Whole Foods Can Help Us

Story by Rebecca Morley, for Montana 55

What are whole foods?
We may know we should eat more healthy whole foods, but sometimes we don’t know exactly what qualifies. Simply speaking, whole foods have been processed or refined as little as possible and are free from additives and artificial substances. According to a Food & Nutrition post titled Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods: Why Less Is Actually Better from Brittany Chin, RD, LD, whole foods are nutrient
dense and packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals without the added fat, sugar, sodium and preservatives often found in packaged goods.

Whole foods are close to nature. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables once grew in the soil or from trees and are minimally processed before consumption. Whole grains are edible seeds from plants that contain nutrient-rich endosperm, bran and germ, such as brown rice, quinoa, breads and cereals. A general rule of thumb from the USDA’s choosemyplate.gov website, is to make at least half of your grains whole. Choose products that have “whole grain” as the first ingredient. Basically, it’s the difference between an apple and apple juice, or whole oats and a box of store bought oatmeal cookies. Animal products should come directly from the source with limited processing for food safety (i.e. pasteurization of milk and eggs).

Healthy fresh vegetables in grocery display.

Healthy fresh vegetables in grocery display.

Energy dense, nutrient poor foods are often highly processed and packaged, with excess sugar, sodium and fat that negatively influence both health and the environment. Examples of these foods include sugar sweetened beverages, chips, candy, most “TV dinners” and pre-packaged bakery goods. Jennifer Poti, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, put together a research team that analyzed at least one year (the average was 4 years) of grocery store purchases by more than 157,000 households between 2000 and 2012. It was discovered that highly processed foods account for more than 60 percent of the calories in products Americans routinely buy in grocery stores. Studies like these illustrate we have lots of room for improvement in reducing the amount of processed foods in the typical American diet.

The nutrients lost during refinement are not the only disadvantage of eating processed foods. What’s added also can be a problem. Many health conscious people are wary of the preservatives and chemicals with multi-syllable words that are added to processed and manufactured foods. When we control all that goes into a dish, rather than purchasing prepackaged meal kits, we give up a little bit of convenience to assure that what we are eating contributes to our health.

How do whole foods benefit our bodies?
“If you’re trying to eat a healthier diet, relying on more whole foods is a great place to start,” says Lucia L. Kaiser, Ph.D., community nutrition specialist in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, in an article titled The Benefits of Healthy Whole Foods on webmd.com. She further states that nutrition science is always discovering new components of foods, things that we didn’t know are there. By eating whole foods, we get the entire benefit of the food that might not be available in the processed form. Whole foods can help boost our immune systems and help us stay healthier this winter.

Reduction of chronic disease. Many studies have found that a diet high in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, many types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Regular consumption of fruit and vegetables also
is associated with reduced risks for Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts and some of the functional declines associated with aging. Whole foods that contain significant amounts of nutrients may provide desirable health benefits beyond basic nutrition and may play an important role in the prevention of chronic
diseases.

Changes in the immune system with age. Unfortunately as we grow older, our immune system tends to slow down. The immune system is a network of cells that defends the body from foreign invaders, destroys infected and malignant cells, and removes cellular debris. Poor nutrition impairs the immune system, suppressing immune functions that are fundamental to health. This increases our risk of getting
sick. Flu shots or other vaccines may not work as well or protect you for as long as expected. We become more susceptible to autoimmune disorders, where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues. It may take longer to heal and there are fewer immune cells in the body to bring about healing. The immune system’s ability to detect and correct cell defects also declines which can increase cancer risk. Simple prevention measures, like getting enough sleep, washing our hands properly, exercising regularly, staying sufficiently hydrated and eating whole foods become even more important as we age.

Value of essential nutrients. Nutrient content is an important factor contributing to optimum immune function. When we eat lots of junk foods, we may be missing essential nutrients that keep us healthy and strong. Nutrients required for the immune system to function efficiently include essential amino acids, essential fatty acids like linoleic acid, vitamin A, folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, zinc, copper, iron and selenium. Our bodies are not able to fight disease effectively if there are deficiencies in one or more of these nutrients. By eating a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy, we can boost immune function and resistance to infection.

Phytochemicals and anti-oxidants. Whole foods are rich in phytochemicals which are powerful nutrients found in plant foods. In addition, whole foods contain anti-oxidants which help reduce damage by free radicals which are believed by many experts to be a factor in the development of blood vessel disease (plaque), cancer, and other conditions. Phytochemicals can also be anti-oxidants, examples of which
are flavonoids, carotenoids and lycopene. The effects of phytochemicals and anti-oxidants found in whole foods are additive and even synergistic, increasing their potency in fighting disease.

Value of probiotics. There is increasing evidence that probiotic bacteria improve host immune function. Therefore, eating probiotic rich foods like yogurt or Greek yogurt (it may be best to buy plain and add your own fruit, nuts or other favorite healthy flavors), kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and certain soft cheeses may help boost your immune system.

Most nutrients can be obtained by eating a variety of whole foods. Vitamin D, which is closely linked to the immune response, may be an exception to this rule, as it can be difficult to obtain adequate amounts from food alone. It may require additional supplementation depending on where you live geographically, the season of the year, the amountof time you spend in the sun, use of sunscreen and other highly individualized variables. Work with your health care provider, who may order a simple blood test to assure your vitamin D level is adequate. But be aware that taking excessive amounts of supplements can also impair immune function. Your nutrition needs can vary with time of life cycle and individual health needs, so follow your health care provider’s recommendations on supplementation.

Does this mean we should only eat whole foods?
No, we don’t need to cut out all processed foods. The goal is to decrease the number of processed foods and increase the proportion of healthy whole foods we regularly eat. Many foods are processed in some way before they reach our plates. Some actually need some processing to be edible and nutritious. Imagine chewing on wheat strands fresh from the field, raw artichokes or dried pinto beans. Hard, right? Processing can slow spoilage and make food storable. That becomes essential in emergency preparedness. Freezing the abundance of fruits and vegetables after the summer’s harvest allows people to continue to have fruits and vegetables available into the winter. Adding spices and mixing ingredients in a recipe adds to the enjoyment of food. The occasional indulgence in a baked good, an ice cream cone or your favorite chocolate bar may be good for the soul.

We all eat and drink a variety of foods on a daily basis, but as we face the winter months and the increased risk of disease, perhaps we should be thinking about the quality of our food first. Maybe we can reach for an apple and a handful of nuts, before we mindlessly grab that bag of caramel corn from the vending machine; or we might enjoy a nice soothing cup of herbal tea, before we gulp down a
double white-chocolate mocha from our favorite coffee shop. Whole foods can satisfy our palate while enhancing our health. Regular consumption of whole foods, in place of junk foods, has the added bonus of helping us keep our waistlines trim. Add on some daily exercise and even in gray weather, we have an increased forecast for health.

Rebecca Morley provides nutrition services through the Eat Smart Program at the Missoula City-County Health Department and can be reached at 258-3827 or at rmorley@missoulacounty.us.

Comments (1)

Add a comment
  1. April 5, 2017
    Eating more whole foods will help you cut down on calories from the added fats and sugars we get from processed and fast foods. You might think the benefits of whole grains have mostly to do with fiber, but there's so much more than that. Reply

Add a comment