Popular diet terms like "clean eating," "whole foods," and "unprocessed foods" sometimes seem simple and straightforward but can also be a little confusing. Are these all the same? Which is better?
First, a Story.
A few years ago, I worked in a physician's office. This doctor was a specialist in treating HIV / AIDS and was one of the first doctors in the U.S. to specialize in this condition. He was involved in many of the clinical trials which led to life-saving medications. Working for him was truly a learning experience. One day, we had a lunch provided by a pharmaceutical rep. The lady said something along the lines of "Our product is better than our competitors product because it does not have such-and-such side effect." Seemed like good information. However, this was red flag to the physician. Politely, but extremely boldly, he advised the rep not to characterize one medication as better than the other. Instead, as healthcare providers we have to understand the features of the medication. Yes, it was a favorable feature that this medication did not have a specific side effect. However, a large group of patients could not take the medication for other reasons. And for them, the "competitors product" was clearly a better choice. To ignore such information would be a danger disservice to patients who needed the best information.
This brief lesson was an eye opener to me. People frequently ask for my opinion on which diet, supplement, food, grocery store, company, book is the best. The simple answer is "I don't know." The more in depth answer is "It depends." It depends on what you need, what you want, and what you are willing & able to do. Instead of deciding which diet is "the best" lets look at some definitions and understand the features of these diets a little better.
Clean Eating vs. Whole Foods vs. Unprocessed Foods
Merriam-Webster defines Whole Foods as "a natural food and especially an unprocessed one."
"Whole Foods" also refers to the entire food - for example, a fresh orange is the whole food whereas orange juice is a processed product that does not contain all of the components of the whole food.
A more in depth description was first used in 1946: Whole food was defined as "mature produce of field, orchard, or garden without subtraction, addition, or alteration grown from seed without chemical dressing, in fertile soil manured solely with animal and vegetable wastes, and composts therefrom, and ground, raw rock and without chemical manures, sprays, or insecticides," having intent to connect suppliers and the growing public demand for such food.
Food processing turns unprocessed agricultural products (unprocessed foods) in to edible food (rice is harvested and prepared to be sold to consumers). This is known as primary processing. Secondary processing is when edible foods are turned in to familiar foods (ie: rice is turned in to puffed rice cereal). Tertiary processing is associated with negative health consequences, excess added sugar, sodium and other ingredients (for example: puffed rice is made in to sweetened cereal bars). Processed foods have gotten a bad reputation, but processed foods have a lot of beneficial features: convenience, food preservation, and food security. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not advocating a diet rich in overly processed foods.
Clean Eating generally means eating whole foods that are minimally processed. However, it can also have negative connotations.
Single Ingredient Foods / Single Ingredient Groceries
An ingredient is one part of a mixture. For groceries, this means that the item purchased contains only one ingredient.
A single ingredient food may be processed or unprocessed (A whole coconut would be minimally processed while dried coconut would be further processed). A single ingredient food may be whole or not (A whole coconut would be "whole" while coconut water isn't considered whole because it is made up of only part of the whole coconut.)
So, if a person is able to eat coconut, knowing that specific foods contain ONLY coconut may be a matter of safety & comfort. (For example, a bag of shredded coconut would be a safe food for somebody with nut allergies; but a bag of trailmix that contains nuts and coconut would not be a safe food.) Minimal food processing allows for wholesome food to be more convenient. Examples of single ingredient coconut foods include: canned coconut milk, coconut water, and dried shredded coconut. These foods can be used in lots of ways: canned coconut milk can be blended in to smoothies, cooked in rice & peas, made in to a curry sauce. Coconut water can be a simple beverage or blended with other fruit juices. Dried shredded coconut can be added to hot cereals, cold cereals, smoothie bowls, trail mix, or blended in to smoothies. Different formats of foods allow for flexibility in terms of nutrition as well. A person with dental problems might not tolerate dried coconut but could enjoy the liquid forms. A person on a fat-restricted diet may not tolerate coconut milk but may tolerate coconut water. A person on a fiber-restricted diet may not tolerate dried coconut but may tolerate coconut milk and coconut water.
Another example is white rice vs. brown rice. Brown rice is a whole food and is a single ingredient food. White rice is processed so that the outer portion of the rice is removed. So while it is not a whole food, it is a single ingredient food. A person who can eat rice has the option of having white rice and brown rice - both have nutrition benefits and each has different flavor and cooking profiles.
To recap, Single Ingredient Groceries are a matter of safety and comfort, and help a diet to be convenient and flexible.
What are you favorite Single Ingredient Groceries? Let me know in the comments below.
So if you are following any type of elimination diet (food allergies, food sensitivities, LEAP / MRT, LOW FODMAP) or any therapeutic diet (low sodium, no added sugar, DASH diet, renal diet) or other diet (vegan, paleo, keto, low carb, plant based, gluten free, dairy free), you have probably figured out that reading food labels matter. What is in your food matters-- the nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins & minerals) matter and so do the ingredients. Keep reading to find out why purchasing Single Ingredient Groceries (foods with just one ingredient) can help you stay on track with your diet.
1. Safety First.
One of the main lessons I teach my patients is to not restrict their diet when they don't have to. Restricting when not necessary may lead to a really boring diet, poor nutritional intake, and feeling deprived and unhappy. However, in the case of food allergies, food sensitivities, food intolerances and adverse food reactions, certain dietary restrictions are a safety consideration. Food allergies can be life-or-death situations and other reactions can be extremely uncomfortable, or cause long term health problems.
Lets talk gluten free diets for a minute. If you have celiac disease, eating a food that contains gluten might cause immediate discomfort AND could cause long term damage to your digestive tract. Maybe even more alarming is knowing that wheat and gluten might be "hidden" in "safe" looking foods. (Here's an article on hidden sources of gluten.
Reading labels is ALWAYS important, but choosing groceries that contain only a single ingredient is a strategy that can help reduce the risk of unintended ingestion. For example, buying a fresh potato is less risk than buying a canned potato soup, frozen french fries, or a boxed mashed potato mix -- all of which contain more ingredients and MIGHT contain gluten.
2. Its Good To Have Options.
If you're used to buying pre-made foods (canned soups, frozen foods, mixes), the thought of cooking from scratch might not seem too appealing. However, lets look at the bright side. There are definitely convenience foods that only contain one ingredient. (more on this coming soon, but here's an example of a potato flake that contains just potato - no other ingredients, no fillers, no gluten, no hidden dairy. Of course, you'll have to season it, but it comes with peace of mind.
In addition to peace of mind, you also have flexibility when buying single ingredient groceries. A fresh potato can be made in to lots of things -- fried potatoes, baked potatoes, potato soup, mashed potatoes, potato soup, oven roasted potatoes, and lots more. A boxed of mashed potato mix can't turn in to a baked potato. The same goes for lots of single ingredient foods. Plain rice can be made in to lots of dishes and seasoned just about any way you imagine.
3. You Might Save Some Money, Too.
I hear it all the time -- eating healthy is so expensive. Well, it can be. But it doesn't have to be. Prepackaged "specialty" foods can almost always cost more than "regular" foods. But more importantly, bulk foods and single ingredient groceries usually cost waaaay less than processed foods. Making a habit of buying these foods and having your pantry stocked with single ingredient pantry basics can definitely be a wise financial decision.
Not sure where to buy your single ingredient groceries?
See my post 3 WAYS TO MAKE GROCERY SHOPPING BETTER.
What are your favorite single ingredient groceries?
Let me know in the comments.
If your life is anything like mine, I am willing to bet that grocery shopping is not something you LOVE to do. Even though grocery shopping is essential for good health (and probably even for good wealth), it is a chore. It is time consuming, stressful, confusing, tiring and generally annoying. It can be even worse if you are shopping for any type of therapeutic diet or if anyone in your house has food allergies or sensitivities. Oh, and do you have to take your kids with you? Don't even get me started on this topic.
1. Know What You CAN Eat.
In my practice, I have noticed a trend among my patients. I ask them what they normally eat. They tell me what they don't eat. Often, they describe a very frustrating situation. They are avoiding certain foods or ingredients (gluten free, dairy free, vegan, low fat, etc). But they don't really know what they can eat. So they don't go grocery shopping, don't cook meals, and end up at Popeyes or Chic-Fil-A. Or, they eat an unbalanced meal meal (like "just vegetables") or a bland meal that they don't enjoy at all. Later in the evening they're searching for chips, ice cream, and cookies.
So, the solution to this is to focus on what you NEED to eat and what you CAN eat and what you WANT to eat.
We all know that every body is different, and each person has their own dietary needs and preferences. So, it is hard to say what "everybody" NEEDS to be eating. However, there are some really simple meal & snack patterns that help with meal planning.
Breakfast: Protein + Starch + Fruit
Lunch & Dinner: Protein + Starch + Vegetable
Snack: Fruit + Dairy or Fruit + Nuts
There are lots of variations on this.
Here are some more options:
Diabetes Plate Method
My Plate Method
Using a Diet Plate
ACTION STEP: Make a list of groceries that you like, that fit your diet (vegan, free-from, gluten free, dairy free, paleo, etc). Your list should include foods from each food group in your pattern. Be sure to include cooking oil and seasonings. Preprinted grocery lists & notebooks can help with this part.
2. Decide on your "go-to" grocery store.
I learned a motto a while back, "Don't let good get in the way of perfect." At first I didn't really get it. But after thinking about it, this is really important in a lot of areas in life, including grocery shopping. Sometimes we want to go to several grocery stores to take advantage of sales, buy specific products, or take advantage of gas points or other promotions. There's nothing wrong with this if it suits you. This practice can be cost effective and fun if you have time and energy (and patience!!) for it. But if time is of the essence, its ok to choose one "go-to" grocery store.
Here are some things to look out for when deciding on your "go-to grocery store:
Fair prices - You might not be able to get all the sales and deals or rock bottom prices, but knowing that prices are generally fair, you can make good decisions and buy what you need without spending a lot of time, stress, and energy on grocery shopping.
Convenient location - If the grocery store is too far away or out of your normal driving route, you will probably skip going. But if it is on your way home from work, close to home, or close to other places you have to go, you'll be able to go more easily.
Grocery delivery service - Grocery shopping online can save so much time and can help you save money (no impulse shopping!). Even if you prefer going to a physical location, it is good to have an online option. In my opinion, it is fantastic to have the save "go-to" physical location AND online / grocery delivery service. But it doesn't have to be. You might find that a grocery store that is close to home is meets some of your needs but doesn't offer specialty products. Using an online grocery service like Amazon, Thrive or Walmart might be a way to save time and get the specific groceries you need.
ACTION STEP: Decide on your go-to grocery store and go-to grocery delivery service. Make a note of it.
3. Establish a "Standard Operating Procedure" for grocery shopping.
A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is is a set of step-by-step instructions compiled by an organization to help workers carry out complex routine operations (Wikepedia). This might seem a little much just for grocery shopping but hear me out. Planning meals, buying groceries, shopping, cooking, packing left overs and meeting your family's diet & nutrition needs is complex. There are a lot of decisions to make: who needs what groceries, what is the budget, when should I go to the store, etc. And, grocery shopping is routine. We have to go shopping on a regular basis - daily / weekly / bi-weekly/ monthly etc.
Why would somebody implement a SOP? From Wikepedia, "SOPs aim to achieve efficiency, quality output and uniformity of performance, while reducing miscommunication and failure to comply with industry regulations." In other words, an SOP helps you do something better, easier, and cheaper.
So for grocery shopping, this will be different for each family. Factors to consider are: What groceries are needed in the house? How much food do we need to keep on hand? How often do we need to buy fresh foods? What day is best for shopping? Which day is best for cooking?
Here are some examples of SOP's I help my patients decide on.
1. I will go to my "go-to" grocery store: once a week / once every two weeks / every Saturday / on the days I work from home / every week when my kids are with another family member / when I get out of work early / on the way home from soccer practice. To figure this out, think about what you can do consistently.
2. I will order groceries online whenever: I need specialty products / I work overtime and don't have time to go to the store / my kids have extra activities and I don't have time to go out / somebody in the house isn't feeling well and we can't go to the grocery store as planned.
Now, save this somewhere that is helpful to you: maybe in the notes section of your phone, on a Trello board, as a calendar reminder, or a note in your planner. Be sure to include your go-to grocery store and grocery delivery service.
Grocery shopping can be complicated but it is truly necessary. Knowing what to shop for and how to do it can help you save time and stress. What tips do you have? Share in the comments below.
Written by Lisa Hugh - Registered Dietitian & Food Sensitivity Expert.
Do you follow a special diet for food sensitivities, food allergies, digestive disorders or other reasons?
Finding foods you can eat is tough, so I've put together a lot of resources to make life easier.
The foods featured here are Single Ingredient Groceries.
They contain ONE food ingredient. (Some contain salt which is usually considered "non reactive".)
Information on this website is not intended to take the place of your personal physician's advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Information on this website is not legal advice and you are advised to discuss any health or financial concerns with your own physician, attorney, accountant or other relevant professional.
All information is for your general knowledge and is not a substitute for professional consultations.
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