Making Whole Foods a Way of Life | National Nutrition Week, by Kelly Francis, Registered Dietitian

Making Whole Foods a Way of Life | National Nutrition Week, by Kelly Francis, Registered Dietitian

In South Africa, the 9th to the 19th of October represents National Nutrition and National Obesity Week.  This year’s theme is “Make Eating Whole Foods a Way of Life”!

The prevalence of obesity is increasing in all stages of life from pre-schoolers to young adults and a huge contributing factor to this epidemic, is the increased availability of highly processed foods and ultra-processed foods.

Whole foods include naturally occurring foods, unprocessed foods and minimally processed foods that maintain the nutrient qualities of the original food. Whole foods are rich in nutrients and fibre which makes eating whole foods essential to achieving a nutritionally complete diet.

These whole plant foods do not need to be organic but we can reduce the toxic burden from pesticides by washing fruits and vegetables before consuming them.  It helps to wash all fresh produce when arriving home from the store as this will reduce time and water wastage later on. It also means you will not have to remember to wash an apple before eating it.

Variety is the key when it comes to eating more whole foods. Each different plant-based food has a different set of nutrients to offer. While broccoli as an excellent source of nutrients, it lacks in vitamin A when compared to orange vegetables such as butternut or carrots. There is value to “eating the rainbow” as it ensures that we cover all our nutrients requirements – nutrients naturally found in whole foods and minimally processed foods.

With a diet rich in whole foods and minimally processed plant foods, comes an automatic reduction in added sugar, palm oil (saturated fat), salt and food additives such as preservatives, stabilisers, colourants, artificial flavourings.

Reading food labels is an important skill to learn as it empowers us with the knowledge regarding the foods we buy and eat. Making informed food purchases can dramatically improve the nutrient profile of any family’s diet.  As a rule of thumb, the longer the ingredients list, the more processed a food is. The difficult to pronounce words are generally additives, emulsifiers and stabilisers used to extend shelf life, promote temperature control during transport and minimise spoiling during handling. The presence of these ingredients is a clear indicator that such foods should be limited in the diet.

Food Label Check List
Total Sugar< 5g per 100 g food< 2.5 g per 100 ml drink
Saturated Fat< 2.5 g per 100 g food / drink
Total Sodium< 120 mg per 100 g food / drink
Dietary Fibre> 3 g per 100 food / drink

Vegetables and fruits are not the only whole foods we have at our disposal. Incorporating dried beans, lentils and chickpeas into meals and snacks on a regular basis is a simple way to consume more whole foods. These legumes can be creatively added to soups, stews, salads, curries, mince dishes or blended into dips and spreads. Eating more legumes can help us to reduce our intake of red meat and processed protein based foods. Substituting refined grains with whole grains is also advisable.

Menu planning is the best way to ensure that the family diet includes sufficient whole foods for optimal health. Planning the weekly meals with specific vegetables also assists with shopping. Frozen vegetables are perfectly suitable if spoiling or wastage is a barrier to buying enough vegetables for consumption every day of the week.

Helping children to adapt to a plant-based diet will help them to establish a healthy diet that will follow them into adulthood.  Students for example who understand and experience the benefits of a plant based diet and are accustomed to including vegetables and fruits into their meals will be less likely to adopt a diet of convenience meals devoid of colour and nutrients.

To ‘Make Eating Whole Foods a Way of Life’ is a sustainable way to meet nutrient requirements and reduce the risk of obesity and the diseases related to obesity.