What are Whole Foods? Health Benefits, Food List & Meal Plan
A whole foods diet emphasizes natural and unprocessed foods. Learn about the benefits, what you can eat, and ideas for meals and snacks.
Many diets prescribe a set of rules and restrictions, making them unsustainable long-term. A whole foods diet is different because it’s not a fad diet but a lifestyle and overall approach to eating.
Eating a diet consisting of mostly whole foods or minimally processed foods can improve how you feel and help prevent health problems.
What Foods are Considered Whole Foods?
Whole foods are foods that have yet to be processed or processed minimally. Processed foods often contain added fat, sugar, and salt. Fat, sugar, and sodium can increase the risk of chronic disease when consumed in excess.
It’s important to know that most foods are processed to some degree. Cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, or nutritionally altered foods are considered “processed.” This includes fortified or enriched foods.
Anytime food is prepared or cooked, it is processed to some degree. Roasted pistachios, bagged lettuce, or boiled brown rice have all been processed, even if only mildly. However, these minimally processed foods are okay to eat when following a whole foods diet.
Whole foods are highly nutritious, containing abundant essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They provide the nutrition the body needs without additives and artificial flavorings.
Nutritious foods are the foundation of a healthy diet. It is preferable to consume essential nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements. Examples of whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
What is a Whole Foods Diet?
A whole foods diet is a long-term, sustainable way of eating and part of a healthy lifestyle.
This eating style is mostly plant-based or “plant-forward.” This means plants are the main focus of meals and snacks instead of just an afterthought. However, you do not have to be vegan or even vegetarian, but it does mean that you eat more plants than other food items.
A whole foods diet also limits refined and processed foods and animal products. Most of the diet should come from foods that are in their natural state when you buy them, or at least close to their natural state. For example, if you’re buying frozen corn, check the ingredients label to ensure that corn is the only ingredient.
Lightly processed foods like yogurt and cheese can be included as part of a whole foods diet, as well as canned and frozen fruits and vegetables that do not contain added sugar and salt. Meat may also be included as part of a whole foods diet but should only account for a minimal part of your intake.
Highly processed foods like frozen pizza, fast food, packaged snacks, and microwaveable dinners should be limited when following a whole foods diet. These foods are often high in added sugar, saturated fats, and sodium.
Excess sodium, saturated fat, and sugar intake may increase the risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.1,2,3
Whole vs. Processed Foods
Whole foods are foods that have not been processed, refined, or altered in any way. Examples of whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meat, fish, and eggs.
Processed foods have undergone substantial modification, altering their natural state. Processing also strips foods of essential nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Processing methods may include bleaching and the addition of preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, and ingredients that enhance palatability, like saturated fats, added sugar, and sodium.
Unprocessed whole foods are nutrient-dense, providing abundant vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Fiber increases fullness and helps regulate appetite. Unfortunately, food processing often removes these important nutrients that have potential protective properties against health problems.
Processed foods are highly palatable and often high in calories but low in protein and fiber, both of which help increase satiety. Highly-processed foods don’t provide substantial nutrition and often leave you feeling hungry soon after. This can lead to excess calorie intake, which over time, can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.4
Excess saturated fat intake has been linked to elevated cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, and heart disease.2
7 Health Benefits of Eating Whole Foods
There are several benefits to eating a balanced diet consisting of mostly plant-based, whole foods. Keep reading to learn how adopting this lifestyle can improve your health and wellness.
Whole foods provide many essential nutrients that the body needs. They are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and phytonutrients; things that processed foods just don’t have.
Sure, you can take supplements to increase your intake of these nutrients, but studies show that in many instances, vitamins and minerals found in food are easier to absorb than those in supplement form. Eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods provides greater benefits than opting for supplements and a diet high in ultra-processed foods.5
2. Supports chronic illness prevention
Adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.
One study found that those who followed a plant-based diet rich in whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, had a notably lower risk of developing heart disease than those following non-plant-based whole foods diets.6
Research also suggests that following a whole foods diet may also reduce your risk of certain types of cancer.7,8
In many studies, higher intakes of fruits and vegetables have been strongly associated with reduced cognitive decline.9
A review of data found that eating more fruits and vegetables led to a 20 percent reduction in the risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia.10
A whole foods diet may also help prevent diabetes.11
3. Supports chronic disease management
In addition to preventing chronic disease, eating whole foods can help manage existing health conditions.
The phytonutrients and antioxidants found in whole, plant-based foods have been shown to slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases and even reverse cognitive deficits.9
Plant-based diets have also been shown to improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.12
4. Promotes healthy weight
Most diets are not sustainable long-term, and many weight loss efforts often lead to weight regain.13
A whole foods diet is a sustainable way to promote a healthy weight. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are high in fiber which helps increase fullness and regulate appetite.14,15
A whole foods diet also reduces the intake of processed foods high in saturated fats and added sugar, which aids in weight reduction and weight management.
5. Improves gut health
A whole foods diet is high in fiber. Eating a variety of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables makes you more likely to reach your recommended daily fiber intake.
High fiber intake is associated with lower rates of chronic disease, improved digestion, and better gastrointestinal health. Dietary fiber fuels good gut bacteria, creating a healthy microbiome.
6. Boosts the immune system
A whole foods diet supports a strong immune system. Eating various foods from different food groups provides a range of nutrients, including vitamin C, zinc, and selenium.
A diet high in ultra-processed foods, which are limited in this eating plan, may negatively affect gut health and increase inflammation, which may negatively affect your immune system.18
7. Good for the environment
Switching to a plant-based diet not only benefits your health but can also help protect the environment. Whole foods diets that emphasize plant-based ingredients are more environmentally friendly than diets that rely heavily on mass-produced animal products and produce.16
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more: </strong> <a href="/blog/fruits-vegetables-colors">Fruits And Vegetables: Eating Colors For Optimal Health</a>.</p>
The Ultimate Whole Foods List
Foods to eat on the whole foods diet
- Whole grains (steel cut or old-fashioned oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, farro, bulgur)
- Fruits (fresh, canned, or frozen without added sugar or syrups)
- Non-starchy vegetables (asparagus, green beans, bell peppers, etc; fresh, canned, or frozen without added salt and preservatives)
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, corn)
- Fatty fish
- Plain yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Healthy fats (olive oil, avocado oil)
Foods to avoid or limit
- White bread
- French fries
- Snack mixes
- Chips and crackers
- Frozen pizza
- Fast food
- Snack bars
- Boxed macaroni and cheese
- Chicken nuggets
- Hot dogs
- Commercial baked goods
- Deli meat
- Most microwave meals
- Soda and other sweetened beverages
A Week-Long Sample Whole-Food Meal Plan
6 Tips to Eat More Whole Foods
Eating more whole foods doesn’t have to be time-consuming or difficult. Try these six tips to add more whole foods to your diet:
Use pantry staples to help make meal preparation easier. Always keep spices, seasonings, and cooking oils on hand. Stock up on canned beans (no salt added), canned tomatoes, whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, farro), and whole grain pasta.
Plan, plan, plan
Plan ahead to have whole food snacks available to make healthy eating an easy choice. Make a grocery list and shop at the beginning of the week. Have foods washed, cut, and prepared to grab and go.
Small changes tend to feel less overwhelming and have a big impact over time. Little by little, you’ll increase your intake of unprocessed foods, and your diet will consist mostly of whole foods in no time.
Swap refined grains for whole grains
One small change you can make is to swap refined grains for whole grains. Instead of quick oats, opt for old-fashioned oats. Instead of white rice, try brown rice or quinoa. Instead of white bread, grab a loaf of whole grain.
Add fruits and veggies to snacks
Add fruits and veggies to the snacks you’re already eating. Focus on what you can add to your current diet rather than trying to completely overhaul it at once. Add a piece of fruit if you have crackers and cheese for a snack.
Try one new plant-based recipe weekly
Get inspired by trying one new plant-based recipe per week. Trying new recipes will help you add more plant-based whole foods to your diet and decrease your animal product intake.
Learn More About Nutrition and Healthy Eating with Signos’ Expert Advice
Signos is a great resource for expert advice on nutrition and healthy eating. Signos has a team of registered dietitians who compile evidence-based nutrition information to help you improve your health and wellness. Check out the resources here.
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Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz.
People Also Ask:
What are 3 examples of whole foods?
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains
Is cheese considered a whole food?
Cheese is considered a whole food and a good source of protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin D. Processed cheese and non-dairy cheeses are not whole foods.
What are good whole foods to eat?
Whole foods to include in your diet are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
What foods are not whole foods?
Processed foods like fast food, candy, snack foods, soda, cereals, and frozen meals are not whole foods.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading: </strong> <a href="/blog/how-to-start-a-diet">How To Start A Healthy Diet And Stick To It</a>.</p>
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- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Spiegelman D, et al. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017;70(4):411-422. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047
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- Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and the risk of colorectal cancers. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(5):767-776. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59
- Malar DS, Devi KP. Dietary polyphenols for treatment of Alzheimer's disease--future research and development. Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2014;15(4):330-342. doi:10.2174/1389201015666140813122703
- Jiang X, Huang J, Song D, Deng R, Wei J, Zhang Z. Increased Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables Is Related to a Reduced Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Dementia: Meta-Analysis. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017;9:18. Published 2017 Feb 7. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2017.00018
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016;13(6):e1002039. Published 2016 Jun 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039
- Yokoyama Y, Barnard ND, Levin SM, Watanabe M. Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2014;4(5):373-382. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
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- Wright N, Wilson L, Smith M, Duncan B, McHugh P. The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes. Nutr Diabetes. 2017;7(3):e256. Published 2017 Mar 20. doi:10.1038/nutd.2017.3
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