What Are You Putting in Your Body? The Difference between Whole and Processed Foods

By Nicole Martinez, Clinical Nutritionist Educator

The phrase “you are what you eat” was coined in the early 1800s by a French lawyer, but didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1920s after a doctor strongly believed that food influenced health. The philosophy re-emerged in the 1960s during the organic-food movement as more and more evidence supported the idea.

Today, many people live by this philosophy for the simple, or not so simple, choices we make every day about what to eat and put in our bodies.

What makes whole foods “whole” and processed foods “processed”?

Whole foods are generally characterized as foods that have not been processed, refined or had ingredients added to them. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meat, fish and eggs. Think of food that you look at and recognize as something that exists in nature, like broccoli, a fish or a potato. In addition to a whole-foods diet, some people may eat a whole-foods, plant based diet, which simply excludes animal foods, like meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

Processed foods have undergone a change of character. Foods are processed for many reasons including to extend shelf life, make them more convenient, alter their nutritional composition and make them taste, look or smell different. Determining what is processed can get tricky – it’s helpful to think of processed foods on a scale ranging from minimally processed to heavily processed. Prewashed or precut fruits or vegetables have been minimally processed, whereas turning a beet into a beet chip requires more processing – people may not know that the final chip actually came from a beet.

Health impacts – nutrient dense vs. empty calories

The vitamins and minerals abundant in whole foods are the necessary raw materials that our bodies depend on daily. We also get the benefits of fiber and phytonutrients, which protect against chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Whole foods are considered “nutrient dense,” meaning they contain a variety of nutrients, while foods that are heavily processed are considered to contain “empty calories.”

Eating a diet mainly composed of heavily processed foods, or empty calories, supplies us with excessive calories, sugar, fat and sodium, and tends to be low in fiber and phytonutrients. These can negatively impact our bodies and play a role in the development of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and certain types of cancer.

Should you avoid processed foods?

Completely avoiding processed foods for health reasons isn’t typically necessary – incorporating some minimally processed foods can actually help individuals eat healthier overall.

Some people also think about the environmental impact when choosing food – what is good for us tends to be easier on our planet. Eating more whole and less-processed foods can help reduce your carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. The most environmentally friendly choice would be to adopt a whole-foods, plant-based diet, but even small changes can have a big impact.

Look at the ingredients

The best way to get an idea of the amount of processing a food has undergone is by looking at the ingredient list. A list with one or two ingredients may indicate a less-processed food, and a longer ingredient list typically means more processing. If you are still unsure after reading the ingredient list, the Environmental Working Group scores foods based on nutrition, ingredients and processing concerns.

Learn more about the Environmental Working Group and the processing of foods at ewg.org/foodscores [1].

Nicole Martinez is a Clinical Nutritionist Educator at Mission Weight Management.

Learn more about Mission Weight Management program and services at missionweight.org [2] or call 828-213-4100.

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