and trans fats are cheap, fatty additives normally thrown in to make food taste better.

Similarly, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are often added during processing because they are cheap and help food sell by making it sweeter. These fatty and sweet ingredients are added to so many foods that, as a rule, processed foods are more calorie dense than less processed and whole foods are. Salt, MSG, and other sodium additives in processed foods serve two purposes: they make snacks tastier and serve as preservatives so food will go longer without being spoiled. This is not to mention the dozens of other food preservatives added to some foods whose long-term health effects are unclear.

As far as whole foods go, they offer advantages over processed foods generally in vitamin content, amounts of fiber, and lower calorie density. For anyone hoping multivitamins and fiber supplements will even the playing field, whole foods offer more complex micronutrients and extras like phytochemicals (that may protect against oxidative stress and chronic diseases) above and beyond multivitamins.

Remember that 100 years ago food scientists had not yet found or named any of the 13 Vitamins we consider so vital today. It is hard to imagine but in 50 years we will likely find out that leafy green veggies, berries, nuts, and other whole foods offer health benefits animal crackers, chicken nuggets, and even vitamin pills never can.

I am of the opinion that food rules should be easy to follow. One shouldn’t need a nutrition degree to eat right. If you want to reap the health benefits of eating whole foods, keep it simple. If you have a choice between buying or eating two foods, choose the one that more closely resembles how the food looks in nature.

Think of it this way: apples before apple juice. Whole grain bread is processed, but you can see the grains in front of you! You’ll get more fiber and less added sugars if you buy it rather than white bread. One simple tip for finding more whole foods to buy: stick to the perimeter of grocery stores. This is where the fresh produce, meats, and refrigerated items are. These need to be kept cool because they are fresh, and don’t have preservatives added to them.

Naturally, you can learn more about whole foods, organic foods, and raw foods if it interests you, but these easy steps are a good place to start.


Some speculate that he is part man, part animal, but the only thing that you need to know is his obsession and dedication to the art of living lean and helping you to achieve your body fat goals.

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