Choose whole foods for health

August 27, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes are alive with nutrients that fuel the body and strengthen the immune system. These pure, unprocessed foods are the basic building blocks of a healthy diet.

Many of the nutrition problems in the United States are related to our over-consumption of highly processed foods and snacks. Dietary supplements can provide some nutrition insurance, but whole foods offer great taste and the natural nutrient bundles necessary for overall health.

The good nutrition news is that you can enjoy cooking convenience without giving up your favorite foods. All you have to do is make more whole food choices every day.

Whole foods are naturally rich in nutrients. Whole foods come from every food group. Whole grains offer wholesome energy, fiber and a long list of vitamins and minerals. Produce provides disease-fighting phytonutrients. Dairy foods build bones and teeth with protein, calcium and vitamins. Meats add ZIP (zinc, iron and protein) to your plate.


Whole foods are lower in trans fatty acids. In July 2003, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to require nutrition labeling of trans fatty acids on all foods and supplements. Trans fats, linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, mostly come from the hydrogenated vegetable oils used in baked and snack foods. Some naturally-occurring trans fats, such as CLA in meat and dairy foods, may actually have health benefits.

Whole foods are lower in sodium. The average American consumes more than 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day, about 75 percent from processed foods and restaurant meals. The government recommends 2,400 milligrams per day for healthy people - and 1,500 milligrams for the over 50 million Americans with high blood pressure. Whole foods have less sodium than processed foods. Fruits, vegetables and dairy foods help lower blood pressure.

sugar. Eating and drinking too much sugar can lead to dental problems and weight gain. A recent study showed that kids who drank more than 16 ounces of sweetened beverages per day consumed fewer nutrients and an average of 244 more calories per day. Power drinks (like reduced fat milk and 100-percent juices) and whole foods (like yogurt and cheese) have more nutrients and less sugar.

Hectic lifestyles can make getting the whole foods we need for good health difficult. Getting the whole foods you need may be easier than you think. You could try:

  • Apple slices instead of potato chips at lunch.

  • An omelet loaded with vegetables.

  • Whole-wheat bread instead of bleached flour breads and pastries.

  • Grapes, berries or other bite-sized fruit instead of candy.

  • Raw nuts for a high-protein afternoon snack.

  • Desserts of fresh fruit combined with low-fat yogurt.

  • Steaming (in microwave) vegetables to serve with lunch and dinner.

Whole foods with essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and phytonutrients are key to acquiring energy, stamina and emotional balance. When you don't get enough of these foods, you are depriving your body of the nutrients you need to feel great and stay healthy.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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