Let’s talk about the difference between “whole” food (sometimes referred to as “real”) and “processed” or “manufactured” food. Sound like a clear distinction to you? According to some dietitians, it’s about as clear as mud. You probably still hear mixed messages about what’s what.

Scientific studies suggest that eating foods commonly referred to as “whole” is associated with the prevention of some major chronic diseases and, it is argued, some amount of healing. Eating mostly foods that are not considered whole pretty much defines the Standard American Diet (SAD; also referred to as the Western diet). It’s been associated with the rapid upward spiral of chronic disease and early death that’s constituting a major health crisis in the USA.

So, when you walk into a grocery store or market, you’ll want to be confident that you’re selecting whole food and avoiding processed/manufactured food. It’s a matter of providing the best conditions you possibly can for encouraging your body to heal and raising the quality of your life.

Most Obvious Characteristics of Whole Food

  • Find most whole food in the produce departmentColor produce in the grocery store
    • Grocers typically locate these around the outer edges of the store
    • Smaller grocers sometimes put their produce outside the market (on the sidewalk, for example)
    • And no, don’t include most simply-packaged baked goods in this category!
  • Your great grandparents’ diet as children very likely included these foods
  • It often lacks packaging of any sort, so it’s weighed at the counter before you pay for it
    • Packaging, if any, might be a wire twist-tie or rubber band, clear plastic wrapping, or butcher paper
  • It’s unrefined—includes no additives and is as close as possible to its natural state
  • Delivered from farms, lake, or ocean, whether it lived there as a plant or animal; examples include:
    • Apples
    • Avocados
    • Chickens
    • Eggs
    • Wild-caught tuna
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Whole wheat flour

But What If It Isn’t?

At Whole Food Healing for Aging, if it’s not whole food, then it’s “processed” or “manufactured” food. For processed food, the last stop before your store was industry, not the farm, lake, or ocean. It’s some combination of formerly whole food that’s been changed (processed) in a variety of ways that can make it unrecognizable from it’s former “roots” (hey, that was a pun!).

In contrast to whole food, here are some obvious characteristics of processed/manufactured food:

  • Grocers typically locate these food products among the supermarket aisles, themselves, where many products can be hard to tell apart without the help of signs marking the aislesJunk food aisle in a grocery store
  • Your great grandparents, when young, probably never even heard of these products
  • Processors/manufacturers have highly refined it and likely added any number of things—including sugar, salt, fat, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, plus a bunch of other chemicals most of us can’t even pronounce
  • Marketing departments often design fancy boxes, bottles, or bags with creative names and bold nutritional claims for them
    • Each package of a given product generally weighs the same amount
  • Delivered to your store from a manufacturing plant (not a green plant—that’s another pun); examples of such “products” include:

    • Apple Jacks®
    • Avocado dip
    • Breaded chicken patties
    • Egg substitutes
    • Fish fingers
    • Sweet potato pancake mix
    • Enriched white flour

NOTE — Having made these distinctions, the developed world—particularly the USA—has increasingly come to rely on “producing” animal-based products like beef, poultry, and dairy foods using processes that can compromise the nutritional goodness we historically expect of these foods. Because of this, I was hesitant to even list any animal foods here under the whole food umbrella. “Whole food” meat and dairy can be found, but you will have to look hard for it and be very wary of where it came from. Be sure to read my post about CAFOs (concentrated (or confined) animal feeding operations) and fish farming. There is increasing call (including by nutrition scientists) to minimize the amount of animal-based food in the diet and instead to focus on the greater benefits found in plant-based foods.

Categories: Whole Food

Dr. Paul

Dr. Paul Boyer specialized in science research & education throughout his career. He more recently developed a passion for nutrition as one way of coping with the invisible chronic health issue commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). He is a Senior Nutrition Specialist and belongs to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.


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