Whole Foods Vs. Processed Foods: What's the Difference & Why It Matters

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You’ve likely heard terms like “clean eating,” “real food,” “natural,” and “unprocessed” in discussions about diet and healthy eating. But what do they mean, and what guidelines should you actually be following? In this post, we'll explore the difference between whole foods vs processed foods so you know the most nutrient-dense sources for a heathy diet.

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First, let’s talk terminology. Most of the cliché terms associated with a high-quality diet are just that: terms. They are words used to designate a healthy, highly nutritious diet. Rather than identifying your diet by a term, we want to establish a foundation of the types of foods that are most beneficial to you and your health. These foods are typically found in their whole and natural form; thus we will call them “whole foods.”

Now that that is out of the way, let’s jump into the good stuff.

For general purposes, we can look at foods in three main categories: whole, processed, and just plain fake.

Ok….just plain fake may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. “Fake” foods, as we’ll call them, are foods that are pretty obviously un-nutritious. These foods start with a small amount of a real ingredient, and then add a little artificial flavoring, some colorings, maybe a bit of a modified food starch. And viola! You have an edible substance that is actually pretty gross, yet strangely appealing. Think Cheetos, Coke, Skittles, etc. These foods have virtually no nutritional value, and consuming them can put you at risk for a whole host of health issues such as weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and allergies.

On the other end of scale are whole foods. Whole foods are also relatively easy to identify. These are the “real” foods (since we live in a world where we have to differentiate real vs fake) that are grown, nurtured and picked and have undergone little to no processing. Vegetables and fruits are the most commonly thought of whole foods, but meats, eggs, cheese, whole grains, and beans fit into this category as well. To think of whole foods as those things that are completely unprocessed is bit of a limited perspective. Some things, such as rice or cheese, do go through a small amount of a “process” to get them from their original source to their consumable source. These types of processes are acceptable and are often necessary to make the food accessible, more nutritious, and even more digestible. The important thing to remember is that whole foods retain the maximum benefits, e.g. fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and are unadulterated from additives, preservatives, or other chemicals.

Now we move on to the most deceptive of the categories: processed foods. Some processed foods are fairly easy to identify, such as white bread. Others are hiding under terms like “whole grain pasta” or “gluten-free crackers.” Processed foods are any foods that have been modified from their natural form and potentially blended with other foods or additives and chemicals. Many processed foods have been stripped of their maximum nutrient value to some varying degree.

Some processed foods are strictly “convenience processed.” A great example of this would be spaghetti sauce. Technically, pasta sauce is a processed food because the tomatoes have been peeled and cooked, and they have been mixed with other foods. In some cases, they may have also had flavor enhancers, preservatives, and other additives for color, taste, and shelf-life enhancement. If the sauce consists only of the highest quality, whole food ingredients and does not contain additives or preservatives, then it’s an acceptable food to eat. We buy it processed for the convenience of not having to cook it ourselves. While cooking your own food is the best option to maximize the level of nutrients, life’s demands don’t always allow for that. In these cases, processed foods serve a functional purpose in a healthy diet.

Other processed foods are processed for their appeal, whether that appeal be for taste, texture, marketing, or cost. Examples would be crackers, pasta, prepared frozen meals, pre-cut fruits and vegetables (especially if they have additives to keep them “fresh”), pre-hardboiled eggs, salad dressings, juices, etc. While some of this may seem like foods we buy processed for convenience, the loss of nutrient value is so great that it outweighs any benefit of convenience. The hardest part with this type of processed food is that marketing labels such as “whole,” “natural,” or “100%” make us feel like we’re getting nutritious foods. But no matter how you slice it (pun intended), whole grain bread does not have the same nutritious benefit or digestive effect on your body as eating whole rice or quinoa or wheat. And just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s nutritiously beneficial.

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It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the categories, especially when it comes to processed foods. The best way to ensure you’re eating well is to choose whole foods whenever possible!

  • Simply put…
  • Eat mostly whole foods.
  • Eat foods that don’t require marketing.
  • Choose convenience processed when necessary.
  • Foods you could cook at home with only ingredients you would use.
  • Limit other processed foods.
  • Foods that are “splurges” and don’t necessarily add anything beneficial to your diet. Your 10% foods.
  • Eliminate “fake” foods.

If that statement is terribly overwhelming to you, then our advice is to start where you can. Pick one or two foods you currently buy processed and replace them with their whole food counterpart. Slowly make changes as you feel comfortable making them.

Use this guide to help you swap out processed foods with whole foods.

Avoid Neutral Best
White Bread (refined enriched flours) Sprouted Breads or Homemade Bread (made from organic, whole grain, preferably gluten-free flours) Whole Grains (quinoa, brown/wild rice, farro)
Non Organic & Fat Free Dairy Organic, Grass-Fed, Full Fat Dairy Organic, Grass-Fed, Raw Dairy
Fat Free, Fruit Yogurts, Yogurt Tubes, Yogurt Drinks (yogurts marketed to children) Full Fat Plain Yogurt Organic Whole Plain Yogurt (no sugar added)
Pre-Hardboiled and Peeled Eggs, Egg beaters Free Range Eggs Organic, Free-Range Eggs
Juice from Concentrate Organic Juices, Not from Concentrate Fresh-Pressed Juices (refrigerator section), Fresh fruits, Kombucha
Gummy Snacks (corn syrup, food coloring, etc) Organic Gummy Snacks Organic Dried Fruits or Whole Fruits
Regular Table Salt Sea Salt Celtic Sea Salt or Himalayan Salt
Aspartame, Acesulfame K Saccharin, Xylitol, Sorbitol, Agave Nector Honey, Maple Syrup, Stevia Organic Raw Honey, Organic Maple Syrup, Organic Coconut Sugar
Pancake Mixes Pancake Mixes using high quality, organic ingredients and low levels of sugar Homemade using Whole Grain Flours (i.e. teff, buckwheat, etc)
Margarine, Canola Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn Oil, Vegetable Oil Grape Seed Oil, Sunflower Oil Extra Virgin Olive Oil (cold-pressed), Coconut Oil (cold-pressed), Butter (grass-fed), Nut Oils, Avocado Oil

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For inspiration on cooking with whole foods, browse through our flavorful, easy to follow recipes that nourish and satisfy.

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1 Comment

  1. Brittni

    I love this guide it's super helpful!

    Reply

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