By Dr Tim Crowe

Trying to eat healthier, but confused by mixed nutrition messages about what are the best foods to eat? Then the best place to start is by following one simple food guideline that has stood the test of time: eat more whole foods.

The term whole food normally means vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. But it can also apply to animal foods too. A chicken breast counts as being a whole food and is a much better choice than eating highly processed chicken nuggets. Whole foods are minimally processed healthy foods that are close to their natural state. Whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables are all very close to their natural state when eaten and come loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other essential nutrients.

The problem with processed foods

As the degree of processing and refining of a food increases, so too does the food’s nutritional value decrease. And with more processing, up goes the likelihood that less beneficial ingredients like fat, salt and sugar are added in. A quick guide to knowing if a food is ultra-processed is if it looks very different to how it was when in its original form. If so, then it’s more likely the food is highly processed. A long ingredient list on a pack can also be a sign of an ultra-processed food.

Why eat whole foods

There is no more consistent message from nutrition research than the health benefits of eating a diet containing plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes all in as close to their natural state as possible. Lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes are consistent benefits from eating a whole food diet.

Another advantage of eating mostly whole foods comes from the vast array of nutrients in them acting together. Whole foods are packed full of nutrients, fiber, and a host of other phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are natural compounds in plants linked to good health. The only way to make sure you are getting the thousands of phytochemicals we know about, as well as the ones not yet discovered, is to eat foods in their whole form.

When you eat a diet made up mostly of whole foods, it is easier to eat less of the unhealthy fats like trans fats and saturated fats, often added to ultra-processed foods and fast food. At the same time, you will be boosting the amount of healthier fats such as omega-3s oils from fish and plants and monounsaturated fat from plant sources such as avocado and nuts.

Tips for eating whole foods

Here are some smart food swaps to get more whole foods in your diet.

Instead ofTry this
Sugary breakfast cerealAdd banana or berries to a bowl of oats
Take away fast foodChicken and vegetable stir fry
Chocolate barA handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit
White breadWholemeal or whole grain bread
Fruit juiceWhole fruit