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What Is a Whole Foods Diet?

A whole foods diet is a way of life versus a temporary diet. Because this lifestyle emphasizes healthy, real foods, those switching to a whole foods diet from a standard American diet high in processed foods and saturated fats may lose weight and improve their overall health.

What Can You Eat?

A whole foods diet is not a specific eating plan and can be interpreted in many ways. In general, the idea is to favor whole foods as much as you can: potatoes instead of potato chips, grilled chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets, and so on.

When purchasing food outside the produce department or butcher and seafood counters, you will read labels and look for artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives. Those are foods to be avoided.

What You Need to Know

While the breadth of what you can eat on a whole foods diet is surprisingly broad—meat, cheese, grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, and more—there are a few tell-tale markers of foods that don't fit the bill.

For instance, many ready-to-eat foods such as frozen meals, soda, baked goods, and candy may be packed with artificial ingredients, such as coloring, preservatives, and flavorings. You'll also want to steer clear of any foods containing added sugars. Anything including from this list of hidden sugars is not a whole food (although honey is an exception).

Another gray area in a whole foods diet is meat and poultry, which often contain antibiotics and hormones. Some people may choose organic animal products only or avoid them entirely, but it's really up to an individual's preference. Similarly, some proponents of a whole foods diet would avoid canned beans, preferring to soak dry beans and prepare them at home.

What to Eat

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Nuts, seeds, and beans

  • Milk and some dairy products

  • Meat, poultry, and seafood

  • Minimally processed foods

What Not to Eat

  • Prepared and ready-to-eat foods

  • Heavily processed foods

  • Refined carbohydrates

  • Foods with added sugars

Fruits and Vegetables

In their original state, these are all whole foods. Those that are canned or frozen without additives (such as sweetened water) also retain their nutritional value. Fruit Roll-Ups, fruit drinks, and veggie chips, however, are not whole foods. Corn on the cob is a whole food, while Corn Flakes or anything that includes high fructose corn syrup or other molecules derived from corn is not.

Milk and Dairy Products

Milk is a whole food (although some would argue that only raw, unpasteurized milk is technically "whole"). Processed cheese is not. Regular cheese and yogurt are minimally processed, with the "processing" caused mainly by bacteria, molds, etc.

Minimally Processed Foods

This term refers to foods that are pre-prepared for convenience, including washed salad greens, sliced fruits, and so on. It could also include canned and frozen items, as long as they don't have additives such as sugar or salt. Also, note that some food additives are added for their nutritional benefit, such as calcium and vitamin D added to fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Refined Carbohydrates

Brown rice, quinoa, and barley are whole foods. Products that include refined carbohydrates or processed grains such as puffed rice, brown rice syrup, or anything made with white flour are not. Grinding grains into flour makes them more glycemic and eliminates their resistant starch.2

Prepared and Ready-to-Eat Foods

These could be anything from jarred pasta sauce to potato chips to cookies to deli meat—foods that are prepared in a commercial kitchen or factory and delivered to your supermarket or convenience-store shelf.

Many prepared ready-to-eat foods may look like whole foods, but they often include extra ingredients used to change their taste and make them more shelf-stable, which means they are not. Those who follow a whole foods diet typically prepare most of their meals at home.

Sample Shopping List

It's not always easy to tell the difference between whole foods and those that are processed in some way. You've probably heard that shopping the perimeter of the grocery store helps you find the least processed products. You can also look for minimally processed options in the natural foods aisle of your supermarket.

The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on a whole foods diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy)

  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots)

  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)

  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, olive oil)

  • Whole grains (quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice)

  • Dried legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)

  • Meat and poultry raised without antibiotics or hormones

  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, cod, salmon, snapper, sea bass, shrimp)

  • Unprocessed dairy products (feta cheese, parmesan, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese)

  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

For those who rely on the convenience of packaged or pre-made meals, the idea of cooking meals from scratch using whole foods may seem daunting. Fortunately, there are countless, easy-to-follow recipes using just a few fresh ingredients that can be prepared in no time at all.

The following three-day meal plan is not all-inclusive but should give you a general sense of what a few days on a well-balanced whole foods diet could look like. If you do choose to follow the diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: 1 cup Breakfast Quinoa topped with fresh mixed berries and almonds

  • Lunch: 3/4 cup Avocado Chicken Salad served over greens; 1-ounce serving walnuts

  • Dinner: 1 3/4 cup Red Curry Lentil Soup With Kale

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Savory Spinach and Feta Oatmeal Bowl; 1/2 grapefruit

  • Lunch: 2 cups Mediterranean Chopped Salad; 1/4 cup homemade Roasted Red Beet Hummus with carrot sticks or sliced cucumbers

  • Dinner: Grilled Mediterranean Shrimp and Veggie Skewers; 1 cup cooked brown rice or barley

Day 3

  • Breakfast: California Summer Vegetable Omelet; fruit smoothie

  • Lunch: 3/4 cup Roasted Beet and Feta Salad; 1 cup Rainbow Vegetable Soup

  • Dinner: 4-ounce serving Oven-Baked Herbed Salmon; 2 cups spring mix salad greens with olive oil

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