Introduction to Whole Foods

Why and How to Start a Whole Foods Diet

The idea of a whole foods diet is to eat foods as naturally as possible, with as few additives as possible, too. As Michael Pollan, author of books like In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley once said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This article will explore the concept of whole food further and will hopefully inspire you to eat a more organic, natural diet that is more sustainable for you and the earth. 


What are whole foods?

At the very core, the whole food diet is based on these basic concepts:

  • Choose foods that are as close to their original, simple form as possible
  • Avoid chemical additives either during the growing or processing of the foods
  • Look for foods that are in season and grown as locally as is feasible
  • Buy in bulk rather than pre-packaged

Walk through any veggie garden or orchard and you’ll know what a whole food is by firsthand experience (sadly, most children have never seen a garden or even know where fruits, veggies, and grains come from). And contrary to what you might initially think, whole foods are not designer foods available only through upscale boutique grocery stores. Not only can you grow whole foods yourself, you can buy them from the produce section of the supermarket, available anywhere in the country through a wide variety of distributors.

Want a good way to tell a whole food from one that’s not? Check to see how long it takes for the food to rot. Whole foods, because they are not chemically treated and may contain good microorganisms that break food down in due time, will tend to go bad more quickly than processed and packaged foods. But the benefits of organic whole foods far outweigh this minor inconvenience.


Ecological and health benefits of a whole food diet

Sure a TV dinner might satisfy your immediate hunger and satiate your craving for salt, but will it actually meet your body’s nutritional needs? Not only may your heath be compromised but the planet as well. Let’s explore all of the ways whole foods benefit human health[1] and environmental health.

  • Higher in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients: With intact, natural foods, you’re getting the benefit of the nutritional components before they’re broken down, cooked, treated, and pressed into processed forms of food. It’s the difference between a bowl of real blueberries and a blueberry breakfast hot pocket - which do you think will have more nutrition?
  • Healthier immune system and protection from disease: Studies have shown that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in their most whole forms reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other health problems. That’s because they’re high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other disease-busting nutrients. Even frozen whole vegetables and fruits can be as health (and sometimes healthier) than processed foods because they’re flash-frozen immediately after being picked to lock in their nutritional benefits.
  • Fewer toxins and poisons entering the soil and water: Organically-grown whole foods are better from the start because they avoid agrochemicals. 
  • Smaller carbon footprint: Whole foods grown organically result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and if you’re buying whole foods locally, you’ll be reducing the miles your food has to travel from farm to table. Learn more about this in ecolife's Guide to Eating Local
  • Less packaging: Processed foods are often overpackaged in plastic, cardboard, Styrofoam, and so on, much of which is not recycled (and some of which is not recyclable). Whole foods can be purchased in reusable totes, reducing the waste per meal significantly. 

So as you can see, the cards are definitely stacked in favor of whole foods. If you haven’t yet made the switch, start to reconfigure your diet to a whole food-based one and you’ll soon discover the many benefits.


How to buy healthier whole foods

So, how do you fill your shopping cart with natural, organic whole foods? These are our top tips for creating a whole food diet that’s healthier for everyone:

  1. Read labels especially when buying packaged foods. Choose only those that are made with five ingredients or less. Definitely stay away from those that are made with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Learn more with our How to Read Food Labels article. 
  2. Use the grandmother test: eat only those foods that she would recognize as foods.
  3. Buy close to the source as much as possible - farmers markets are great resources for this purpose, as are CSAs (community supported agriculture). If you can’t purchase a particular vegetable or fruit fresh from a local source, choose frozen or canned instead, but as a last resort. 
  4. Choose organic foods that are grown without the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
  5. Eat mostly plants and limit how much meat, poultry, and seafood that you consume.
  6. When shopping for meats and fish, choose options that are unprocessed (look for chicken breasts rather than chicken nuggets, in other words).



1 The Benefits of Healthy Whole Foods. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2010, from WebMD:

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