What is a “whole food” diet, really?

Inigo Montoya

I started thinking about this question yesterday (in response to something I’ll share below) and had a bit of a “woah – paradigm shift!” moment, so I thought I’d share with you all! (Also, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to have a picture of Inigo Montoya on my blog.)

In the realm of nutrition, the “whole food” diet reigns supreme. From the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans to your neighborhood Paleo blogger, almost everyone agrees that a healthy diet is a diet based on “whole foods.”

It’s quite interesting, then, that some of these “whole food” diets have very little in common with each other. It’s even more interesting that some of these “whole food” diets include recommendations to eat things that are definitely not “whole foods.” 

I think the “whole foods” ideology has become so ingrained for most of us that we don’t ever stop to think about what it actually means. Now, I know this is partially an issue of semantics, and not everyone gets their jimmies rustled over semantics like I do. Nevertheless, I think the topic deserves some thought, especially if we’re going to use the “whole foods” classification to determine whether a food or diet is healthy or not.

Fats: not a whole food

This is where I had a paradigm-shift moment: fats are not a whole food. There is not a single isolated fat or oil that could be considered a whole food.

We like to hate on industrial seed oils for being gross, despicable excuses for food (soybean oil, I’m looking at you!), and we’re quick to slap the “refined” sticker on their little oily, oxidized foreheads. But do you know what else is refined? Extra virgin olive oil. Coconut oil. Macadamia nut oil. Eating the “whole food” would mean eating olives, coconuts, and macadamia nuts.

Even butter cannot be considered a “whole food.” Do you know what is a whole food? Milk. When you separate the milk into its constituent parts and eat them in isolation, it isn’t really a whole food anymore.

The funny thing is, healthy fats are lumped into so many “based on whole foods” diets that I never really thought about them as an exception to the rule. It has become so natural to add fats to things or use fats to cook with, but strictly speaking, it’s not a very “natural” thing to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love butter and coconut oil and olive oil, and happily include them in my daily diet. But just because something appears by all accounts to be a healthy food does not make it a “whole food.”

Whole grains and legumes: definitely whole foods

I don’t want to get into the pros/cons of whole grains and legumes in this post, but whatever else you may say about them, they’re definitely whole foods. It’s hard to get more “whole foods”-y than a bowl of whole buckwheat groats or boiled lentils.

So what does a “whole food” diet really look like? Well, the impetus for this post was stumbling upon just such a thing: “Plant Paleo,” from Humans Are Not Broken. This is the first dietary approach I think I’ve ever seen that actually encompasses what it means to “eat whole foods.” A few select points from the page:

  • Eat mostly organic plant-based foods as your staples.
  • Eat small servings of naturally and ethically raised or (sustainable) wild animal-based foods and broths.
  • Eat some raw vegetables everyday (a mixed salad, for example).
  • Consume any water or broth used to sautè or boil your vegetables, meat, and bones…don’t waste those delicious nutrients!
  • Avoid or greatly reduce refined sugars, fats, and proteins—yes, including all cooking oils and other added fats like butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sour cream, heavy cream, half & half, etc.
  • Get some non-stick pans and a non-stick indoor grill to help you cook without added refined fats. I prefer ceramics.

Basically, the gist of the diet is vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, animal products, whole grains, and legumes, either eaten raw or cooked with no added fat of any kind. I checked out some of the example meals listed on the page, and there were lots of dressing-less salads.

Now, a discussion of the merits or perils of such a diet is a topic for another day (or for Matt Stone, who would take one look at this plan and run for the hills while protectively shielding his thyroid and guzzling a sugary beverage). But that is what I call a “whole food” diet.

And to be honest, it’s probably far more “paleo” than the Paleo™ diet (as most commonly implemented) is. The use of fats and oils is no more “paleo” than eating grains and legumes, and quite possibly less so. It’s pretty clear that there was at least some consumption of grains and legumes by paleolithic man, but they would’ve had no access to refined oils, and would only have eaten animal fat in the context of the whole animal.

This is why I find it pretty entertaining that bulletproof coffee is so popular in the Paleosphere, and that people frequently search for ways to include more fats (like coconut oil) into their diet. Again, not saying these practices are unhealthy, but if you’re approaching diet from a “whole foods” or “paleo” perspective, it doesn’t make much sense. (That said, if you’re approaching diet from a therapeutic/biohacking/I-like-tasty-food perspective, it makes a lot more sense, and more power to you!)

Anyway, if my random musings inspired any reactions or musings of your own, I’d love to hear them, so leave a comment! Hope you guys have a swell weekend.


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