What is a “whole foods” diet?


Whole foods throughout the whole day!

When I first started eating a plant-based diet, I heard the term “whole foods” a lot, and that a whole foods diet is very health-promoting. But I felt a little silly that I didn’t know what “whole foods” meant, exactly.

I soon learned that it didn’t mean I had to eat my food whole, or that I could only eat food from Whole Foods Market; it means eating food that still looks as it did growing in nature, or very close to it. Basically, food that has not been messed with, or only minimally messed with. This is because everything (all the nutrients and fiber) in that whole fruit, vegetable, grain, legume (beans, peas, lentils), nut or seed has already been perfectly arranged: as the saying goes, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature.”

The human body runs most efficiently on food that is in its natural form, or very close to it. When the body sees an oily, salty potato chip comin’ down the chute, it has to work harder to do its job. If we make the body’s job easier, it will make our life easier.

When I say “messed with” I am referring to food that has been overly altered during food manufacturing. This is typically done through the processing and refining of food. Sugar, salt, and oil (as well as other chemicals and preservatives) are often added in with whole foods during processing, while other things may be removed, such as all-important fiber and water (which is why we don’t fill up as easily on processed foods and often develop constipation).

There are many reasons manufacturers process food, but mainly it’s to concentrate flavors, thereby making the product more appealing to our taste buds, so we’ll continue buying it, and the manufacturer will continue to make nice profits. Processing and packaging foods can also result in a product that lasts longer on the shelf, and is convenient to eat. But beware, as these foods are typically very high in calories.

However, all processing needn’t be avoided: we process whole foods ourselves when we make applesauce from apples, carrot juice from carrots, a green smoothie from fruit and kale, and pancakes using oat flour we ground from rolled oats. These things have been minimally processed. The upside to this is that you made it so you know what’s in it (and not in it), and you know the quality of the whole food (how fresh it is, if it’s organic and GMO-free) and any ingredients that went into it. However, minimally processing our own foods can also result in a calorie-dense final result, such as with pancakes and smoothies.

You can also find minimally processed packaged foods at the store, such as: cooked whole foods (beans, tomatoes, vegetables); frozen fruits and vegetables; and non-dairy milks and condiments (salsa, mustard, vinegar). The best choices will be those that do not contain any salt, sugar, and oil. This is an excellent list of the 10 healthiest packaged foods you can buy.

Processed food products that are best to avoid (or go light on) are those that have been overly manipulated and are full of salt, sugar and oil, such as: potato chips and crackers, snack bars and candy, prepared soups and frozen dinners/desserts, most boxed cereals and breads, jarred spaghetti and pizza sauces, and yogurts and other refrigerated prepared foods and condiments. Fast and slow food restaurants also add a lot of salt, sugar and oil to their food.

Unless you’re dealing with a whole fruit, vegetable, grain, legume, nut or seed, check out the ingredient list on the package so you know what you’re putting into your body, and that you’re okay with it given your health goals.

In your quest to eat more whole foods, keep the following in mind:

Sooner is better: As soon as a plant is plucked from its life-source (the soil, the tree branch) it begins to deteriorate. Eating whole fruits and vegetables within a day or so of picking them or buying them will yield the most nutritional benefits. Frozen whole fruits and vegetables can also be a nutritious choice, as they are flash-frozen very soon after picking.

Where to look: Local farmers markets and farm stands are ideal places to find an abundance of nutritious whole foods since the food has usually been picked within 24 hours. Your grocer’s produce section also carries whole foods, although this food will typically not be as fresh as what you’ll find at farmers markets, since the food has often been trucked in from afar. Search online for “farmers markets,” “produce stands,” and “CSAs” (community supported agriculture) to locate the freshest local produce.

Whole on the go: Whole foods travel easily and fill us up. Consider packing a snack bag to take with you when you leave for work or go on a trip. Convenient whole food choices include: bananas, apples, grapes, carrots, fresh green pea pods, and cold cooked potatoes. Dried fruits and nuts are often handy whole food choices for traveling, but they are more calorie-dense. Cooked oatmeal or leftovers, even if cold, also make delicious traveling food.

Viva la variety: Consume a variety of whole foods throughout the day to adequately meet your body’s nutrient needs. I usually start my morning with a bowl of cut-up fruit and/or cooked whole-grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) with almond or soy milk. My lunch might include a green salad with a variety of veggies and beans, or a bowl of hearty vegetable soup. Later in the day, I’ll grab a couple pieces of fruit, and for dinner I might have baked potatoes or winter squash topped with raw and/or cooked vegetables, or a hearty chili.

For optimum health, whole is the goal!

What are your favorite whole food snacks, tips or suggestions?


  1. Great article Cathy. It’s easy to get off track and think you are eating a whole-foods diet. Thank you for giving us such a detailed article!

  2. Belinda Ray says:

    This article is a wealth of clear cut, easy to understand information. I have one question-bread. Does it have a place in your food plan for sandwiches, and if so, what brand would you recommend? Baking is not an option for me, I hate to bake! :)
    Thanks so much,

    • Hi Belinda, I don’t eat bread at home, just when I go out to eat, which isn’t very often. I used to eat good, healthy bread every day, but even then I was addicted to it and would eat way too much in a day. So I stopped buying it for the most part. But if I do ever buy bread, I usually get Ezekial brand (found in the freezer section) or something whole-grain and vegan from a local bakery. :) Thanks for the feedback on the article!

      • Belinda Ray says:

        Hi Again!
        I found a bread at Trader Joe’s that isn’t too bad at all. It’s vegan and it’s sodium free. It’s called Daily Bread, made from sprouted whole grains. I toasted some last night and mashed a soft banana to use as a spread instead of butter and jelly. I enjoyed it.
        Cathy, you have inspired me to try vegan cooking. Today I am going to make your BBQ Beans and Greens. Thank you for taking the time and effort to make all this information available to us.

  3. Love it, Cathy! Thanks. Sometimes I take for granted that people know what I mean when I say whole food. They get even more cross-eyed when I say “whole food, plant-based.”

  4. Great post Kathy.
    I’m trying to include more and more
    whole foods into my diet.
    Thank you for your insights!

  5. As of yesterday, I couldn’t conceptualize of cooking without salt, oil or sugars…. especially the oil… Thanks for the introduction to this lifestyle… I no longer want concentrated oil fat clogging up my arteries.. !! Thanks

  6. Hi Cathy. I just found your site and am excited to continue enjoying all your great recipes and reading about you and your experiences. I am a McDougaller, so appreciate all the great options with no or little salt, oil, and/or sugar. Thanks, Lynn.

  7. ok thats all nice, but what is the effect of this diet

  8. Thank you Cathy. Stumbled across this page and am loving it. I am trying to eat whole foods only, and for the most part I do. Just seem to stumble a lot. Now that I have found this page I am hoping it will keep me on track

  9. Hi. Great post. I am interested in the whole food diet but I have a question. Is salt not a whole food? I am confused as It is found in nature as it is.

    • Hi Kim, good question. I would argue that salt is not a whole food, as it’s a mineral found in the ocean or is mined from the earth, not easily attainable without some work (processing, refining). It’s recommended to get our sodium requirements met via the plant foods we eat. The issue is that people are consuming so much of it, and it can be quite addictive as table salt (or other concentrated forms: sea salt, soy sauce). Having just a little can be hard for some people, while others can add a little to the top of their food (not add it in while cooking) and keep it at a minimum. When I go out I usually will get some salt in my food or when buying certain packaged foods, so I try to avoid it at home. Plant-based doctors have different opinions about salt usage, but since I base my recipes on the philosophy of TrueNorth Health Center where I work every week, I keep them all SOS-free (salt, oil, sugar-free). Dr. McDougall, however, feels that adding a little on top of meals at home is fine if it gets you to eat a plant-based diet more easily and helps you enjoy your food.

  10. Thank you for your newsletter today. I found a recipe online for some gluten-free cookie bars touting the high nutrient quality of teff, but the recipe also had 2/3 cup coconut oil and equal amount brown sugar. I almost was going to print it to make it but your newsletter acted as my conscience and guided me back to the SOS-free path. Thank you for all that you do! (You get bonus points if you you can suggest a gluten-free SOS-free gingery desert because that is what is on my mind…)

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