One of the top resolutions from Dietician Jean LaMantina, is to choose real food over quick food. This means choosing lentils and beans, over protein shakes. Raw nuts over energy bars. Fruits over cookies.
Alright, but what does this actually mean and why is it a better, healthier choice for your body?
By choosing a diet that is primarily based around plant-based whole foods, you are also inadvertently cutting down or avoiding processed foods altogether. These pre-packaged, hydrogenated oil-rich, and sugar-filled items have been linked to an increased risk of a variety of health conditions and issues including diabetes, metabolic disorders, heart disease, and even cancer.
We also highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest meatless, vegan, plant-based and allergy-friendly recipe resource to help you get healthy!
Let’s take a deep dive into swapping those processed foods for whole foods!
What are Whole Foods?
You’ve most likely heard a lot about “whole foods” or maybe a friend has talked your ear off about the “whole 30 diet.”
Alright, what are people actually talking about?
It all depends on how you’re looking at it. Whole food is a term used in a very broad sense, but, if you get right down to it, you’re basically talking about food that uses whole ingredients, i.e. food that is not processed. A whole-foods, plant-based diet “focuses on minimally processed foods, specifically plants, and is effective at stimulating weight loss and improving health.”
Yet, it’s a lot more than just that.
The Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet (WFPB) is actually a way of life that not only emphasizes a minimal amount of processed foods, but also limits animal products (or avoids altogether), focuses on plant-based food, — including “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts” — completely excludes refined foods — including “added sugars, white flour, and processed oils” — and also emphasizes the importance of “food quality, with many proponents of the WFPB diet promoting locally sourced organic food.”
What is Processed Food?
A large part of the whole-foods, plant-based way of life depends on cutting out processed foods. So, what are we talking about when we refer to these products? Basically, what makes processed food processed?
Once again, the definition depends on who you’re talking to and what type of “processed” we’re talking about.
The Types of Processed
There are actually four different types of foods that are categorized under processed.
First, you’ll find unprocessed or minimally processed. This group includes “natural edible food parts of plants and animals,” which have been “slightly altered for the main purpose of preservation but which does not substantially change the nutritional content of the food.” These include “fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk fall into this category.”
Next, you’ve got processed culinary ingredients. This group includes “food ingredients derived from a minimally processed food by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling.” These include “oils from plants, seeds, and nuts, or flour and pastas formed from whole grains.”
Alright, now we’re into the stuff to look out for.
Plain old processed foods are from “either of the two previous groups that have added salt, sugar, or fats,” and include “some canned fruits and vegetables, some cheeses, freshly made bread, and canned fish.”
Finally, we hit on the truly bad, ultra-processed or highly-processed foods. These are foods “from the prior group that go beyond the incorporation of salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colors and flavors and preservatives that promote shelf stability, preserve texture, and increase palatability.” These foods generally include low-nutrition, high-sugar items such as “sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, and breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners, and luncheon meats.”
Defining Processed Foods
For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “defines a processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state — that is, any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state.”
Alright, so that means, per the USDA, a package of raw pre-chopped or riced cauliflower is in fact “processed.”
Yet, the definition does not stop there.
The USDA goes on to further define “processed” as any food item that “may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.”
We’re almost done!
The Institute of Food Technologists decided to include terms such as “storing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, concentrating, microwaving, and packaging” to the list of processed food identifiers.
So, in the end, processed food can truly mean anything other than completely raw, unadulterated fruits and vegetables. But, that means you’d need to exclude grains, nuts, and seeds, all of which have been pasteurized in some sense per the Federal Drug and Food Administration guidelines.
Make it Easy on Yourself
It would be almost impossible to cut out minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods. This would entail a huge amount of effort to source your food specifically from local farmers who have taken the food directly from the ground to your hand. Not impossible, but difficult.
Therefore, let’s go ahead and say that unprocessed and minimally processed foods are great!
That leaves just processed and ultra-processed to worry about. This means trying to cut out anything that has been pre-made, frozen, packaged, or boxed. When you’re at the grocery store, if the item has more than five ingredients, definitely anything that you don’t understand, then it falls under processed or ultra-processed.
The Benefits of Replacing Processed Foods with Whole Foods
Alright, so we know what “whole foods” means in the broader sense of the term, but why is it better for your health? This may seem obvious to some, but others have been living with processed foods in their lives … well … since they were born and they are perfectly healthy. Yet, it’s not necessarily about the short term effects, but eating whole foods focuses on long-term health, longevity, and the prevention of many health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and even cancer.
Healthy Weight Management
Replacing those processed foods with whole foods is a great way to naturally shed a few unwanted pounds and maintain a healthy weight. In fact, a variety of studies “have shown that plant-based diets are beneficial for weight loss,” mostly due to a powerful healthy combination of high fiber foods, “along with the exclusion of processed foods.”
Plus, subbing out processed foods and for whole foods has also been seen as an effective way to keep off unwanted and manage a healthy weight.
Lower Risk of Heart Disease
Another excellent health plus from swapping out those processed foods for whole foods is that you boost your heart health!
A study performed on 200,000 participants found that “those who followed a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, legumes, and nuts had a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease than those following non-plant-based diets.”
With that said, it’s all about subbing out the processed, not just adding in whole foods. For instance, “unhealthy plant-based diets that included sugary drinks, fruit juices, and refined grains were associated with a slightly increased risk of heart disease.”
Avoiding Cognitive Decline
While the research surrounding dementia and Alzheimer’s is still in its infancy, there has been a link found between a diet rich in whole foods and a decreased risk of these cognitive issues.
This may be due to the fact that whole foods generally have a “higher number of plant compounds and antioxidants, which have been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and reverse cognitive deficits.” Plus, various studies show that “higher intakes of fruits and vegetables have been strongly associated with a reduction in cognitive decline.”
Management and Prevention of Diabetes
One of the most widely-known and popular side effects of swapping out processed foods for whole foods is a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as better management of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
In fact, one study found that “those who adhered to a healthy plant-based eating pattern had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes than those who followed unhealthy, non-plant-based diets.” On top of that, a separate research study found that “plant-based diets (vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian) were associated with nearly a 50% reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes compared to non-vegetarian diets.”
Lower Risk of Cancer
While decreasing processed foods and upping your intake of whole foods may not prevent all types of cancer, research has shown that “following a plant-based diet may reduce your risk of certain types of cancer.”
For instance, one study where the participants followed vegetarian diets found “a significantly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer, especially for those who followed a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy).” This is just one of many studies that have shown that different forms of whole-foods, plant-based eating decreases your risk of developing certain cancers.
Making Day-to-Day Whole Foods Easy
Now you’re on board and want to try this whole “swapping” thing out. With that said, who’s got the time? By nixing processed foods from your pantry, you will most likely be cutting out many of your quick meal items such as quick-cooking grains, pre-made mixes, and on-the-go packaged items. While there’s no way of getting out from underneath the healthy food takes more time aspect of the thing, there are a few hacks that can help you prepare for the week while swapping out unhealthy, processed food items.
Getting Breakfast Quick
Mocha Overnight Oats/One Green Planet
Oftentimes, the quick-cooking foods are relegated to the morning. Who’s got an extra thirty minutes to whip up breakfast when you’re already getting up at the crack of dawn? Luckily, there are a TON of wonderful prepping ideas to help you get a whole food-rich meal on the go!
First and foremost, swap out those individual packets of quick-cooking oats for some overnight oats. All you really have to do is dump all your ingredients in a bowl, mix, and transfer to a jar. Take it work and enjoy some delightful oats at work!
Here are some overnight oat recipes to inspire you — some are super easy, while others require a bit more time when you have it! Red Bean Paste and Matcha Overnight Oatmeal, Blue Raspberry Overnight Oats, Mocha Overnight Oats, or these Peanut Butter Overnight Oats.
If you’ve got a few extra minutes the night before, these are some super yummy and wholesome breakfast recipes that you grab on the go: Yogi Date Balls, Gluten-Free Pumpkin Spice Pop Tarts, Cinnamon Raisin Bread, or this Italian Spinach and Tomato Quiche.
A Meal in a Cup
Another great way to swap out processed foods for whole foods is to create your own meals-in-a-cup instead of using premade powder mixes. These mixes generally include preservatives, artificial ingredients, and/or added sugars. Plus, while these are super quick to make in a blender at home, you can also prep these in jars and store some in the fridge and others in the freezer.
When thinking about your meals-in-a-cup try and devise recipes that contain the most bang for your bucket! Most of the time, your satiety is fulfilled both by the food you eat, as well as the actual act of eating. Basically, your stomach thinks your more full when you’re doing the work of chewing.
Here are a few super nutrient-rich, fiber-filled, and protein-packed smoothies to try out: Matcha Avocado Smoothie, Gingerbread Molasses Smoothie, Nutella Buckwheat Smoothie With Warm Blackberry Sauce, Pina Colada Protein Smoothie, Mind Detox Smoothie, Chocolate and Sprout Smoothie or this Super Green Parsley and Cilantro Smoothie.
Mixed Seed Crackers/One Green Planet
Oh, the snacks may be the hardest part of this whole diet shift! Yes, those pre-wrapped energy bars might actually be riddled with added sugars and preservatives. Yes, those potato chips are most likely coated in hydrogenated oils. And, yes, even those flavored almonds may have artificial ingredients.
Luckily, snacks are one of the easiest things to prep or make on a whim!
When thinking about adding snack recipes to your brain bank, try to choose wisely with high-fiber and energy-rich options. This way, your snack is not just satiating, but it will also give you a boost during those afternoon lulls.
Along with bars and balls, here are a few ideas to get you into your kitchen: No-Bake Superfood Energy Bars, 4-Ingredient Paleo Coconut Shortbread, Mixed Seed Crackers, Salted Caramel Energy Bites, Crunchy Pumpkin Roasted Chickpeas, Glow Buns Energy Balls, Rosemary and Garlic Roasted Almonds, or this Raw Sprouted Buckwheat Bars.
Make Your Own Frozen Meals
Freezer-Friendly Breakfast Burritos/One Green Planet
Alright, the last, but definitely not least of the processed food swaps … frozen meals.
Frozen meals have been a huge staple in American households for decades. While some companies have definitely taken it up a notch in the quality of the food and the decreased processed ingredients, all frozen meals generally have to include some sort of preservative.
Therefore, why not make some of your own frozen meals? This way you can swap out the processed version for your whole food-rich version! Of course, while you technically can freeze anything, not all foods taste quite as good when thawed. That’s why you want to stick with easy to defrost, hardy whole foods.
Here are a few recipes to give you some instantly wonderful frozen meal ideas: Freezer-Friendly Breakfast Burritos, Easy Thai Red Tofu Curry, Freezable Buffalo Chickpea Taquitos, Protein-Rich Veggie and Lentil Dalcha Curry, Fresh Summer Corn Chowder, Freezer-Friendly Veggie Burgers, Roasted Red Pepper Chickpea Burger, or this Frozen Strawberry Yogurt Bars
Learn How to Cook Plant-Based Meals at Home!
Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammation, heart health, mental wellbeing, fitness goals, nutritional needs, allergies, gut health and more! Dairy consumption also has been linked many health problems, including acne, hormonal imbalance, cancer, prostate cancer and has many side effects.
For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.
Here are some great resources to get you started:
For more Animal, Earth, Life, Vegan Food, Health, and Recipe content published daily, subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter! Lastly, being publicly-funded gives us a greater chance to continue providing you with high quality content. Please consider supporting us by donating!