Wholefoods vs processed foods: what's the difference?

27 Jul 2023 16:42PM by Hannah Whiteley - Academy Nutrition Tutor

whole foods vs

Are you a foodie? Or maybe you’re just interested in learning more about what to eat. It’s sometimes hard to know which foods are better for you than others. Foods we might think are beneficial, could actually be high in sugar or salt. We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about the different types of foods that you're eating, particularly wholefoods and processed foods. Let's get stuck in.

You’re probably wondering, what actually is the difference between whole foods and processed foods? 


What are wholefoods?

Wholefoods are foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed, very close to their natural state. These include fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fresh meat and fish, eggs, pulses, brown rice and quinoa. They’re actually very filling! Wholefoods are nutrient packed and contain different vitamins, minerals and fibre. It gets even better, these foods are typically low in sugar, salt and fat. A diet including a large amount of wholefoods may lower rates of heart disease, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. These types of foods are also most beneficial alongside exercise. They give you the correct level of energy, without feeling tired afterwards. 

Then we have processed foods. These are foods that have undergone some degree of processing. However, it's important to know the difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods. 


What are processed foods?

'Processed food' is a very broad term, including foods such as cheese, canned vegetables with added salt, canned fruit with added sugar, meat preserved with salt. These are most likely your ‘easy options’ when you’re in a rush.

Processing also includes cooking methods such as chopping, peeling, freezing, heating, or juicing. Some level of processing is important, such as sterilisation cooking and drying to destroy harmful bacteria. The addition of emulsifiers keep the texture and increases the shelf-life of certain food.


What are ultra-processed (UPF) foods?

UPF are foods that are highly processed and can have added colours, sugars, salts and preservatives with no nutritional value, as nutrients and fibre are often removed. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll know the kind of foods we’re talking about. One diet classification system is the NOVA which scores foods into levels based on how processed they are. The NOVA describes UPFs as “snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food”. Examples include packaged crisps, white bread, cakes, cereals, baked goods, white pasta, soft fizzy drinks and sweets. All the best tasting stuff, that’s how they grab us! 

UPF tend to be cheap, convenient and tasty, yet are often packed with refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and salt. After consuming these types of foods, it becomes more difficult to keep your body moving. After time you are left feeling tired and lethargic, making it harder to reach your fitness goals. These foods may be incredibly energy dense per gram as well as low in protein and fibre. Therefore, you are more likely overconsume these types of foods before feeling full. These are the type of foods that make you feel sluggish. High intakes of UPF can cause long-lasting health issues such as Type 2 diabetes and cancer. So, it is important to have these types of foods in moderation. 


How do I increase my intake of wholefoods?


    • Choose wholegrain carbohydrates over white varieties, e.g., brown bread, rice, and pasta.
    • Prioritise fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. Limit processed fruit and vegetables such as high sugar juices, fruits in canned heavy syrup, fruit snacks/roll ups, vegetable/potato crisps and salted nuts.
    • Prioritise fresh lean meats, fish and eggs. Limit highly processed meat such as bacon, sausage, chicken fingers, fish sticks, hot dogs and deli meats.
    • Look for low-fat milk, plain yoghurt, low-fat cheese and cottage cheese. Limit ice cream, heavy cream-based dishes, sweetened yoghurts and desserts.
    • Don’t forget about snacks. It’s easy to grab a snack at the counter when you're at the till. Try to plan your snacks just like you would with your meals, incorporating all food groups to create a balanced, whole foods snack (e.g. carrots and hummus; rice cakes, cream cheese and tomato; Greek yoghurt and berries).
    • Meal prep. Planning meals and preparing them a week ahead will reduce the temptation to buy ready meals and snacks when you’re short on time or tired. 

    As you can see, you want to be consuming foods that are most beneficial for your muscles, energy levels and wellbeing. You don’t want the foods you eat to stop you exercising or reduce your level of performance. Food is meant to fuel our bodies and motivate us to keep moving. Making smart food choices will give you that extra push. But don't worry: you don't need to do all of this at once. Just make the decision to start with one and build it up from there. Could you make a swap at dinner time tonight or pick up a piece of fruit between meals? The choice is yours.

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