Nutrition 101: Choosing Whole Foods

Written by: Elizabeth Fay, MS, RD, CNSC

Registered Dietitian, Certified Nutrition Support Clinician

What do we mean when we say, “choose whole foods”? We encourage you to choose foods that are minimally processed, in their natural form. Whole foods usually contain the food’s original carbohydrate, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For example, we would encourage choosing a whole apple instead of apple sauce or apple pie. As you can see, the more processed a food is, the farther away it becomes from its whole food source. Processing typically means the addition of salt, sugar, fat, and/or preservatives. With more fiber and less sugar, sodium, and fat, whole foods typically keep you full longer and maintain better blood sugar and blood pressure control.


Even fruits and vegetables have their versions of whole and processed foods. As we know, whole fruit and vegetables are the typical ones we think about: oranges, peppers, grapes, eggplant, onion, spinach, strawberries, etc. However, there are some less healthful options for these fruits and vegetables. For example, spinach in your salad or in your tuna wrap is much more nutritious than a spinach and artichoke dip. Sautéed onions in your pasta or casserole provide natural fiber and vitamin C, while fried onion rings lose much of their nutrition and have added salt and unhealthful fats. Fruits can also have their whole and processed versions. Whole fruits such as peaches and pears are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, so choose fresh or frozen most often instead of canned peaches and pears in heavy syrup.


You will hear us encourage you to choose whole grains. Whole grains are exactly what they sound like; grains in their entire, unprocessed form. Examples of whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, oatmeal, and popcorn. These foods are complete and contain the three parts of the grain: bran, germ, and endosperm. We receive the benefits of whole grains because these grains ensure you receive the plant’s fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats. On the other hand, enriched or refined grains are not considered whole grains. Examples of enriched or refined grains include white rice, white bread, enriched spaghetti, pretzels, and saltine crackers. These grains have the bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. Unfortunately, with the bran and germ omitted, much of the fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals are also depleted. Choose oatmeal instead of sugar-sweetened cereal at breakfast and select farro instead of white rice for your favorite soup recipe.


You may be wondering which whole foods we should choose in the protein group. The protein food group contains a wider range of foods from chicken and eggs to beef and beans. Within the protein group, select foods that are the least processed. For example, choose grilled chicken over fried chicken nuggets. Sprinkle beans on your salad instead of adding sliced deli meats. Top your pasta dish with ground turkey instead of turkey sausage add then add some flavor by using fresh or dried herbs such as basil, oregano, and crushed red pepper. Choose grilled tofu instead of fried tofu for your stir-fry. Select whole almonds as a snack instead of salted almond butter.


Each food group has a range of foods from unprocessed to processed. Whole foods in the dairy food group are just the same. Unsweetened, plain Greek yogurt is an excellent whole food choice, rich in protein, calcium, and phosphorus. If you find unsweetened plain yogurt a bit too bitter for your taste, add a sprinkle of cinnamon with frozen berries on top! Processed foods in the dairy food group include frozen yogurt, sliced processed cheese, and sugar-sweetened chocolate soy milk.


If it seems like choosing whole foods increases your meal prep or cooking time, keep in mind that Nuleeu offers easy-to-prepare, nutritious recipes and meal plans. Cooking in bulk and freezing leftovers helps to put that extra effort in the kitchen to good use! If your dinner calls for quinoa, cook extra and take the leftovers in a veggie bowl for lunch the next day, or freeze for a quick weeknight stir fry. Knowing that you are choosing whole foods most often without added salt, sugar, and preservatives, will help to maximize your nutrition. Surprisingly, sometimes whole foods require less time and effort in the kitchen when compared to processed foods. Back to our apple example, if you’re craving something sweet for dessert, slicing an apple and sprinkling it with cinnamon and nutmeg is a quick and delicious snack. On the other hand, preparing an apple pie or crisp takes much more time in the kitchen. The key to good nutrition is balance and moderation. Invest in your health by choosing minimally processed, whole foods most often to provide your body with the most nutrient-dense foods. Meet with your Nuleeu Registered Dietitian to discuss individual meal plans to help you incorporate more whole foods.


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