Ever been told that you should avoid any foods that contain over five ingredients? Nutritionist Kimberley Neve explores the truth behind processed foods and the Whole Foods Diet. 

Have you ever been told you shouldn’t buy food that contains more than five ingredients? As more of us become aware of how fast food and snacks impact our health, there’s been an increase in people looking to eat a whole foods diet – rich in unprocessed ingredients. It’s even gained traction within the vegan community, now that you can get plant-based burgers, oat chocolate and animal-free cheese at the drop of a hat.

But just how much science is there to support this idea of avoiding anything that has a long list of ingredients? And should we all be aiming to follow the official Whole Foods Diet (WFD)? 

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What exactly is the Whole Foods Diet?

The Whole Foods Diet works on the idea that foods in their natural state (ie unprocessed) are the healthiest. Instead of eating chicken nuggets that contain added preservatives, fats, salt and flavourings, you might plump for a plain chicken breast to which you add your own dried herbs and spices. Foods that have been minimally processed do tend to contain more fibre, which helps improve digestion and overall gut health, as well as regulating blood sugar levels and playing a role in lowering cholesterol. Having a piece of fruit over fruit-flavoured sweets, yoghurt or drinks will also contain the vitamins and minerals from the fruit (and none of the added sugars).

None of this will come as any great surprise; I think we all know that a plain chicken breast is more nutritious than a plate of chicken nuggets – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy those crispy bites in our diets. Eating a diet that’s chock-full of plants and lower in saturated fat, salt and sugar is healthier than one high in fried foods and sherbet… but in my professional opinion, following the Whole Foods Diet to the letter isn’t a great idea either.   

The truth about processed foods

The main reason I tend to advise people against worrying whether foods are ‘whole’ or not, is that it tends to lead to high levels of restriction – particularly of the foods we tend to enjoy the most. The word ‘processed’ is also a little unhelpful; there are so many foods that are processed and yet form part of a healthy diet. Processing refers to any process that happens to a food to make it safe and appropriate to eat, such as freezing, drying and heating. This means some really nutritious foods are ‘processed’, such as milk (pasteurised), veg (frozen or canned) or tofu (dried, crushed, boiled soybeans).

When we talk about unhealthy processed grub, what we really mean is ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, which do seem to be detrimental to our overall health. UPFs are usually high in fat, salt or sugar, have a long shelf-life and often a long list of ingredients. This is your pizzas, cakes, chocolate bars. Research seems to suggest that UPFs make us less satisfied after a meal, so you might feel hungrier than you would after eating something homemade. And we also know that regularly having that kind of food can have a potentially negative effect on the gut microbiome as UPFs are low in fibre. If that’s all you eat, your health is going to take a beating because you won’t be getting the full gamut of vitamins and minerals necessary to thrive.  

Every day ‘healthy’ foods like milk (nut or otherwise) are processed and probably include over five ingredients – especially if they’ve been fortified with vitamins.

Sure, having a long list of ingredients is one of the ways you could describe a food that has been ultra-processed, but that doesn’t mean that everything with a long list of ingredients is unhealthy. Think about a homemade soup, for example. You might have carrots, potatoes, parsnips, stock cubes (which also have a number of ingredients), as well as a load of different herbs and spices. You might add a little crème fraîche or oat spread to increase its creaminess. For a simple, healthy meal, you’re well over the five ingredient limit.

It’s also important to understand that a food that is considered less nutritious can still be included as part of a balanced diet. Ultimately, we don’t want to start restricting certain foods because that can be the start of a very slippery slope towards disordered eating. 

Should you eat what you can’t pronounce?

Another thing the clean eating brigade often claims is that you should never eat anything you can’t pronounce. The idea is less about trying exotic foods, and more to do with reducing the number of preservatives, colourings and flavourings you consume. That sounds reasonable, right?

It can be overwhelming when comparing food products – not just when reading the nutritional information, but the ingredients list too, if there are a lot of ingredients you’ve never heard of before. But this idea of avoiding ingredients you don’t recognise is just another restrictive rule that’s worth binning. Many common (and safe) ingredients may have scientific names, for example, ‘ascorbic acid’ is vitamin C (commonly used as a preservative for fruit-based products). 

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When looking at the ingredients list, something to remember is that they are listed in descending order according to the weight used within the product. This can be a useful way to see how much sugar, for example, is in the product: if it’s the first or second ingredient, then it’s likely the product is very high in added sugar.

If you did want to reduce the amount of added sugars in your diet (to help maintain stable energy levels, for example), it’s a good idea to recognise when they crop up. These can be easy to recognise once you know they often end in -ose: glucose, sucrose, dextrose and maltose. They may come in other forms like agave, carob, sorghum, honey, maple and brown rice sugar – which tend to be marketed as being more healthy. 

The truth is that sugars are sugars: we digest them in just the same way as table sugar (despite them often costing five times as much). If you want to buy products made with coconut sugar, enjoy them for the taste rather than the nutritional value. 

Is eating a plant-based diet the best way to go?

A lot of people still seem stuck with this idea that a vegan diet is necessarily healthier, but the same principle applies to plant-based eaters: if you eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and fewer foods high in added sugars, salt and saturated fats, you’ll be healthier. 

Packaged vegan products that are ultra-processed are likely to be less satisfying than a whole food option but they can be really delicious. If you’re transitioning to veganism, they absolutely play a role (and even if you’ve been vegan for years, they can add variety, flavour and enjoyment to your diet).  Ideally, they wouldn’t form the majority of your diet, and the best principle to follow when moving to a vegan diet is not to replace all the animal products with a packaged vegan alternative, but to change how you think a meal should look.

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Ultimately, most of us know what a healthy diet looks like. It’s plant-first, with regular portions of proteins and fats, plenty of fibre and foods that make us happy. If we don’t restrict ourselves, we’re less at risk of forming eating patterns that might be detrimental to our health – which is why idiotic food rules that demand we scrap our favourite fun foods need to die a death.

For more nutrition tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

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