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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jill King

What Counts as Whole Food?

Eating more whole food could be easier than you think.

What makes a whole food?

The whole foods checklist:

  • You can recognize what whole foods used to be.

  • Whole foods don't come in any packaging, other than what's necessary to keep them from leaking or rolling around.

  • Whole foods typically don't have ingredient labels.

  • Whole foods take the minimum number of steps to get to you.

  • Most whole foods go bad fairly quickly.


The processed foods checklist:

  • You generally can't recognize what processed foods used to be.

  • Processed foods come in packages such as bags or boxes.

  • Those bags or boxes have ingredient labels.

  • Processed foods take many steps to get to you.

  • Processed foods will keep for a long time.

  • Processed foods are easy to find at places that aren't grocery stores.

What counts as a "whole food"?

Whole foods include:

  • fresh vegetables

  • fresh fruits

  • fresh meats and poultry

  • fresh fish and seafood

  • nuts and seeds

  • beans and lentils

  • whole intact grains

  • minimally processed dairy (e.g. fresh plain yogurt)

But what about stuff that's in between?

Maybe it comes in a bag or box or bottle, but it's still pretty close to what it used to be.

For example:

  • canned tomatoes

  • frozen peas

  • cold-pressed virgin oils

  • fresh juices—if they've been made right in front of you (pre-bottled ones don't count—they're still highly processed, even if they claim "fresh-squeezed taste")

  • dried beans or lentils

  • coffee or tea

To decide what counts for you, consider:

  1. What are the ingredients?

  2. How many steps did this food take to get to me? (If you don't know, it's probably worth finding out.

If the answers are:

  • One or two things

  • Not very many

3. ...then you can call it a "whole food".

If the answers are:

  • Added, non-whole food ingredients

  • Quite a few

4. ...try to find an alternative option.

What about eating on the road?

One of the best "travel food" sources appears all over the industrialized world: a grocery store or market.

You won't always be able to buy fresh, local organic produce but you can usually score at least a few items that meet the whole foods criteria, such as a bag of baby carrots or an apple.

Especially if you're traveling…

  1. Think ahead.

  2. Anticipate, plan, strategize.

  3. Stay creative.

  4. Look for options and unfamiliar opportunities.

This is the way of the whole food warrior.

Build your own whole foods

You could use this information to try a few new things and get creative with your menus for the next several days.

For instance:

  • If you'd like to use flour for a recipe, try grinding it yourself. Use a coffee grinder and throw in some whole intact grains. This has the added benefit of letting you get creative—try wild rice or quinoa flour!

  • If you’d like to have tomato sauce, dump some tomatoes into the blender.

  • If you want jam, cook up some fruit.

Figuring out how to transform whole foods into some of your familiar favorites helps build your cooking skills. It's a wholesome win-win.

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