Whole foods. Real ingredients. All natural.
What do these terms have in common? Well, these well-intentioned yet ambiguous buzzwords have been circulating the health and wellness scene in recent years. And if you’re into healthy eating and have ever wondered what they actually mean, you’re in good company! On the surface, they convey a general sense of health, but beyond that, things get a little fuzzy. I mean, what are whole foods exactly? As opposed to unwhole foods?
When it comes to one of the most vital macronutrients, protein, there is an increasing emphasis on getting whole protein in one’s diet. Raise your hand if you need whole answers. We got ’em!
Keeping It Real with Real Foods
For decades, the food industry has created a culture of confusion, giving us conflicting advice on what to eat, what to cut, calories to count, and ingredients to worry about. With all the well-intentioned advice of the 90s and early 2000s–telling us to avoid carbs, limit fruit, use fake sweeteners, and a slew of other nuggets cooked up by food marketers–no wonder we live in a world of dieting quick fixes! The good news is, the general public is becoming more interested in getting back to basics with a common-sense approach to healthy eating. Our culture is experiencing something of an awakening, where healthy meal plans based on wholesome ingredients are once again the focus. Many of us are hungry to reacquaint ourselves with real food and pursue a healthy diet.
As more and more people move away from crash-and-burn approaches to diet, there is also a collective interest in ditching artificial and processed foods, replacing them instead with fresh, real foods, and in many cases, mostly plants. If you’re one of the many who have sworn off dieting and are committed to only putting (actually) natural, non-processed ingredients into your body, we salute you!
Ready for more good news? Eating more whole food sources of protein is simple! And your body already naturally craves it. Whole foods are full of nutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They have the nutritional profile nature intended. And unlike processed foods, they’re pure, single ingredients.
Need an example of whole versus processed? Here you go: fresh berries (whole) vs. berry-flavored fruit chews (seriously processed).
Another: baked potato (whole) vs. instant mashed potatoes (loaded with preservatives, artificial flavoring, added fats and salts, and maybe even food coloring…ahem, processed).
Processed foods are engineered to stand up to long transportation distances and to have a longer shelf life. The flip side is they provide little nutritional value. Eating a bowl of cooked, old fashioned oats will provide your body with far more healthy carbs and fiber than a bowl of instant oatmeal, which has had nearly all of its nutrition stripped away. When it comes to whole foods, less is definitely more, so it’s a smart idea to reach for foods that have been left untouched.
Protein as a Powerful Whole Food
The gist of eating whole, real foods is pretty simple: Pile your plate with lots of produce, whole grains, minimally processed foods, and…you got it, protein!
A common thread in the most popular dietary approaches is to eat plenty of protein-rich food, and for good reason. Our bodies simply cannot thrive without it. Along with carbs and fats, our bodies rely on protein as a major source of nutrition and fuel. Everything from our skeleton and musculature system to our hair and nails, not to mention countless daily functions, could not exist without protein. Protein is also a major factor in healthy weight maintenance since it keeps us full and satisfied for longer.
If you’re interested in understanding more about why protein is so important for your health and how much of it you should be eating, read this other blog post, Understanding Healthy Proteins: Why Everyone is Obsessed with Protein.
All Proteins Aren’t Created Equal
Probably the most common forms of protein society relies on come from meat and dairy. While animal products are what we traditionally think of when considering protein, what we eat is often the furthest thing from whole or unprocessed. Lunch meats, bacon, sausage, or even chicken breast–which can be pumped full of sodium and preservatives, and sometimes even color additives–are not the healthiest options.
Deli meats and other processed meats were recently categorized by the World Health Organization as class 1 carcinogens. Numerous studies over the years have linked the consumption of processed meat to unhealthy lifestyles and various chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
While animal products have become a diet centerpiece over the years, reaching for whole, plant-based protein sources like organic soy, legumes, pea protein, or nuts ensures you’re skipping the sketchy added ingredients and getting a wider array of nutrients and vitamins.
Speaking of Plant-Based Proteins
Most people think of animal products and dairy when they think of protein, but it’s easier than ever to get this vital macronutrient from a variety of sources–whether you’re an omnivore, flexitarian, or vegan–with options like protein powders and plant-based milks that have been enriched with protein. With the recent resurgence of prioritizing whole, real foods, people are taking a closer look at where their protein comes from because when choosing a protein source, it’s important to consider quality over quantity.
Protein, just like carbs or fats, can be processed and turned into something other than its original form. One of the most convenient and popular (not to mention tasty) ways to meet the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is with either a shake or a bar. Unfortunately many are packed with highly processed ingredients and loaded up with sugar. That’s why with every protein bar and shake making significant claims about their nutritional benefits, it’s important not just to scan the total protein content, but to take a deeper look into the ingredient list to see where that protein is coming from. Does your bar or protein powder have recognizable ingredients making up its protein? Recognizing ingredients as actual foods (rice protein, pea protein, nuts, eggs, quinoa, etc.) is a good sign the protein comes from whole foods. If the ingredient list is packed with impossible-to-pronounce, chemically-treated foods, like soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate, and other processed ingredients, we encourage you to give another one a try.
Healthy Whole Food Proteins to Load Up On
If you’re onboard with upping your protein intake but forgoing processed proteins, here are a few great options in addition to meat, fish, and eggs:
Nuts are the ideal protein-rich food and on-the-go snack. This whole-food protein is satisfying and portable on its own, but also makes a healthy base for bars, and can jumpstart your day sprinkled on smoothie bowls or oatmeal at breakfast.
Peanuts, for example, provide nearly 7 grams of protein per ounce with plenty of magnesium, fiber, and omegas. Almonds and pistachios are other healthy options, with around 6 grams of protein per ounce. Make sure you’re enjoying nuts in a whole food form, meaning raw or roasted without oil or excess salt. If you’re eating them in the form of nut butter, the only ingredients should be nuts! A little salt is okay, but no palm oils or added sugars.
If you can tolerate dairy, make sure you are only consuming the highest quality milk that’s free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Dairy, not your friend? Plant-based milks are a healthy alternative. Options like pea protein milk, cashew milk, and organic soy milk, to name a few, provide up to 10 grams of protein per glass. Enjoy them straight up or blended into your favorite a smoothie. Just keep an eye on sugar content!
A popular protein source among vegetarians and vegans, legumes (lentils, edamame, chickpeas, black beans, and peas) are nutrition-packed and a wholly unprocessed protein. One cup of cooked lentils contains a whopping 18 grams of protein! And they’re a great addition to soups, salads, or in curries.
What’s the word on pea protein? It’s been something of an “it” protein recently because of its status as a healthy, whole food alternative to milk and soy. It’s just as high in protein like milk and soy, but without the potential allergic reactions or digestive woes. You’ll often see it added to protein bars and some grocery store items like dried pasta and even potato chips. Because peas are a highly sustainable crop, it’s a friendly choice for your body and the planet. If you want to give pea protein a try, organic, non-GMO pea protein is readily available in plain or flavored protein powder.
The seed that acts and tastes like a grain, quinoa is protein-rich food that boasts 8 grams of protein per cup. Because it’s a nutritional powerhouse–with fiber, minerals, and antioxidants–it’s also shortlisted on just about every Top Health Foods. It’s been popular in the vegetarian and vegan community for years since it’s a complete protein, so give it a try, even if you’re a committed carnivore!
These are just a few examples of whole food proteins that are versatile, delicious, inexpensive, and readily available additions to your healthy diet. They will help you easily meet your RDA of protein, so you can skip the lunch meats and sugary yogurts that are chock full of artificial preservatives, flavoring, and saturated fat. Protein is best enjoyed just as Mother Nature intended. And remember, it’s always a good idea to eat a wide variety of whole food proteins, whether you enjoy them plain, in savory or sweet dishes, or in protein bar form. Your body will thank you!