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The Science Behind Healthy Eating Patterns, Explained: Whole Foods

Updated on January 22, 2016
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With the release of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans comes a flood of generalized health information provided so that anyone can get a basic idea of the kinds of changes they should be making to live happier, healthier lives.

If you’re interested in the science behind some of these guidelines, use this series as your guide. This week we will discuss whole foods.

Research has shown that over 60 percent of the calories from food we purchase is processed, which is why our fat, sugar and sodium intake is so high (and why recommendations also target these subjects as well, which we’ll get into later).


Whole foods are a way to lower the percentage of calories you consume from processed foods in your own diet. Here’s a more in-depth look at what they are, why they’re good for us and what the new dietary guidelines recommend for our daily food intake.

What are whole foods?

Whole foods are, put simply, foods that have been through as little processing as possible and contain no additives or artificial substances. No added sugars. No artificial colorings or flavors.

The reason it’s impossible to completely eliminate things like fat and sugar from our diets is because even whole foods contain naturally occurring amounts of these elements. Our bodies need them to break each into its smaller components and provide us with energy. Anything extra, though, just isn’t necessary.

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Why are they better than processed foods?

When a food is processed, it means it has been put through unnatural changes or enhancements to alter the way it looks, tastes and feels in your mouth.

There are different levels of processing, ranging from the processing required to pre-slice vegetables all the way to the processing it takes to get your frozen pizza from factory to frozen aisle.

Notice we’re not saying you have to cut out processed foods entirely. With so much of the food in our stores processed in some way, it’s not an easy thing to do. Even foods that are still healthy, like cut veggies, still go through a little processing.

Let’s see what the guidelines recommend.

What do the recommendations say?

It’s recommended you consume whole grains as half of your total grain intake (whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, cereals made with whole grains). It is also recommended you eat whole fruits instead of canned or packaged when possible. Just to name a few examples.

When choosing whole foods to purchase and prepare, start off by looking for versions of foods you already buy that have gone through less processing. For example, see if you can find your favorite type of cracker made with whole grains. Buy fresh apples instead of applesauce cups. Walk past the white bread.

When preservatives are added to a food to extend its shelf life or a food’s flavoring is upgraded, things like excess sodium, fat and sugar are added into its makeup. Yet saturated fats and added sugars are also included in dietary guidelines as things to limit in a healthy diet.

We’ll be discussing both in the coming weeks. There are steps you can take to put a healthy spin on your eating patterns. And it all starts with a healthy dose of science.

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