Whole vs Processed foods: How to Choose REAL Whole Foods

Whole vs Processed foods: How to Choose REAL Whole Foods

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You may often hear “Eat more whole food and less processed food”.

But what exactly does whole food mean?  What are the key differences when it comes to whole vs processed food?

Even if you are conscious about avoiding processed food, sometimes it may not be easy to tell if it’s processed food or not since a lot of food manufacturers make effort to make your food look “natural”.

Do you want to start eating more whole food without spending hours reading food labels at a supermarket?

YES, please!!!

Alright! That’s the spirit! By the time you finish reading this article, you will be more confident choosing food at your local supermarket!

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What is the difference between processed and whole food?

You have tried to eat as healthy as possible, but you may have felt like giving up because it is so hard to avoid processed foods.

When I was looking into the definition of processed food online, each information source was explaining processed foods in slightly different ways. Also, each website’s USDA definition for processed food was different from the original USDA PDF file. No wonder it felt SO confusing!

According to the USDA,

”a processed food item is defined as a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change in the character of the covered commodity, or that has been combined with at least one other covered commodity or other substantive food components.[…] includes cooking (e.g., frying, broiling, grilling, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting), curing (e.g., salt curing, sugar curing, drying), smoking (hot or cold), and restructuring (e.g., emulsifying and extruding). “

Some of you may think marinated meat is processed food, but USDA says it’s not. My point is, it is EXTREMELY hard to draw the line between processed foods and whole foods!


So, how can we differentiate between processed foods and whole foods? Whole foods are usually explained as something raw, minimally processed, and non-GMO.

In my opinion, there is a wide spectrum within processed foods.

What does that mean? Well, I can give you some examples!

For example, you can buy a frozen pizza from Walmart for $1.90, or you can buy a higher quality frozen pizza for $10 with fewer additives and better ingredients, or you can buy dough, marinara sauce, and cheese from Wholefoods and make a pizza on your own. Or, you can decide to make a pizza dough yourself with organic whole grain flour, organic mozzarella cheese, and marinara sauce using organic ingredients!


As you can see from my pizza example, one food item can be highly processed (food that contains more artificial ingredients and additives) or less processed depending on the ingredients. So far, it looks like it is impossible to distinguish between whole and processed foods.

Luckily, there is a sorting system for processed foods you can rely on called NOVA. NOVA sorts out processed foods into 4 different levels;

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk)
  • Processed culinary ingredients  (oils from plants, seeds, and nuts, or whole grain flour and pastas )
  • Processed foods (canned fruits and vegetables, some cheeses, freshly made bread, and canned fish)
  • Ultra processed foods (sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, breakfast cereals, frozen meals, processed meat)

This is better than the USDA standard for processed foods, but it still doesn’t give us a clear answer. For example, yogurt can fall into “Unprocessed or minimally processed foods”, but if it’s flavored, then it should be called processed foods.

Don’t worry, some foods are easy to categorize so let’s take a look at the examples of whole and processed foods! Later on in this article, I will show you how you can choose more whole food options when you are not sure about your choices!

What foods are whole and unprocessed?

Examples of whole foods


Examples of processed foods

  • Breakfast cereals (swap with oats porridge – raw honey + rolled oats + cinammon powder)
  • Fruit juice
  • Energy and sports drink
  • Soda (Try my homemade coke recipe!)
  • Processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami, and sausage
  • Canned vegetables and fruits
  • Dressings (check out this lists of store-bought dressings, you don’t want to make your salad unhealthy!)
  • Frozen products (pizza, lasagna, fried chicken)
  • Pastry and cakes (exception can be if you make it at home with minimum sugar and good ingredients)
  • Soft drinks
  • Pre-marinated meat at a store (pre-marinated meats are usually not the freshest)
  • Bread made with white flour
  • Granola bars and energy bars
  • Dried fruits (choose no-sugar added dried fruits)
  • Ketchup, mayonnaise (I always make mayonnaise at home when it’s needed, and it’s super easy!)
  • Unhelathy oil (canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, margerine)
  • Food made with artificial sweeteners


Why are Whole Foods Better for your Health than Processed Foods?

You may already know that eating more processed food can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. But I’m not here to share some information you already know!

Ready to find out why to include whole foods in your diet?

Let’s do this!

1. Whole food can support better brain function

Did you know eating whole foods can improve your concentration and work performance?

Your brain is constantly working when you are awake and asleep. The brain requires 20% of your total food consumption, and what you eat determines your brain health.

Harvard Health Publishing explains the relationship between brain health and food in a simple way;

“Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel.[…] Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel.”


Not only does a diet high in refined sugars promote higher insulin levels which can lead to diabetes, but it also impairs brain function and can increase your risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease when you get old.

On the other hand, if you eat lots of fresh fruits, colorful vegetables, and whole grains, you can save yourself in the future and have better concentration now! (Check out this article for lists of powerful foods if you are interested in boosting your brainpower!)

2. Whole food can support healthy liver

You may have heard “cleanse or detox your body with product XX”. However, you can’t forget that you ALREADY have a pretty strong tool in your body. YES, it’s your liver! Rather than spending a couple of hundred dollars on detoxing programs or products, there are more simple things you can do yourself! That is to include more whole foods in your diet!

The liver is the largest organ in your body and it supports 500 functions including;

  • Maintaining metabolism and blood sugar levels
  • Removing toxins from products including, alcohol, medicine, and food
  • Support immune system
  • Helps healthy digestion
  • Detoxify blood cells

To support those amazing liver functions, it is important to eat more whole foods that are easier for your liver to process. If your diet consists of full of heavily processed foods, your liver needs to spend more time removing chemical additives from what you have eaten.

In Ayurveda, it is believed that unhealthy liver leads to pitta imbalance. What is pitta imbalance?

Pitta is one of the categories in Dosha in Aryruveda. In Aryruveda, it is belived that people are comprised of three elements inckuding pitta, vata, kapa. Find our your Dosha type using this simple quiz!


According to Ayurveda experts, you may experience these symptoms from pitta imbalance;

  • Irritated skin
  • Burning digestion
  • Anger, frustration, and irritation
  • Judgement, impatience, criticism, and intolerance
  • Feeling heat in your body

If your Dosha includes pitta like me, you are more likely to develop these problems. So you have extra motivation to pay attention to your liver health! (Check out the lists of food you should include in your diet to support liver health!)


My tip:

If you have acne on your forehead, it may be a sign that your digestion isn’t going well, or that you are not eating liver-friendly food. Your face can reveal a lot about your body. Check out this face map if you are interested! So rather than spending more money on facial cream and cosmetic products, it may be time to look at what you are eating closely.


3. Whole food can improve mental health

When you feel an imbalance in your mental health, you may consider incorporating more self-care and mindfulness in your daily life. How about your diet?

Scientists didn’t know until recently about the relationship between gut health and mental health. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 95% of the “feeling-good hormone” serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, not your brain!

Interestingly, the production of serotonin is dependent on the gut microbiome, and having diverse groups of good microbiomes is the key to maintaining your mental health.

On the other hand, if your diet is more like a traditional Western diet, you have a 20-35% higher risk of developing depression.

What’s a micobiome? – It’s the system of all the microorganisms that live inside your body from the time you’re born. The variety and amount of microbes vary from person to person based on your environment and diet.


So, what kind of food is good for the tiny little creatures in your gut?

It is recommended to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and lean meat such as skinless organic chicken. You don’t need to go vegan or vegetarian, but it is ideal to limit red meat. When you choose red meat, try grass-fed beef or organic pork, if possible.

Check out this list of food for good gut health if you are interested!

Step-by-Step Guide to include more whole foods in your diet

1. Shop at Whole Foods or a local organic supermarket

One way to start eating more whole foods is to start shopping at Whole Foods or local organic stores.

I normally go to Whole Foods once a week and order an organic online supermarket delivery every Friday. I rarely go to Walmart or other supermarkets, but when I do, I usually see a big difference compared to Whole Foods.

What’s so different?

Well, I usually see more processed food options and they are cheaper than whole foods! Like when you go to Walmart, the first thing you may see is two apple pies for $5!

The reason why I recommend shopping at WholeFoods or a local organic supermarket is, their processed food is much more expensive than a normal supermarket. So it’s encouraging you to eat more whole foods! Even if you decide to buy processed foods, their processed foods use better ingredients with fewer additives. Also, I find the atmosphere is more relaxed at Whole Foods, whereas, at Walmart, everyone is trying to finish shopping as quickly as possible.

You may feel like you don’t want to spend a couple more hundred dollars on healthy food. But I always think of it this way, “Would I rather be healthy now and lower my risk of spending time in the hospital when I’m older, or save a little money now and pay for it when my body can no longer recover from my bad habits?”. Seeing other people trying to buy healthier is also really encouraging too.

My tips:

  1. If you are too intimidated to go to your local organic supermarket, maybe start with planning what to buy beforehand, and try not to go into the middle rows unless you have a plan. Because the middle rows tend to have more highly processed foods at your usual supermarket.
  2. If you are ready to shop at different places, find your closest organic supermarket and plan a trip this weekend

2. Find out if it’s something you can make by yourself

If anyone asked me about how to reduce heavily processed foods in your diet, I would say look online to see if you can make it by yourself. I started my healthy eating journey 8 years ago after I graduated from high school, and it really changed this past year.

Why is that?

Well, I was so inspired after I watched Alice Waters’ Masterclass because she showed me how to pick good ingredients, what to have in my pantry, and how to cook a healthy and delicious meal with minimal ingredients! What was most inspiring was she showed me how to make mayonnaise and dressing at home.

After I watched her class, I realized I was using a decent amount of pre-made sauce for cooking or condiments, and oftentimes, I found out that I could make a lot of things myself with less cost and fewer artificial ingredients!

My tip:

The next time you plan a meal, instead of using a pre-made sauce or store-bought dressings, see if you can make it by yourself. (I love Alice Waters’ mayonnaise and dressings recipe)


3. Follow the 90/10 rule

One thing I want to emphasize is that you don’t need to eat clean all the time. I certainly don’t!

If you try to eat perfectly all the time, it may take away the joy of eating, or it may cause trigger a perfectionism mindset and you may end up avoiding dinner with friends and family.

So how can you pursue healthy eating and at the same time not choking yourself with tons of rules?

Well, how about following the 90/10 rule? It’s a rule that you will try to stick to a whole food diet 90% of the time, and you can enjoy the food you like for 10% of the time. For me, I usually eat healthy and delicious food during the week, and on Sunday lunch or dinner, I pick whatever I want to eat!

Also, I have prepared some treats through Monday to Saturday like 85% cocoa dark chocolate, organic peanut butter with apples, and apple crumble my boyfriend makes (he usually puts 1/2 of the sugar that recipe lists to reduce added sugar consumption!)

My tips:

  1. If you are not sure how to start eating more nutrient dense food, check out this healthy eating plate by the Harvard School of Public Health (download from here). It tells you what proportion of the foods you should eat for different nutrients!
  2. When you choose the treat or food you love, see if you can cook or get something healthier. For example, instead of buying cookies loaded with added sugars, see if you can make it yourself at home using whole grain flour. Or maybe you can get some pastry at your local organic supermarket. Pastry at an organic supermarket tends to use less sugar and food additives.
Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.

4. Be curious and open to learning


I wish I could give you “Eat this, not that” kind of advice. I used to avoid certain food because I believed it wasn’t healthy. But over the time, I learned it’s ok to have “bad” food sometimes, and I can always make it healthier if I make by myself.

Like the pizza spectrum example, if you spend a little time researching next time you pick food, you may notice there are more whole foods options, or you can make it yourself, or you’ll find out it’s good to avoid that food.

Each person’s body is different. It’s important to stay open and see what food makes you feel good. That’s why “One-size-fits-all” type of advice doesn’t work. It is super overwhelming to drastically change your diet.

Instead, next time you go to a supermarket, ask yourself “Is this the best food option for me? Can I get something else for my health?” If you keep doing this, you will gradually find what kind of food choices and eating style will fit you best.

Found my article useful? Share with your friends and family, and comment below about what you’d like to know about healthy living or eating! I’m super keen to know!

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