What is a Whole Food Diet and Why is it Important for Your Health?

A whole food diet is based on fresh, simple, unprocessed foods in a form that you would find in nature.  Seems simple, right?  But, I wonder how many of you eat food in a form that you can tell where it came from (know how it got from the farm/ocean to your table) and understand its true contents?   

Did you know that this knowledge is the foundation for healthy eating, long term health and healing?

Food as Important Information for Your Body

Genes essentially control every function of your body and the kind of food that you eat tells your genes what to do.  Food communicates information to your genes to determine things like: metabolism, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammation.   Every day you are either promoting health or disease by the foods you choose.  Learning what foods or nutrients to emphasize, reduce or remove based on your individual biology is key to maintaining health and managing chronic health conditions.  A whole food diet is a great first step in the process of learning what works for you and taking care of your health.

Whole Food Diet and the Nutrition Facts Label

1. Beware of marketingDO NOT look at anything but the Nutrition Facts Label on a food product.  It doesn’t matter who’s endorsing it or what the food company says on the package because they ONLY want to sell you the product

2.  Where is the ingredient on the list? The most abundant ingredient is listed first and the others are listed in descending order by weight

3. Investigate unfamiliar ingredients or better yet, if you can’t pronounce or don’t know what the ingredient is put the product back on the shelf

Whole Food Diet: Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins 


Choosing healthy carbohydrates means choosing whole, intact grains as much as possible and reducing or eliminating sugars and other refined carbohydrates.  Whole, intact grains maintain their fiber and other valuable nutrients compared with refined and processed carbohydrates.  Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients are maintained when a grain is kept intact or whole as opposed to refined sugars and carbohydrates that are stripped of these nutrients during processing.

Phytonutrients are healing compounds that are naturally found in plant foods and often are responsible for giving plants their vibrant color.  Some phytonutrients include, beta-carotene in carrots, lycopene in tomatoes and resveratrol in grapes. Thus, carbohydrates also include vegetables, fruits, legumes and beans.  

Whole, intact grains and other high phytonutrient carbohydrates help to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, decrease blood cholesterol levels and help intestinal flow and elimination.  Additionally, some carbohydrates promote the growth of “friendly” bacteria and provide “fuel” for the large intestine.


Most people eat adequate total protein, but the quality and digestibility of the protein source is most important.   Often people eating the Standard American Diet, or “SAD”, may be lacking in specific amino acids.   Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and all are essential for proper metabolism. 

Non-essential amino acids are synthesized by the body and essential amino acids must be obtained from the diet.  However, if the need for an amino acid becomes greater than the body can synthesize, it then becomes essential.   Examples of a when non-essential amino acids become essential include: for detoxification, anti-inflammation, as antioxidants, in certain medical conditions, due to genetic deficiencies.  In addition to providing amino acids to the body for metabolism, quality dietary protein sources help stabilize blood sugar levels and promote satiety.  

Examples of good quality protein sources include:

  • Safe, mercury free fish (go to the omega-3 fatty acid link for more)
  • Organic, non-GMO (go to the GMO foods link for more) whole traditional soy foods like, tofu, miso, soybeans and tempeh in reasonable quantities (no more than 1-2 servings/day, best = fermented sources) and avoidance of second-generation soy products like soy cheese, hot dogs, burgers, frozen desserts as well as soy supplements, powders
  • Organic, free-range lean poultry and pasture-raised, omega-3 enriched eggs
  • Organic, grass fed and grass finished lean red meat - this includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, buffalo, elk (no more  than 1, 3-4 ounce serving per week, *best = red meat only as occassional treat)
  • Organic, grass fed unsweetened/plain, 2%/whole milk dairy like cow, sheep or goat milk, Greek yogurt or kefir or dairy alternatives like nut and coconut milks (*best = try to incorporate more non-dairy alternatives into your diet)
  • Beans, legumes like lentils and chickpeas (at least one serving per day)



Until recently, dietary fat has gotten a bad rap.  Since the late 1980’s, the start of the low-fat diet craze, lots of people have tried to avoid dietary fats at all costs, but it seems that unless you are replacing the fat with the right type of nutrients this doesn’t necessarily lead to a healthy diet.   You need fat in your diet. For example, all of the tissues and organs in your body contain fat and dietary fats play a critical role in health and healing. But, its the balance of type and amount of dietary fat that is most important in determining how well your body functions, maintains health and heals. 

Healthy Fats Include:

Omega-3 fatty acid

Some omega-6 fatty acids

Monounsaturated fatty acids (mufas)

Some saturated fats, in modest quantities and from selected sources.  The link between saturated fat and disease is of great debate.  Diets high in certain animal products or animal fats have been associated with inflammation and chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.   Animal foods can be a part of a healthy diet.  If you include animal foods in your diet its best to do so in modest amounts and choose free range, grass fed and finished and organically raised animals as they have less saturated fat and more healthy fats than grain fed animals and are free of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones.  A healthier source of saturated fat comes from coconut products like organic, unrefined coconut oil or coconut milk.   Coconut oil is a good choice for baking and high temperature cooking.  Dark chocolate rich in cocoa (70%+) is also a healthy saturated fat in very small quantities (free of added fats, minimal amounts of added sugars).

Unhealthy fats include: refined polyunsaturated oils (industrial oils), hydrogenated/trans fats and high intakes of saturated fats. 

Whole Food Diet: Eating “Clean” 

A mention of “clean” eating is necessary as part of the whole food diet approach.   Clean eating includes choosing clean foods, like opting for organic and avoiding GMO foods.

Whole Food Diet: Meal Planning 

So, what does this mean in terms of actual meals and snacks?  Think of your plate filled with about two open palms-full of food.   In general, half of your plate should contain colorful, non-starchy vegetables and a bit of fruit , a quarter should contain a high quality protein source, another quarter contains a whole, intact grain or starchy vegetable and healthy fat should also be included in the meal. 

To look at an example day’s meal plan, click here: healthy diet meal plan

So, what’s the first step in moving towards long-term health and healing?  Find out where your food comes from and what’s in it.  Eat a whole food diet - real, fresh, organic and unprocessed.

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Some References: The Institute of Functional Medicine, Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, 2004; Hyman, M. Ultrametabolism,2006; The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Food as Medicine conference, 2012, Willett, WC et al. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines: The Best Recipe for Health? NEJM 2011;365:1563-65.

Each month I’ll bring you the latest research related to natural healing and nutrition in a way  that will be of use to you.

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