You've probably heard the term "whole foods" being thrown around in dietary circles and by nutrition experts in magazines or on TV.
They typically contain fewer calories and more nutrients than other foods we put in our body, meaning you can eat more of them and maintain a healthy diet.
Yet while that sounds like such a simple concept, many of the most straightforward details surrounding these choice consumables go unexplained.
So, what are whole foods and why are they such an important part of a healthy diet?
Whole Foods Explained
The good news is that it's easy to get your hands on whole foods. That's because they're foods that haven't been processed or refined before they're eaten.
Many of them can be found in your garden or your nearest shop - fruits and veggies, beans and legumes and grains like brown rice are considered whole because they haven't been altered from their natural state.
Therefore, whole foods don't contain additives like salts, fats or other preservatives that you'd find in processed and refined foods.
The only exception to the rule that whole foods are unaltered comes in the form of dairy products.
Pasteurisation is considered to be a process that doesn't affect the nutrients of the food, meaning that non-homogenised milks, yoghurts and cheeses are technically also whole.
As a rule of thumb, though, if it comes from the ground and it's untreated, you can safely assume you're eating a whole food.
Get the Most From Your Meal
There's a veritable smorgasbord of nutritional benefits to whole foods. Principally, eating them ensures that you gain the maximum amount of nutrients from your meal.
And it's not just us saying they're good for you - the Australian Dietary Guidelines highly recommend them too, as you'll discover in our healthy foods article.
When you consume items in their most natural condition, your body then receives enzymes and nutrients in their most unrefined state, before they can be processed, and without additives or preservatives.
This is far better for your health than eating foods that have been cut with added ingredients, colours and flavours.
For example, processed foods with extra sugar and salt added often contain more calories and are linked to obesity and high blood pressure in some people.
This is not typically the case for the whole versions, which contain only natural sugars and sodium and often have fewer calories and better nutritional properties than processed foods.
The Calorie Question
For this reason, whole foods can also drastically help you reach your weight-loss goals. Because they can be low in calories, they're a perfect supplement to exercise.
This, again, is because they're full of the kind of natural fuel your body loves, without all the added extras we don't actually need.
With this said, not all whole foods are low in calories, which explains why you can still be overweight with a healthy diet: avocados, for instance, often contain as many as 500 calories each.
More Nutrition for Your Dollar
Because whole foods are readily available in many supermarkets and other food stores, they score well for convenience, even if they might not come with microwave instructions!
And while they may have a shorter shelf life than many processed foods, they give much better nutritional value for money.
Choosing this kind of food is a great healthy eating habit to develop.
True, you may notice a difference in preparation time (nobody's denying it's much quicker to boil a packet of instant noodles than it is to prepare a full and nutritious meal), but your body will be the ultimate beneficiary of cooking with natural ingredients.
Whole Foods Vs Organic Foods
There's a distinction to be drawn between whole foods and organic foods, which are quite different. Organic foods are those that are free of antibiotics, growth hormones or other synthetic chemicals.
In the case of fruit and veg, "organic" refers to the absence of pesticides, bio-engineering and irradiation.
Whole foods are foods based on whole ingredients, with minimal processing, preservatives and additives. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products like low fat natural yoghurt and whole grains.
This means that while whole foods can be organic foods, it's not always the case. Some whole foods are not organic at all, and vice versa.
Organic farming is as much an ethical practice as a nutritional one, because it focuses on the humane treatment of animals as well as on soil and land health.
However, as yet there's little evidence to suggest that eating organic foods is better for you from a nutritional point of view, compared to a healthy balanced diet.
Studies show there are in fact no specific nutritional benefits to choosing the organic path as compared to the whole-food route.
It's important to remember that fruit, grains, dairy and vegetables should be an integral part of any diet, whether they're organically farmed or not.
Whole Foods are Good for you!
Ultimately, the biggest reason why whole foods are important is because they're unequivocally good for you.
They provide a natural, nutritional energy boost that hasn't been processed with additives or preservatives.
That means they're great for your body, great for your all-round health and great for weight loss!
You'll find more tips on how to gain the most from what you eat in our article on healthy nutrition.