Quality rather than quantity. Heh? That’s a cliché. But oh, so true! You have probably heard that processed foods are bad for you and whole foods are good for you. This article explores the difference between them, and also has suggestions on how to include the healthy whole foods in your diet and maximise your nutrient intake.
There are two types of foods, nutrient dense foods and energy dense foods, and that is the quintessential difference between whole and processed foods.
Energy Dense Foods
Energy dense foods contain many calories (the measure of energy content) compared to their number of nutrients. For example, if you were to eat one 219g McDonald’s Big Mac, it contains 563 calories, a whopping 28% of your daily recommended caloric intake. Now that is a lot of calories for just one hamburger that will only be one part of one of your daily meals.
It also contains Vitamin C, 1% of your suggested daily intake, folate at 25% of your suggested daily intake and magnesium at 11% of your suggested daily intake (amongst other nutrients). The ratio of energy to nutrients is comparatively low, and one can imagine that this isn’t the healthiest choice.
Nutrient Dense Foods
Nutrient dense foods contain many nutrients compared to the number of calories. For example, if you were to eat a 100g portion of spinach, it contains 188% of your suggested daily Vitamin A intake, 604% of your suggested daily Vitamin K and 49% of your suggested daily folate intake (amongst other nutrients). The total number of calories is 23, 1% of your daily recommended caloric intake. The ratio of nutrients to energy is comparatively high and is obviously a healthier choice than a Big Mac!
Comparison of Big Mac and Spinach
In order to understand why the Big Mac is energy dense and the spinach nutrient dense, let us understand how they are treated differently before they get to us. The bun, cheese and burger are ultra-processed foods. They undergo heavy industrial processes, which strips the food of its nutrients and totally alters its composition. The spinach leaves are harvested and packed, and that’s how they reach our tables, in their natural state.
What are whole foods, and how to include in my diet?
A whole food is defined as a natural food, especially an unprocessed one – fruit or vegetable (MerriamWebster.com). Ultimately that is a food with one ingredient, or very few ingredients, which haven’t undergone heavy industrial processes.
Examples include fresh meats, fish and eggs, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and plain dairy products – all examples of nutrient dense foods. We do end up eating food which is “processed” even on a whole food diet – any form of cooking, blending or drying etc., is considered a form of processing, but that is healthy and tasty. What we are concerned about in terms of processing is the ultra-processing of foods, which are extracted from whole foods and then have chemicals, dyes or preservatives added, and have few nutrients remaining.
In order to eat a whole food diet:
- Keep food preparation simple and use few ingredients per dish (less is more).
- When eating out, pick simple choices, like a salad, plain meats etc.
- Shop at your local farmers market, for seasonal, fresh and delicious produce.
- Don’t go into the aisles of the grocery store – the simple, healthy foods are at the perimeter.
- Processed salamis, meats and sausages, fish sticks, chicken fingers
- Juices, fruit concentrates, jams with sugars and additives and canned fruits in syrup
- Salted and roasted nuts, potato chips and similar snacks
- Sweets, candies, chocolate and gum
- Bought sauces and marinades etc.
- All store-bought energy dense foods, are processed!