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Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods: What’s the Difference?

By Chris Zinn

You’ll commonly hear that you should be consuming mostly Whole Foods and stay away from highly processed foods. Whether you hear it from me on this blog, or somewhere else, it can sometimes be hard to determine what food lands where on the processing spectrum.

While there may be some foods that are obviously highly processed such as a Big Mac, and some foods that are obviously not processed at all like broccoli, there are some foods that aren’t quite so black and white.

Let’s take a quick quiz, shall we?

For each food below I want you to decide if it is processed or unprocessed:

1. Baked Potato

2. Apple Pie

3. The Baconator from Wendy’s

4. A Grilled Ribeye Steak

5. 2% Milk

Got all your answers? Good.

Now some of you may have had a professor or teacher (or maybe some of you are professors or teachers) that loved to say this phrase when handing out or reviewing a test:

“I’m not trying to trick you with any of these questions”

In this case, however, I was trying to trick you! All of these foods are processed to a degree. Yes, even the baked potato and the steak.

Why is that?

Well, as soon as a food is cooked or anything is added to it, it becomes at least minimally processed. In the case of the baked potato, the actual structure of the carbohydrate molecules has changed once it has been baked. Cooking causes the starch molecules to become enlarged and explode, and this in turn causes the potato to become more viscous, and much easier to digest.

Try eating that potato raw. First of all, it’s going to be miserable unless you’re from Russia or Idaho, and second of all your body isn’t going to be able to digest most of the starches without the potato being cooked.

The same goes for the steak. Once it's cooked, the structure of the amino-acid molecules changes (sometimes even becoming carcinogenic depending on the type of oil and amount of heat that you cook with).

This type of "food processing" that occurs when a food is cooked is called heat processing.

So, did I trick you? Yes, and I don’t feel bad about it! The goal is to shed some more light on what it means for a food to be "processed."

But, does this mean you can’t even cook your foods now without getting yelled at for eating processed foods? Absolutely not!

Not all processing is bad. Some types of processing (like the examples above) are necessary for us to absorb enough nutrients and to avoid pathogens.

Unfortunately, it may now seem like the line between processed and unprocessed food is even more blurred.

Let’s try to fix that.

What Are Processed Foods?

Like I mentioned earlier, it isn’t always black and white with food processing. It’s more of a spectrum.

Let’s call it the "processing gradient."

Just where a given food sits on the processing gradient depends on how much it is manipulated or changed from its original state. This can be anything from freezing some meat, all the way up to adding sugars, nitrates, and fats to food.

Just to give you an idea of the levels of processing that can occur, here are a few examples:

  • Minimally processed foods can be defined as products that were only slightly altered, like frozen meat or bagged salad. This can also include cooking foods, as discussed above.

  • Basic processed foods can be defined as one-ingredient foods that got altered in some way, like adding oil or sugar.

  • Moderately processed foods can be defined as foods that are still recognizable as their original plant or animal source, but with significant changes or additions. This includes things like whole-wheat bread, cheese, and certain types of yogurt.

  • Highly processed foods can be defined as "multi-ingredient industrial mixtures that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source."

When thinking about whether or not you should consider something to be processed or not, there are a few things to keep in mind.

What’s it made of?

One thing you can do to check how processed something might be is to check the ingredient list. See what it’s made out of. For instance, the ingredient list for whole foods or minimally processed foods shouldn’t consist of much more than what the food actually is.

Do you recognize the ingredients?

If you check the ingredient list and there are a few more ingredients than there should be, see if you can pronounce them, or if you recognize them. Often, in foods that are processed there are fillers and most of those words aren't recognizable without further research.

So, if you see an ingredient list with a bunch of words that you don't recognize, you can bet it's been processed to a certain degree.

How many steps away from the original food is it?

Another helpful trick is to see how far from the original food your current food is. For example, fresh-squeezed orange juice is only one step away from an orange. It’s a few more steps if you buy orange juice from the store, and thus further away, and more of a process to make. Orange candy is even further away.

Does it come in a can, box, tube, or bag?

Usually minimally processed or whole foods don’t come boxed, bagged, tubed, or canned. For instance, in the produce section of the grocery store, you’ll find almost all of the fruits and vegetables as is. Processed and highly processed foods like chips, crackers, and cookies don’t usually sit on platters without any packaging.

Going through a few of those questions in your head before you buy or eat something can sometimes help determine how processed a food is.

What are Whole Foods?

So, we now know what processed foods look like. What do whole foods look like then?

Whole foods or minimally processed foods are foods that haven’t been altered beyond being chopped, cooked, or peeled, from their original state.

This includes things like:

  • Whole Grains

  • Fresh fruits and Vegetables

  • Beans and Legumes

  • Fresh Meats and Seafood

  • Nuts and Seeds

Minimally processed, whole foods are usually more nutrient-dense. That means that per calorie they contain a higher amount of nutrients and vitamins than processed foods.

That's a good thing because it means that minimally processed, whole foods are more efficient at giving you the nutrients that you need without adding unnecessary calories to your diet.

Now What?

Of course, now that you know the difference between highly processed foods and minimally processed, whole foods, you can’t ever stray to the dark side and indulge in chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers… right?

Not really. The processing gradient I mentioned earlier is really important because it allows you to see where different foods lie, without labeling them as bad or good. The gradient allows for a softer approach.

It’s almost impossible to eat exclusively whole foods. Trying to do that would surely drive people crazy. But now that you know where different foods fall on the processing gradient, you can opt for the healthier version of some foods.

You’ll inevitably float towards the middle and have things like yogurt and granola with berries. Is that a bad meal simply because it’s not all whole food? Of course not. And it sure beats ice cream and pie!

You’ll probably end up floating far-right and have some ice cream and pie too, and that’s okay as long as you find your way back to minimally processed whole foods.

As with everything, life is about balance! And, now you have some strategies to help you find your way back toward the healthier side of the food processing spectrum when you do go astray.


Want to find out more about how to craft an approach to eating that will fit in with your needs, goals, and lifestyle? You can get started today working with Med Gym's own Certified Nutrition Coach, Chris Zinn, in our Nutrition Coaching Program!

If you've tried diet after diet and struggled to reach your goals, nutrition coaching may be the answer you need. Working with a qualified nutrition coach to craft and stick to the plan that is the right fit for you can be game-changing!

Contact us here to learn more about the nutrition coaching program and how you can get started.

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