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What is Whole Food – and How Much Does It Matter?

Nutrition is a divisive subject. Even dietitians have a hard time seeing eye to eye. Low-fat vs. low-carb, plant-based vs. paleo, the debates rage on and on.

The term “whole food” often sparks debate. What are whole foods, where do we find them, and how much do they matter?

Interestingly, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has no official definition for labeling foods as “whole”, although they’re generally considered to be foods that are minimally altered or processed from their natural state. So an apple would definitely be a whole food. Apple Jacks certainly would not. But what about applesauce, particularly if you use the whole apple? All the nutrients, and even the fiber, may remain. In this instance, it shouldn’t matter whether we call this a “whole food” or not – it’s a nutritious food.

Many diet regimens stake their reputation on dictating what is a “whole food” and what isn’t. Interestingly, one of the most popular of these, titled “Whole30”, bans several foods that are clearly whole and nutritious. On the plan, beans, grains, and dairy are forbidden despite being both whole and nutrient-rich foods. It’s not hard to see where people get confused.

You could spend hours mired in a “whole food” rabbit hole on the Internet, but the truth is that there will never be a universal, reliable definition for what is and is not whole food. And we probably don’t need one.

At the same time, a strategy of eating foods that are relatively close to their natural state does have benefits. One notable study compared the benefits of six daily servings of fruits and vegetables to the effects of a multivitamin designed to replicate all the vitamins and minerals found in those foods. The “real” fruits and vegetables were notably more effective at combating oxidative damage in the body.

Food and nutrition author Michael Pollan suggests that this disparity may be the result of our inability to distill and measure all the nutritive components of a “whole” or “real” food. We’ve known about the presence of dietary protein for well over 100 years, but discoveries of other essential nutrients have been far more recent. In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan uses the term “nutritionism” to describe our collective pursuit to isolate individual nutrients to connect food with health. We then attempt to pick apart and reassemble collections of these nutrients in vitamins, supplements, and more (Soylent, anyone?), but can we ever be sure that we can replicate the nutrition value of foods that our bodies have been designed to digest?

To be clear, vitamins and supplements have value. When deficiencies are present they can fill gaps and provide insurance that the body has all the tools it needs to thrive. But there certainly does appear to be value in eating foods that are real, whole, natural, or whichever term we want to argue about next.

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