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

Healthy whole foods: you might know that you're supposed to eat them.  But do you really know what they are?

"We live in a society that eats so much processed and manufactured food, that I think there's some genuine confusion about what qualifies as a whole food," says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.  Even for the health conscious, the phrase gets tangled up with other terms.  Whole foods might be organic, or locally grown, or pesticide-free.  But they aren't necessarily.  The definition of healthy whole foods is much simpler.

"When you eat whole foods, you're getting the food in its natural state," Gidus tells WebMD.  "You're getting it intact, with all of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are in the food." Basically, it's the healthy whole food, rather than the bits that remain after refinement and processing.  It's the difference between an apple and apple juice , or a baked potato and mashed potatoes.

While whole foods might be associated with the upscale grocery store of the same name, they are available to all of us anywhere in the country.  Most dietitians feel that eating healthy whole foods has all sorts of benefits.  Their nutrients may help to keep your immune system strong and protect you from disease.

"If you're trying to eat a healthier diet, relying on more whole foods is a great place to start," says Lucia L. Kaiser, PhD, community nutrition specialist in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis.

Healthy Whole Foods

Many studies have found that a diet high in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of diseases such as:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • many types of cancer
  • type 2 diabetes

So what's so good about healthy whole foods? For one, they're loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  They also contain phytochemicals, the general name for natural compounds in plants.  While thousands of individual phytochemicals have been identified, countless more remain unknown.  They help in different ways.  Some are antioxidants, which protect cells against damage.  Examples of antioxidant phytochemicals are flavonoids, carotenoids, and lycopene.

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