There’s a lot of lingos out there when it comes to your diet. You’ll hear phrases like “whole foods,” “real foods,” “plant-based foods,” “processed foods” and “ultra-processed foods,” for example.
Katy Argo, a registered dietitian with Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, is helping us sort out the definitions and identify the foods that are better choices for our overall health.
Let’s start with real foods. Argo said real foods, also called whole foods, come from nature—plants or animals. Real foods include animal products like beef, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy, and plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Real foods are filling when you eat them in combination with each other because they contain protein, fiber and water. “Protein and fiber help you feel full longer—think steak and potatoes, or a veggie-rich chicken salad,” Argo said. “Eating more real foods sustains your energy and helps you make better decisions for your next meal or snack.”
Processed foods are usually made with white flour, sugar, excess salt, leavening agents and artificial flavoring. They can be tasty, but they often contain “empty calories” that come from sugar, fat and refined grains and are limited in protein, vitamins and minerals.
Why are real foods typically healthier than processed foods?
“Real foods are found in nature, so our bodies are usually better equipped to digest and use the nutrients found in these foods,” Argo said. “Foods found in nature are also generally more nutritious than man-made foods.”
Eating a diet rich in plant foods, with small portions of animal protein, supports health and longevity. Plants are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and water, and animal foods are often rich in protein and some vitamins and minerals. However, red meat and other sources of saturated fat are real foods that you should limit since they increase your risk of heart disease and weight gain.
Despite their reputation, not all processed foods are bad. “Some degree of processing is often necessary for us to digest and absorb the nutrients in certain foods,” Argo said. For example, oatmeal is processed to quickly let water into the grain, so your breakfast can be ready within minutes.
But ultra-processed foods—for example, Hot Cheetos, Starburst fruit chews and Top Ramen noodles—often have little or no real food components. They have ingredients added to improve shelf-life or product texture, or to achieve a specific synthetic color or flavor. Manufacturers often make these processed foods with heat treatments and chemical processing that strip out nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. They usually contain added ingredients like excess salt and sugar, dough conditioners, preservatives, flavor enhancers and artificial colors.
When you eat processed foods, you are likely displacing healthy real foods from your diet. “Every time you choose a processed item, a real food loses a seat at the table. Over time, these daily diet patterns can positively or negatively influence our health,” Argo said. And many of us are eating a lot of processed foods. A recent study found that children and adolescents get 67 percent of their calories from ultra-processed food.
Processed foods can be especially harmful to people with chronic health problems. For example, if you have heart, liver or kidney disease, you might need to be cautious with processed foods that have excess salt. If you have diabetes, you might need to read food labels for added sugar content.
Here’s how to shift your diet toward more real food
Argo has a few tips for boosting your real-food intake:
- Make a grocery list before you go to the store. When you know what you need, you won’t forget a staple item, and you’ll be more likely to resist the temptation of highly processed foods.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s where you’ll find whole-grain bread at the bakery, meat and seafood at the deli, dairy products and fruits and vegetables. “The inner aisles are where you’ll generally find refined, processed foods,” Argo said.
- Read food labels to see what’s inside. “Learning how to read a food label can help guide you on your journey towards better health,” Argo said. For example, some protein powders contain a single ingredient, like whey or soy protein. Others are full of sugar and artificial flavors.
- Don’t dismiss all processed foods. “Plenty of companies offer minimally processed packaged goods that can offer nutritious options in our busy modern lives,” Argo said.
- Find fruits and veggies in the freezer section. “Frozen produce is a convenient, cost-effective way to get more real foods in your diet,” Argo said.
- Choose organic only if it works for you. Organic food may be more humane or environmentally sensitive, but there’s not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food when it comes to nutrition.
- Consider what your food eats. The nutrients in animals come from the plants and animals they eat. “Options like grass-fed beef are preferred, since grass-fed cattle may have higher amounts of healthy fats compared to grain-fed cattle,” Argo said.
- Get your vitamins and minerals from real food first. “Vitamins and minerals are the keys that unlock many of the body’s functions, and these exist naturally in real foods,” Argo said. “Processed foods usually add these nutrients back in later during processing, if at all.” Supplements can offer a safety net, but real foods also contain protein, fiber, and water, making them a better nutritional choice.
The bottom line
Eating foods from nature—real foods—can help you live a long, healthy life. Shift your diet away from nutrient-poor processed foods and make room for healthy plant and animal foods. Reach out to a Banner Health dietitian for personalized tips on improving your diet.
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