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The Benefits of Healthy Whole Foods

What's the difference between whole foods and processed foods?

The Synergy of Healthy Whole Foods

"One of the biggest advantages of eating whole foods is that you're getting the natural synergy of all of these nutrients together," says Gidus.

Gidus points to studies of vitamin E, selenium, and a number of antioxidants.  We know that when they're eaten in food, they have all sorts of health benefits.  But studies of the single vitamins and minerals in supplement form have not shown the same success.  Why? "It could be the natural combination and interaction of all of these different phytochemicals and proteins that give a food its health benefit," Gidus says.  "Trying to extract a single nutrient and take it by itself may not work."

There's another thing.  We simply don't know all of the nutrients in a food that make it healthy.

"Nutrition science is always discovering new components of foods, things that we didn't know are there," says Kaiser.  "Many of them are not even available in supplement form." If we don't know what they are, we obviously can't synthesize them. 

Avoiding Additives in Food

The nutrients lost during refinement are not the only disadvantage of eating processed foods.  What's added can also be a problem. 

A lot of health conscious people are wary of the preservatives and chemicals that are added to processed and manufactured foods.  You know -- the ones with the scary-sounding eight-syllable names.  But in fact, Kaiser says that some of the worst food additives are household words.

"I think the most worrisome additives are not the preservatives," says Kaiser.  "It's the salt, sugar, and saturated and trans fats." While there's been a lot of attention paid to the risks of trans fats in recent years, Kaiser thinks salt is gravely underestimated.

"As a country, we eat way too much salt," she tells WebMD, and observes that it's closely associated with high blood pressure and numerous other health problems.

With all of the extra fat and sugar in processed foods, the calories can quickly add up.  That leads to weight gain.  But eating more healthy whole foods may actually help you maintain or lose weight.  The natural fiber in many vegetables, fruits, and grains may fill you up without adding many calories, Gidus says.

The Cost of Whole Foods

There's another bonus to eating healthy whole foods.  Although the name may now be synonymous with that fancy grocery store, whole foods are much cheaper than processed foods.  They're also available everywhere.

"Generally, the more processed things are, the higher the cost," says Kaiser.  "A bag of healthy brown rice is going to be cheaper than a fancy prepackaged rice mix."

Of course, there may be a different cost to eating healthy whole foods: the preparation time.  It's hard to deny that popping a processed sandwich pocket in the microwave for three minutes is easier than cooking a proper meal with whole-food ingredients.

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