We’ve said before that Karen phytoplankton products are a whole food, but what exactly does that mean? It’s nice when simple questions have simple answers. A whole food is, simply put, any food item that has undergone the least possible amount of processing or preparation. It might seem strange that phytoplankton grown in an advanced hydroponics facility would be “all natural,” but it’s no different than fruits or berries grown in a greenhouse, as long as the cultivation process itself is natural.

An apple straight off a tree is about as whole as it gets, whether it’s picked from an orchard or found in the wilderness. Foods don’t have to be physically intact, of course: if you slice an apple in half and cut out the seeds, it’s still as “wholesome” as ever. But if you peel the apple, you might be missing out on certain nutrients that are often concentrated in the outer layer. A peeled apple certainly isn’t toxic or hazardous, but it might be a little less nutritious. When I was a kid, I knew someone who ate so many apples every day that he peeled them all to make sure there were no pesticides… but by the strictest definition, that makes an apple even less of a whole food! Both the use of pesticides and the removal of the peel are a form of processing. You’ve added something, and you’ve taken something away. The perfect whole-food option is to grow an apple without the use of pesticides, and simply eat the peel. In fact, the next time you eat an orange, consider eating a small piece of the peel as well… it might be bitter, but it’s good for you!

The more processed a food is, the less “whole” it becomes. This includes packaging and preservation, as well as treatments performed during the growing phase. A genetically modified food, or a food sprayed with chemicals or pesticides, isn’t as whole as it could be. The food industry regularly tells us that white bread is just as healthy as whole-wheat bread, but these claims have been widely criticized by the scientific community: The refining process that turns whole wheat into white flour removes many of the nutrients that make it healthier. The higher glycemic index will also cause your blood sugar level to rise more suddenly which puts more stress on your metabolism (a spoonful of pure sugar is less healthy compared to a sweet piece of fruit that is rich in fructose or glucose, even if the exact amount of sugar in each is identical). To make up for this, most brands of white bread are specially fortified with additional vitamins and nutrients… but this fortification also makes it less whole. More seriously, flour is often bleached by the use of chemicals to make it an even brighter shade of white and make it less unpredictable during the baking phase. This is outright banned in the EU, and certain specific flour bleaching chemicals are also banned elsewhere. Obviously, no bleach remains in the final product, and there’s nothing toxic or poisonous about white bread in the least. But why go to all that trouble to artificially remove something if you’re only going to artificially add it back in?

A strict whole-foods diet requires food that is as fresh and unprocessed as possible, but anyone can improve their eating habits simply by being aware. Steamed broccoli is still a healthy option and one of my personal favorite dishes, but it’s technically not as “whole” when compared to crisp, cold, uncooked broccoli florets. For most average people, wholeness is a gradient: If you don’t want to follow a strict zero-processing rule, you can still improve your diet by choosing foods that have undergone less processing. The simplest and easiest example is eating whole wheat bread instead of white bread, avoiding fried foods, and cooking with fresh vegetables instead of canned or frozen ingredients. Originally the term “whole food” was applied to both vegetables and meats, but these days when people talk about whole food diets, they generally mean vegetarian or vegan diets. To be fair, the human digestive system cannot properly process raw meat, so an argument could be made that the simple act of cooking disqualifies meat from being strictly “whole.” Of course, even meat lovers can make healthier choices for themselves: Heavily processed meats like hot dogs and sausages, canned meat, or deep-fried foods aren’t as healthy as fresh milk and eggs, and meat you cooked yourself in your own kitchen. Heavily salted fish can also be bad for you, not only because most of the nutrients are lost in the salting process, but because too much salt is itself unhealthy. Something was added, and something was taken away.

As I’ve said, whole foods don’t have to be all-or-nothing. Even if a strict one-hundred-percent whole food diet just isn’t for you, there’s still a lot you can learn from those who dive into the whole-food lifestyle headfirst: The less processed a food is, the less refined or enriched it is, and the better it is for your system. Not only are such foods more likely to contain vital nutrients in larger quantities, but they also offer a more balanced variety of nutrients. And if you do eat animal products, be sure to know where that livestock came from and whether they were cared for humanely, fed their natural diets, and raised without the use of hormones, steroids, or excessive vaccines.

At the end of the day, a whole-food diet isn’t about counting carbohydrates or measuring vitamin intake, so much as knowing where your meal came from and what was done to it along the way. Regardless of what diet you choose, you owe it to yourself to make informed decisions. The knowledge you gain can only help you!

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