From a plant-based diet to the Mediterranean diet, it can be confusing deciding what to eat to feel your best! While there’s no one-size-fits-all meal pattern that works for everyone, nutrition experts agree that most people can benefit from including more whole foods in their day-to-day routine. Looking at the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, these recommendations emphasize nutrient-dense foods and beverages that are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals, yet limited in additives like sugar and salt. Consuming more whole foods can be a great way to meet the Guidelines’ recommendations.
What Exactly Are Whole Foods?
Whole foods are items that are as close to their natural form as possible, meaning they’ve been minimally processed and don’t contain additives. Typically, if the food item doesn’t have a nutrition label, then it’s safe to say that it’s a whole food choice (think fresh vegetables, fruit or meat). However, with today’s busy lifestyle it’s almost impossible to avoid packaged foods. Don’t worry — you can still shift toward a whole food diet while including foods with nutrition labels. Items with nutrition labels can still be nutritious sources. Just be sure to take a look at the ingredients of packaged foods and opt for choices that have fewer ingredients and minimal processing. For instance, try to choose a “no-“ or “low-sodium added” can of green beans or a bag of frozen veggies without any sauces added.
Choosing whole foods can be beneficial because they can contain more nutrients than processed foods, specifically vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. They also tend to include fewer unnecessary ingredients like added sugar, trans fat or additives.
How Can I Choose More Whole Foods?
Figuring out how to include more whole foods in your diet can seem overwhelming at first, especially if you have a busy schedule. But there are many strategies that can help you make the shift.
1. Look for whole food versions of your favorite convenience items. Instead of fruit snacks, try fresh fruit, frozen fruit (without added sugar), freeze-dried fruit or even That's It bars. Choose granola bars like RXBAR or Larabar. Try topping your salad with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar rather than processed dressings. Rely on the pre-chopped vegetable section in the Produce department for healthy snacks or to help make cooking at home easier.
2. Take time to meal plan. Putting a little time into meal planning can help reduce mealtime stress, help you stick to a budget and cut back on food waste, all while allowing for more whole foods in your diet. When planning, be sure to be realistic with yourself — plan to have leftovers and leave room for flexibility.
3. Create homemade frozen meals. Who doesn’t love the convenience of frozen meals? Cooking large quantities at one time and storing them in your freezer for later can be a great way to enjoy the ease of frozen meals without all the extra ingredients. Some freezer-friendly dishes that can be made with whole foods include chili, egg bites or soup!
4. Take it one step at a time. It’s also important to make gradual changes. We often try to do too much at one time and can become frustrated. Instead, set realistic goals for yourself to help you make long-lasting, sustainable changes. Consider making a freezer meal once per month or swapping out one processed product for a whole food option each week. This strategy can make changing your habits more manageable.
5. Focus on progress, not perfection. Try to focus on change in your overall dietary pattern rather than perfecting each and every meal. It’s OK to enjoy processed foods every now and then (sometimes you just need to have some ice cream!), but keep in mind that it’s what you do most often that makes the most difference.