Do you consider yourself to be a whole foodie? Years ago, on my personal journey to become a professional whole foodie, I found myself in culinary school, studying holistic and plant-based cuisine at NYC’s Natural Gourmet Institute. My most valuable lesson from the training: Criteria for natural food selection.
If you’re on a budget, this list of priorities for picking natural foods helps you prioritize what you should splurge on, based on how much it impacts your health. Based on the teachings of the school’s founder and renowned nutritional expert Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D, here are the top five criteria for selecting natural foods—for your health and the health of the planet. The list goes from top priority, down the line.
The term "whole foods" refers to food that is unrefined, unprocessed, in a natural state. Whole grains are the most obvious example of a whole food—the endosperm, germ and bran of the grain are all kept intact. There are countless other examples: beans and legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits, unprocessed animal proteins, first-pressed oils (like extra virgin olive oil)… the list goes on.
Whole foods are those that retain their nutritional integrity, those which have not been compromised and are still recognized by the body when we ingest them. When we eat a processed candy bar that’s full of artificial ingredients like preservatives, artificial flavorings and manufactured fats, the body has a very difficult time interpreting how to digest, utilize and ultimately metabolize these ingredients—at a very base level, it’s one of the reasons these foods lead to disease. They cause an imbalance because the natural biology of our bodies just isn’t evolutionarily designed to eat them, and so imbalances occur.
Choose whole foods (whether plant or animal) in their most natural state. Eat nuts instead of an energy bar. Roast a turkey instead of buying “deli meats.” Use olive oil in your cooking instead of processed margarines. Above all else, the body reacts positively to whole, real food.
Fresh foods taste better to eat, and they’re almost always better for the body. A carrot begins to lose its nutrition as soon as it is rooted from the soil. Similarly, an apple begins to lose its nutrition once it’s plucked from a branch. Once you bite into that apple, it begins to oxidize at a rapid rate and lose its color, flavor and nutritional integrity. The same happens once you cut into a mushroom, an onion or a bell pepper—oxidation begins to stale the food. For this reason, pre-chopped vegetables, especially those bagged and shipped from another state (or country) are never as good for the body as whole veggies that you bring home and cut yourself.
Certain traditional methods of preservation like salt curing or lacto-fermentation can actually preserve your fresh produce for months at a time while keeping their nutritional values unharmed—but commercially canned and preserved foods are often laden with preservatives and additives to keep them from spoiling over time. Avoid canned, jarred and boxed foods as much as possible—these items are full of sodium and preservatives that kill most enzymes in food, rendering them hard to digest and not nutritionally viable (canned fish and beans are exceptions to this rule, as they hold up well to canning). When ample fresh produce is not an option in your area, frozen vegetables and fruits are a good second best—and certainly more desirable than canned.
Whether certified organic or simply authentic sustainable agriculture, seek food products produced without synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, growth stimulants or antibiotics. Organic and sustainably-raised foods are important not just for your personal health, but for the health of the planet. Pesticides and fertilizers deplete the soil over time, leading to erosion, loss of crops and a myriad of environmental problems.
Our government is hesitant to say that organic foods are necessarily healthier than non-organics, but countless studies have shown possible risks of eating non-organic foods (from allergies and immune problems to toxicity and some cancers). Choosing organic foods is a way to simply eliminate the complication of these risks.
4 and 5) Local/Seasonal
These next two items are inextricably linked together, for they go hand-in-hand. Local foods are bound to be in season (because, if you live in Minnesota, you’re just not going to find locally grown tomatoes in January). Eating this way is both good for the body and simply a really awesome way to connect with your surroundings and the seasonal changes. Do you know what foods are in season right now, at this moment, in your 100-mile radius? Would you like to? Find out at Sustainable Table. Support your local farmer, get in touch with the seasons, and find your entire perception of the natural world filled with more color and understanding. Plus, local and seasonal foods are at their freshest (as they don’t have to travel far to get to you) and most flavorful peak.
The best ways to find local foods: join a garden (or start your own); join a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) program; shop at your farmers market; and select domestic foods over imported ones at the regular ol’ supermarket.