Eat as Nature Intended
Ditch the Diet and Choose Whole Foods
Many of us have tried diet after diet, eliminating certain food groups and restricting calories, with less than optimal results. So many diets fail because they are too restrictive, and therefore unsustainable; the moment you go off your diet, the weight you lost comes back. Enter the whole foods diet, which isn’t really a diet at all. Its only rule is that you eat real food. That is, food that exists in nature: asparagus, a fish, a sweet potato. Think of it as eating the way people ate a hundred years ago, before snack cakes, frozen dinners, boxed cereals and other convenience foods filled the aisles of our grocery stores. Because the diet of the average American is high in processed foods and saturated fats, those who focus on eating whole foods as a way of life may lose weight and improve their overall health without actually going on a “diet.”
What is the Difference Between Whole and Processed Food?
Whole foods are foods that have not been processed and have not had any ingredients – like sugar, sodium, artificial flavors or colors, hydrogenated oils, or other preservatives or fillers – added to them. Processed foods have been altered in some way, usually to extend shelf-life, or to make them look or taste different than they do in their natural form. Chicken breast and corn on the cob are whole foods, while chicken nuggets and corn flakes are not.
The Benefits of Eating Whole Foods
Eating mostly whole foods results in a diet that is naturally higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Whole foods are higher in the vitamins and minerals in which many Americans are chronically deficient, such as Vitamins A and C, magnesium and potassium. Eating fruits and vegetables in their natural form allows you to take in many phytochemicals, which are the healthy compounds that give fruit and vegetables their vibrant colors. Examples include lycopene, which makes tomatoes red, and anthocyanin, which makes blueberries blue. In addition, eating whole foods allows you to increase your consumption of healthy fats while decreasing your consumption of the trans fats and saturated fats that fill processed foods. And while whole grains are lauded for their high fiber content, they are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals as well. Finally, once you’ve filled up on whole foods, it leaves less room for higher-fat, higher calorie options.
What to Eat
A whole foods diet should consist of dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale and bok choy, other colorful vegetables like beets, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers and carrots, fruits, healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil, whole grains, legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas, meat and poultry raised without hormones or antibiotics, fresh fish, eggs, and unprocessed dairy products like milk, butter, Greek yogurt and real cheese.
How to Shop for and Eat More Whole Foods
It really is as simple as concentrating on eating foods as close to their natural form as possible; a grilled skirt steak instead of a Salisbury steak frozen dinner, a baked potato instead of potato chips, raspberries instead of raspberry jam. Even real butter, with it naturally high fat content, is better than a low- or no-calorie “butter” spray made mostly from vegetable oils and chemicals. The easiest way to accomplish this is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, filling your cart with fresh items from the produce and dairy sections, and from the meat and seafood counters. When you must shop the interior aisles for pantry staples, read labels! Reject products that contain artificial ingredients, additives and preservatives, and choose foods that have been minimally processed rather than heavily processed. A good trick? An ingredient list with only one or two ingredients typically indicates a less-processed food, while a longer ingredient list indicates more processing.
Choose Whole Over Refined Grains
Grains include wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, cornmeal, millet, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. Anything made from them, including bread, pasta, tortillas, cereal, oatmeal, popcorn and grits are grain products. However, grains can be either whole or refined. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel (bran, endosperm and germ), while refined grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ. This is done to create a finer texture and improve shelf life, but it also removes dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins and makes them higher-glycemic. Choose whole grains like whole wheat, whole oats and brown rice whenever possible, and avoid refined grains like white flour, white bread and white rice. You can even replace half the white flour in most baking recipes with whole wheat flour with little impact on the outcome of the recipe.
Avoid Hidden Sugars
Just because a nutrition label doesn’t list “sugar” as an ingredient doesn’t mean it doesn’t have added sugars. Sugar masquerades as many other ingredients that don’t sound like sugar. Be on the lookout for brown rice syrup, corn syrup, malt syrup, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, sorbitol and maltodextrin. Natural sweeteners like maple syrup, molasses, honey and agave nectar are better for your health than refined sugars but should still be consumed in moderation. When cooking and baking, using half the amount of sweetener called for in a recipe is usually sufficient, as the American palette has become accustomed to overly sweet foods.
It’s easy to reach for convenience foods like granola bars, packaged chips and pretzels, fruit roll-ups and candy when you’re on-the-go, but it’s just as easy to pack along peanuts, almonds or cashews as a snack. Fruits like oranges, bananas and apples are easily tossed into a gym bag, diaper bag or purse, and with a little forethought and an insulated lunch bag, Greek yogurt, a mason jar of overnight oats, or even a container full of last night’s leftovers can last for a day outside the fridge.
Mind Your Beverages
There are plenty of natural drink options to replace sugary sports drinks and processed fruit juices. Water is most important, but for variety, try seltzer, fresh-squeezed fruit juices, herbal teas, kombucha, coconut water, coffee (minus the sugar and flavored creamer), organic milk or unsweetened nut milks.