Selecting foods that help prevent chronic disease and promote overall health can be difficult for consumers. Supermarkets stocked with packaged products displaying misleading nutrition claims and marketing messages may confuse people attempting to shop healthy. Learning more about the types of foods available is essential for selecting healthy groceries.
Foods are categorized as:
- Unprocessed or whole food
- Minimally processed foods
- Heavily processed foods
To promote health, choose whole or minimally processed foods that contain lots of nutrients without added ingredients or calories.
What is a Whole Food?
Whole food is grown in nature and not changed or manipulated from its original form before reaching your mouth. Whole foods include edible parts of plants (i.e., seeds, fruits, nuts, leaves, stems, roots) and animals (i.e., muscle, eggs, milk). These foods provide many essential nutrients your body needs to be healthy. Nutrients, including carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and water, are abundant in vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Meats lack fiber but contain all the nutrients mentioned above with the addition of protein and healthy fats.
- Fiber is a structural component that cannot be digested by our bodies. Therefore, it keeps us full longer by slowing food from the stomach to the intestines. Consequently, the fiber in your diet may prevent overeating and hunger in between meals. Foods high in fiber fill you up for fewer calories, helping you reach and maintain a healthy weight. Eating too little fiber may be associated with chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and joint problems. The American Heart Association recommends adults eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts to reach 25 – 30 grams of fiber each day.
- Antioxidants prevent harmful, highly reactive, free radical molecules from damaging cells. Free radicals are unbonded oxygen molecules that are produced naturally during digestion or physical activity. Free radicals can also form in the body when exposed to external stressors like tobacco smoke or UV radiation. Antioxidants bind to free radicals, therefore neutralizing their reactivity and threat to the body. Lower the risk of cell damage associated with many chronic diseases by eating fresh fruits and vegetables to keep free radical and antioxidant levels balanced.
- Vitamins and Minerals are two essential nutrients the body needs to survive and stay healthy. Vitamins and minerals are compounds that support growth and development, strengthen the immune and nervous systems, regulate cellular processes, and help extract energy from food. Eating a varied diet of whole foods helps to get enough of these nutrients.
- Water is essential to human life. It is necessary for the building material of cells, cleansing toxins, regulating body temperature, eliminating by-products from metabolism, and lubricating joints. Water is also essential for managing weight because it increases feelings of fullness and regulates digestion. Whole foods often contain lots of water and may contribute up to twenty percent of the body’s daily water requirement.
- Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are one of three macronutrients – along with protein and healthy fats – that your body requires daily to fuel your major organs and nervous system. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 suggests that most adults get 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
- Protein serves as the building material for every cell and tissue in the body. Protein also creates enzymes that digest food, hormones that control metabolism, and antibodies that fight sickness. Consuming protein helps regulate blood sugar and weight as it slows the digestion of carbohydrates in other foods and keeps the stomach full longer.
- Healthy Fats help absorb vitamins and minerals and are a significant source of energy for the body. Healthy fats are also components in cell membranes and necessary for blood clotting, muscle movement, organ protection, and body-temperature regulation.
Unsaturated fats are considered healthy fats; unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature and found in other whole foods such as avocado or nuts.
Understanding the importance of including whole foods in the diet is the first step to selecting foods that promote health. Knowing where to find whole foods in the grocery store is the second. Shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store narrows your options to exclusively whole foods. Additionally, look for items with no ingredient labels or labels that only have one ingredient listed.
Example: An orange is a whole food. It comes from nature and has not been changed. Oranges are healthy because they contain lots of fiber, Vitamin C, minerals, and water.
What is a Minimally Processed Food?
A minimally processed food begins as whole food. It is then changed from its natural state during washing, cutting, freezing, cooking, canning, blending, packaging, or combining these. Minimally processed foods may be altered to extend shelf life; notably, this alteration does not drastically change the nutritional content. Minimally processed items contain no or few added ingredients, making them close to or even equally healthy in many cases. For reference, pre-washed salads packaged in plastic bags are “minimally processed” because they contain cut, washed, and assembled vegetables but are equally healthy to a salad made from similar portions and ingredients.
Example: Orange juice is not a whole food because it has been changed from its original form. Orange juice has been squeezed from oranges, resulting in a loss of fiber and a higher sugar concentration. Orange juice is healthy but not relatively as healthy as a fresh orange.
Not all Processing is Created Equal – What is a Heavily Processed Food?
Not all processing is equally good or bad for your body and is more accurately described on a “processing gradient” where minimal processing is better for your health than heavy processing. Heavily processed foods are transformed far from their original state. Heavy processing occurs when foods are combined with additional ingredients like sugar, salt, preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners, colors, and saturated fats that extend shelf life but alter the nutritional content. Heavy processing often sacrifices vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health-promoting nutrients for added calories, fat, and salt. Food labels on these items contain long lists of ingredients that are usually synthesized in a laboratory. Heavily processed foods often contain synthetic and artificial additives that only mimic the aroma or taste of natural foods without substantive nutrients.
Example: Orange soda does not exist in nature, which means it is not a whole food. It is a heavily processed food containing carbonated water, sugar, artificial flavoring, artificial dye, and preservatives. Orange soda is unhealthy because it is filled with sugar, artificial ingredients, and zero nutrients.
Appealing advertising, packaging, and taste of heavily processed foods, such as chips or ready-made frozen meals, often grabs attention and encourages overconsumption. Consistently eating these foods over time may desensitize taste buds to sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Overconsumption of these foods can be dangerous. For example, eating excess salt may increase blood pressure and associated risk of heart disease and stroke. Heavily processed foods with higher sugar, salt, and fat content also contain more calories, leading consumers to potentially gain weight and develop high cholesterol or diabetes.
A study published in 2019 by the National Institutes of Health found that diets primarily composed of heavily processed foods encouraged people to overindulge, consume more calories per day, and gain significant weight compared to a diet rich in whole and minimally processed foods. Study participants that ate a diet of heavily processed foods ate an excess of 508 calories per day on average and gained two pounds in two weeks. On the contrary, study participants that ate a diet high in whole foods lost an average of two pounds over the same two weeks.
Heavily processed foods are designed to make meals convenient and cheap for the consumer at the expense of their nutrients. It is crucial to consider the tradeoffs made when consistently choosing heavily processed foods over whole foods. Although these foods’ price is often lower now, the negative impacts they have on your health may be costly in the future.
Tips for Finding a Healthy Balance
Heavily processed foods are not the best choice for health, but this does not mean they have to be excluded entirely from the diet. Attempt to identify balance in the diet by eating these foods occasionally and in moderation. For example, drinking soda on Saturdays instead of every day of the week may be a sustainable alternative to cutting out soda entirely. Establish healthy boundaries and remember that heavily processed foods can compromise nutritional content and long-term health. Eating a diet primarily of whole foods will give the body nutrients it needs while still allowing processed foods occasionally. Thus, a balanced diet includes various whole and minimally processed foods with every effort made to reduce or abstain from heavily processed foods.
See below for tips on how to select more whole foods.
- Find local farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets. Local markets often offer exclusively fresh produce at discounted prices. It is easier to avoid processed foods when they are not available!
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store where whole foods are located. Exploring middle aisles last can help avoid unnecessary purchases when there is limited space in the cart.
- Establish the habit of inspecting food labels to understand what the product contains. Examining food labels helps make informed decisions about the types of foods being put into the body. Consider the following when reading food labels:
- The ingredients are listed by order of weight, meaning the ingredient that makes up most of the food is listed first.
- Look for unhealthy additions such as sugar, salt, and fat. Be aware that these ingredients may be listed by alternative names. For example, sugar has many names: corn syrup, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, agave syrup, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup, molasses, or sugar molecules ending in “ose” (i.e., dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose).
- If you are unsure of an ingredient listed on a label, use this website to determine its function: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fdcc/?set=FoodSubstances.
- Build your meals around the vegetables you plan to use. Try your best to fill half your plate with vegetables. A serving of chopped raw vegetables is ½ cup, and a serving of leafy greens is 1 cup. To increase the amount you eat each day, think in two’s: two servings in the morning, two at lunch, and two with dinner. Both https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ and https://fruitsandveggies.org/recipes/ offer a variety of vegetable-friendly recipes and healthy eating tips.
- Swap heavily processed foods for minimally processed options. Try making a vinaigrette using olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, and spices instead of buying packaged salad dressings. Roast whole chicken or turkey in place of deli sandwich meat for fewer additives and sodium.
- Eat at home more often. It is easier to control portion sizes and limit processed food when preparing meals at home. According to this study (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/div-classtitlethe-impact-of-restaurant-consumption-among-us-adults-effects-on-energy-and-nutrient-intakesdiv/146DE384020C4E102072BE0F10F05AAB), people receive less nutrition from their food and consume more calories, saturated fat, and sodium when eating away from home. The study also indicated those eating regular meals at home ordered more nutritious, less calorie-dense meals when eating out. Get motivated to eat at home by making cooking an enjoyable experience (i.e., listen to music or encourage children to help). The latter can have cascading generational effects! If you are interested in learning more about cooking or would like to sharpen your kitchen skills, explore this website: https://extension.usu.edu/createbetterhealth/cook/cooking-skills.
- Grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs at home. Gardening establishes a connection to the food, which may encourage healthier eating. The Home and Garden Information Center, powered by Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, has all the information you need to begin your harvest.
- American Heart Association. 2018. Sugar 101. [online] Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sugar-101 [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- Brenner Children’s Wake Forest Baptist Health. 2014. Vitamins and Minerals. [online]Available at: https://www.brennerchildrens.org/KidsHealth/Teens/Food-and-Fitness/Nutrition-Basics/Vitamins-and-Minerals.htm [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- Cleveland Clinic. 2019. Improving Your Health With Fiber. [online] Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14400-improving-your-health-with-fiber [Accessed 1 July 2020].
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- Hall, K.D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K.Y., Chung, S.T., Costa, E., Courville, A., Darcey, V., Fletcher, L.A., Forde, C.G., Gharib, A.M., Guo, J., Howard, R., Joseph, P.V., McGehee, S., Ouwerkerk, R., Raisinger, K., Rozga, I., Stagliano, M., Walter, M., Walter, P.J., Yang, S., Zhou, M. (2019). Ultra-Processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131(19)30248-7
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- Harvard School of Public Health. 2020. Fiber. [online] Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/ [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- Harvard School of Public Health. 2020. Processed Foods and Health. [online] Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/ [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 2013. Antioxidants: In Depth. [online] Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- Nguyen, B.T., Powell, L.M. (2014). The impact of restaurant consumption among US adults: effects on energy and nutrient intakes. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/div-classtitlethe-impact-of-restaurant-consumption-among-us-adults-effects-on-energy-and-nutrient-intakesdiv/146DE384020C4E102072BE0F10F05AAB
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- The Regents of the University of California. 2005. Be a Protein Pro. [online] Available at: http://www.dining.ucla.edu/housing_site/dining/SNAC_pdf/ProteinPro.pdf [Accessed 1 July 2020].
- Victoria State Government. 2020. Water – a Vital Nutrient. [online] Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/water-a-vital-nutrient [Accessed 1 July 2020].