Wholefood – who wants in?

We’ve heard the term ‘wholefood’ being thrown around. It sounds rather lovely. We soon ask ourselves, what does it actually mean? How do we do it?

Our great grandparents never had to ponder such questions. The truth is that we have too much choice these days. And many of these choices cannot possibly be classified as food. Fake food would be a more appropriate term.  Processed food is a milder term for the same thing.

There is a reason why us Nutritionists are on the ‘anti processed food’ mission, and it’s not just because we are hippies at heart. In clinic, I am often amazed (though not surprised) by the improvements clients make when they embark on a wholefood diet.  I refer to it as a process of ‘blocking out white noise’. This allows for a cleaner slate to work from; taking into account individual needs is the next step. Clients often wonder how such simple measures yield such profound results.

As consumers, our choices are often guided by pretty packages, enticing health claims and half-truths.

So, what are the real concerns when it comes to processed foods?

High sugar

You guessed it. The honing in on fat as the enemy has produced shelves of low fat products. The truth is that fats, in their whole and unadulterated form, taste yummy and are needed by the body. They also tell our brains that we are satisfied and can stop eating. Sugar is then added to compensate for all the yumminess lost, and we are left with a product that contains less fat but actually makes us more fat. This is because a high sugar diet will cause havoc in our body. It will cause erratic blood sugar levels, insulin spikes and fat deposition. This extra fat, especially around the abdomen, perpetuates this cycle by making our brains non-responsive to the hormones that are supposed to tell us that we are full. Not good.

High sodium

Did you know that 70% of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods?

The rest comes from the natural sodium content of foods and from what we add at home.

Elevated sodium levels are known to contribute to high blood pressure.

Interestingly, processed foods are high in sodium (added in as sodium chloride) and depleted in potassium. Potassium is a mineral essential for regulating blood pressure.

A good quality, unrefined salt (such as rock or sea salt) offers a broad spectrum mineral profile, including potassium.

So, rather than never adding salt to your food (and suffering through bland meals), would it not make more sense to ditch processed foods and enjoy a little good quality salt in moderation when cooking at home?

Distracting health claims

So what if it’s ‘High Fibre’. So is sawdust.

So what if it is ‘Gluten Free’ or ‘Contains Probiotics’ or is ‘High in Calcium for Strong Bones’? These health claims would never feature on wholefoods (have you ever spotted a head of broccoli covered in health claims? It sure does tick most of the above claims, but does it ever say it?

In our quest to follow a wholefood path, we need to learn to ignore health claims and read ingredient lists. It is only here that we can find out what is truly in this product and make a judgment call as to whether or not we want it in our system.

Far too many ingredients

A tell tale sign of a processed food is a long list of ingredients. Become a conscious consumer and turn that packet around immediately. Spend no time being seduced by health claims and gravitate towards the ingredient list (which is often so small in comparison to those loud claims).

Whilst we are on the topic of ingredient lists, did you know that ingredients must be labeled in descending order as a proportion of the total weight of the product? So, if sugar is high up on the list, put it away!

Loss of nutrients

It is no secret that nutritional losses are a hefty price paid when it comes to processed foods. Refined grains show a loss of about 66% of fibre, 92% of selenium, 62% of folate and up to 99.8% of the phytochemicals (phytochemicals are those priceless plant compounds that offer us so much therapeutic value).

Food manufacturers try to compensate for some of these losses, and this takes me to the next point.

Many oils with a high smoke point are only able to boast this ‘plus’ because of the extensive refining they have undergone. Such processes have depleted the oil of its natural and nutritious phytochemicals, yielding an oil that is ‘light’ (in colour, not calories!) and more resistant to heat. Is that really a plus?

The whole is greater than the some of its parts

Nature is smart. Food, in its natural form, contains a spectrum of nutrients, all delicately balanced and working beautifully in synergy.

When food is tampered with (let’s take some of this out, and put some of that back in), we can’t possibly expect the same results.

Damaged compounds

This is particularly concerning when it comes to fats. Fats are vulnerable to heat and processing. A damaged fat or an altered fat (such as a trans fat) is a ‘molecular misfit’, meaning that it is not conducive to healthy body function. Unfortunately, if we only read the ingredients list and not take processing methods into account, such damaged compounds may never hit our radar.


Commercial food is largely heat processed and as a result contains high levels of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGEs have been shown to raise inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are drivers of many common modern day diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The formation of AGEs can also take place at home, especially when cooking animal-derived foods (e.g. meat, chicken, eggs) at high temperatures.

Damaging additives/preservatives

Additives and preservatives are part and parcel of processed foods. They are added to foods to increase shelf life, preserve colour or give a particular texture or flavor. Unfortunately, they are sometimes labeled as numbers (rather than names) and these are not intuitively apparent. For example, E220 signifies sulfur. Sulfur can trigger asthma, if you are susceptible. Artificial sweeteners are labeled as 950, 951, 955, 960 (just as examples) and have adverse effects on health (including messing up our appetite control centre and our ability to know when we are full… This is a big problem as it fuels the constant need for more food, especially refined carbs and sugars).

Inferior packaging

To allow for a long shelf life and also to cut costs, processed foods are often packaged using inferior methods and materials.

Wholefoods are largely unpackaged, as they travel home with us from the store (or market), to be consumed within a relatively short time frame. Some wholefoods, such as nuts, seeds, grains and legumes can be bought ‘loose’ and stored in glass jars in our pantry.

Most cans/tins contain bisphenol-A (BPA) in their lining. BPA has been shown to disrupt hormones. This is especially of concern when the food inside is acidic (e.g. tomatoes). Choose BPA-free cans where possible and consider buying a product with alternative packaging (e.g. tomato purée in a glass jar).

So, what can you do to get on the wholefood path?

Cleanse your kitchen

This is actually a great exercise to do – it really is therapeutic.

Hone in on the biggest culprits (e.g. those that you consume often or those that tick too many of the processed food boxes). Phase these out and replace with better alternatives. A good place to start is to identify products that contain added sugar, health claims or numbers in the ingredient list.

Bring in the good guys

If you don’t replenish the kitchen with cleaner options you’ll be hungry.

Be committed to buying real food and as much as possible in its natural. Think ‘farm to plate’.

Stock your fridge, freezer and pantry with veggies, fruit (fresh or frozen), meat/poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (dried), whole grains (and flour), nuts and seeds, spices, good quality salt, unrefined oils…

Store as much as possible in glass containers, away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight.

Be prepared

If you don’t plan and prepare, you’ll be hungry.

Processed foods are convenient, there’s no doubt about that. But this convenience comes at a price (as we have just seen).

Wholefoods need to be prepared, somewhat. It’s not always about intricate recipes; food can be made very simply, although it usually involves some degree of preparation (or assembly).

Plan your meals ahead of time and make extras for left overs (a very worthwhile habit to get into).

Snacks are a biggie. They often take the form of processed foods as they are handy to have on tap. Have clean alternatives ready in your box of tricks.

I make this beautiful banana bread every week (perfect for mid morning or mid afternoon tea). Other snacks I like to have on tap are homemade crackers (or good quality store bought ones), homemade dip (e.g. hummus or kale pesto), kale chips, natural yoghurt topped with nuts and seeds.

Don’t aim for perfection

Look at this as a gradual process, rather than a radical one. The idea is not to leave you hungry or miserable, but rather to encourage you to adopt healthier habits each week.

It’s not about never touching a packaged food again. In reality, we are always going to include some processed foods in our diet. The goal is to be discerning about which ones we allow in moderation, and which ones we outright say no to.

It all begins with awareness.