Firstly, a whole foods vegan diet doesn’t mean that you only shop in Whole Foods! A whole foods diet basically means that you eat food in its whole – i.e. original or natural – form; in other words, the opposite of processed food. For example, instead of eating high fructose corn syrup, which derives from corn but has been so refined that it’s lost all goodness whatsoever, you would eat the actual corn, in its natural state, as in corn-on-the-cob. In other words, it’s about eating as nature intended; when we process and refine whole ingredients, we filter out so much of what makes the thing healthy. We end up with a product that is not found in nature, and for good reason! It’s not balanced anymore, and that’s when it starts to have negative consequences on our health. Taking the example of sugar again, when you eat a whole piece of fruit you’re eating sugar, of course, but because it’s in its whole form, as nature intended, it has fibre and other goodness which tempers the sugar rush and means that you don’t get such a spike in your blood sugar levels. Nature’s not stupid! She gave us these beautiful, perfect ingredients that are already balanced, with just the right amount of sugar, fat, etc., so the work’s already been done for us. When we start to mess with that, that’s when we get into trouble health-wise.
That doesn’t mean you can’t eat anything processed on a whole food diet; obviously all cooked food is processed in a way. But, for me, it means that:
a) I try to do as much processing as I can myself, so that I know exactly what’s gone into the final product (no additives or preservatives) and how it’s been processed (i.e. what methods, like not deep-fat frying, for example!). So, for example, instead of buying a jar of pasta sauce (which is usually filled with sugar) I would just make my own using whole tomatoes, spices, etc.
b) when I can’t make it myself, I try to buy stuff that’s as minimally processed as possible (preferably raw), with little or no added, unnecessary ingredients.
c) I try to limit products that are unavoidably processed, like bread or pasta. This is partly because they’re processed, but also partly because I try not to eat too much gluten (I’ll post about gluten soon!). I do still eat brown rice or spelt pasta, or pasta made from lentils or pulses, and rye/spelt bread, but I wouldn’t normally have them more than twice a week. This was a big change for me, compared to how I used to eat when I first went vegan. I had to change my whole mindset about bread, having been brought up in a culture, and family, where bread is present at almost every single meal (toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, and sometimes bread to accompany dinner). And, while I don’t think bread has to be avoided at all costs (again, see my discussion on gluten), I do think it’s a good idea to limit it to one meal a day, and to learn how to get along without needing it at all. Not only for the gluten issue, but also because it opens up a whole new world of exciting ingredients and tastes – like a quinoa salad for lunch instead of a boring sandwich, or oatmeal topped with berries and seeds for breakfast instead of plain ol’ toast. And, in general, those things are going to be a healthier option too, as they have more complex ingredients and therefore a wider range of vitamins and minerals.
For me, a whole foods diet is just the most logical way of eating for optimal health. It means eating more plants, and keeping it simple – not eating things with added chemicals and preservatives, but instead eating natural, simple ingredients that go from soil to plate with as few steps in between as possible.
I hope that clarifies things a little for you. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!