Whole or Processed Food: Which is Best?

The common suggestion to shop the circumference of the grocery store can be helpful if you are trying to decrease your processed food intake, but that doesn’t mean foods in the aisles are unhealthy.

Many diets today promote the intake of only whole foods, but let’s be real. In today’s busy world, convenience foods can be extremely helpful and can have just as much nutritional value if you choose wisely.

A whole food is a type of food that looks like it did when it was picked. This would include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dried beans.

A processed food can be slightly changed from its original state, such as frozen or canned vegetables and fruits, yogurt, canned fish and quick cooking whole grains. These foods can be more convenient and shelf stable, but are still high in nutritional value.

Ultra-processed foods are foods low in nutritional value and high in calories, preservatives, sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats. This includes snack foods like chips, pre-packaged cookies, crackers, soft drinks, candies and lunch meats. These foods should be reduced in the diet.

When you choose a food, look at the nutrition panel for the serving size, sodium, added sugars and the ingredient list. Compare and contrast products to find the best option. Look for foods with less than 500 mg sodium per serving, low to no added sugars and foods with shorter ingredient lists.

The most important thing is to have a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as often as possible, even if they have some processing. This will provide the most vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber that promote a healthy immune system and a reduction in cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Bridgette Bostic, R.D.N., is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness. Check out her weekly online cooking class, Healthy Bites with Bridgette.


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