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Feature Article What's so Special About Whole Foods?

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If you’ve heard the recommendations to incorporate more whole foods into your diet, you may be wondering what exactly that means. Or maybe you want to incorporate more whole foods but aren’t sure where to start.

Searching for Whole Foods

Whole foods include every aspect of the food, and ideally haven’t been processed. Think an apple with the skin on rather than applesauce or wheat berries rather than wheat bread.

"Whole foods are close to the farm,” said Barbara George, RD, CDE, who counsels patients about nutrition at Samaritan Heartspring Wellness Center in Albany. “It’s something you would recognize growing or living that hasn’t been through a factory and doesn’t need a food label because nothing has been added or taken away.”

You can find whole foods in the produce section of the store.

"Ideally when you shop, your cart should be full of things from the fruit and vegetable bins to make your meals,” said George.

Natural Benefits

The benefits to whole foods are multi-faceted. You avoid the chemically altered preservatives that are added to many processed foods, as well as sugar and salt. You retain water-soluble nutrients that can be washed away during a water bath. And when you eat it, your body understands how to process it.

"When you eat, the process of chewing begins the digestion process before you even swallow,” said George. “When you remove part of the food, then everything happens in a different time, in a different way."

Often what’s removed from food is the fiber, which makes it more palatable but less filling, and speeds up digestion so your body doesn’t have time to absorb all the nutrients. Making white flour or fruit juice removes the bulky fiber and leaves you with something tasty, but nutritionally incomplete.

Fortunately you don’t have to eat all your food raw to get the benefits. Some foods become nutritious when cooked, although you do need some raw foods for gut health. George recommends getting a mixture of both every day.

Changes in the Kitchen

You might already be cooking more whole foods than you realize. If lean pieces of unprocessed meat, beans, brown rice and steamed or grilled vegetables make up part of your dinner each day, you probably have a good idea of what constitutes a whole food. If you use “helper” products like quick-cooking rice, boxed pasta with a flavor packet, canned soup or frozen entrees, consider swapping those out for a whole food alternative.

Meals made from whole foods may require more time cooking than a microwave dinner does, but kitchen appliances like a Crock-pot or Instant Pot can be a big help, especially during the work week.

"It can be intimidating to prepare your own food if it’s new for you,” said George. “Some grocery stores have packaged vegetables that are already peeled and chopped, which can be a good place for people to start."

If you’re ready to be more adventurous with your produce but aren’t sure how, George recommends looking on the Internet for videos of how to prepare things like butternut squash or dice carrots quickly. Websites like Pinterest are also a great resource for whole food recipe ideas.

What to Cook Tonight

When you’re ready to cook a delicious meal with whole foods, use spices and herbs liberally to season food, especially as these items often have additional health benefits. If you aren’t sure which spices go with which foods, start with some seasoning packets but plan to wean yourself off them soon, as they can be full of preservatives and salt. Read the ingredients to find out which spices are in the packet and then add your own the next time you make the dish.

Here are three meal ideas from George to inspire your own whole foods dinner.

  • Grilled salmon fillet and sweet potato with steamed broccoli. This meal cooks in about 15 minutes! 
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  • Chicken fajitas with brown rice and beans. Fill up your pan with lots of bell peppers and onions, and use more beans than meat. No need for the tortillas unless your crew is very hungry. You can also substitute cauliflower rice for even more vegetables. 

  • Roasted spaghetti squash topped with chicken, mushrooms and capers in a homemade pesto sauce. Serve with a spinach and mixed greens salad drizzled with homemade salad dressing. George notes that pesto can be made with basil, garlic, toasted walnuts or pine nuts and a bit of olive oil. A little Parmesan cheese is optional.

Check out our healthy recipes or look for a class near you!