Whole Food Nutrition – Whole Food Vs. Ultra-Processed

Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN

The nutrition landscape is confusing and contradictory. You’ll find nutrition experts promoting one strategy or another with evidence supporting why you should jump on their particular bandwagon. When one diet doesn’t work, there’s always another one to try. 

However, a lot of nutrition debates miss the bigger picture. If you want to improve your health or prevent disease, eat whole food

Replacing ultra-processed food with whole or minimally processed options is foundational yet challenging and confusing in the modern food environment. Today’s article will break through some of that confusion. 

We’ll dive into whole foods and their benefits. You’ll learn how to identify whole vs. processed food and tips for transitioning to eating more whole food. Keep reading to learn more about:

  • What is whole food? 
  • What is ultra-processed food?
  • Health risks associated with ultra-processed food
  • How to eat more whole food (Spoiler: include Twenty2 Nutrition Whole Food Bars)

Let’s get started! 

What Are Whole Foods?

Whole food means food in its most whole, unaltered state. Whole food is also called real food or unprocessed food. Once upon a time, it was just called food

Our food system has moved so far away from the traditional foods humans ate for millennia that when we say food now, it often means processed food-like products instead of actual, real food. 

If you still aren’t sure what whole food is, this list will help you identify it:

  • Whole food is food your great-grandmother would recognize. 
  • Whole food has one ingredient – itself. An apple, broccoli, lentils, and barley are all whole foods. Whole food can also be a combination of whole food ingredients. 
  • You can make whole food in your home with standard kitchen ingredients. 
  • Whole food doesn’t contain additives, preservatives, fillers, artificial colors or flavors, refined sugar, or industrial chemicals. 
  • You can imagine growing or raising it. You can trace where whole food comes from. 

Whole food also includes minimally processed versions of the whole food ingredient. Examples are:

  • Drying fruit, beans, spices, or meat 
  • Pressing olives into olive oil
  • Baking whole wheat into bread
  • Making cheese from milk
  • Adding salt to vegetables for fermentation 
  • Cooking tomatoes and spices into tomato sauce 
  • Canning tomato sauce or pickles
  • Freezing fresh fruit and vegetables

Minimal processing helps preserve food and extend its availability. While drying, cooking, and freezing are technically forms of food processing, they don’t significantly change the nutrients available in the overall diet. 

Eating whole foods helps you meet your daily nutrient needs, balance blood sugar, and feel full and satiated from a meal. Plus, you get the full spectrum of nutrients in a food, which works synergistically in your body to promote health. 

Ultra-Processed Food

If whole food is on one end of the spectrum, ultra-processed food is on the other. Ultra-processed food, formerly called “junk food,” makes up more than half of the calories consumed in the United States and other high-income countries, and it’s only increasing. 

Ultra-processed food contains cheap industrial products (like refined corn, soy, wheat, and sugar). Ultra-processed foods contain only a part of the whole food. Along with the fractioned food, you’ll see additives rarely used in home kitchens:

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated or esterified oils
  • Artificial flavors, flavor enhancers, artificial colors
  • Refined or artificial sweeteners
  • Thickening, bulking, gelling, and glazing agents
  • Chemical preservatives

The goal of ultra-processing is to create convenient, highly profitable products (hence the low-cost ingredients) with long shelf lives. Food companies may use sophisticated marketing strategies to suggest the food is healthy, even when the ingredient list suggests otherwise. 

Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, stimulating the taste buds and the brain’s reward center to keep you coming back for more. Instead of fullness or satiety, you’ll feel cravings and hunger. In other words, these foods are addicting by design.

Nutritionally, ultra-processed food tends to be high in calories, sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt and low in fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds). 

Examples of ultra-processed include: 

  • Soda and other sugary beverages
  • Sweet or salty packaged snacks
  • Candy
  • Ice cream and packaged desserts
  • Mass-produced bread and pastries
  • Reconstituted meat products
  • Meat substitutes 
  • Instant noodles 
  • Breakfast cereals

Ultra-Processed Foods and Health

As ultra-processed foods have increased in the food supply (starting in the 1950s), obesity and nutrition-related diseases have risen. Ultra-processed foods contribute to overeating, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation, and an altered gut microbiome. 

Health risks associated with ultra-processed foods include: 

  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Metabolic disease – insulin resistance and diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive disorders, including IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Cancer

The good news is that eating more whole food is in your control and has significant health benefits over time. Small changes, swaps, and shifts can make a big difference. 

How to Eat More Whole Food 

Looking around the grocery store, you’ll see ultra-processed food everywhere. Big food companies monopolize shelf space, have enormous advertising budgets, and make products that are hard to resist because of the cost, convenience, and taste. Given what you are up against, it can be hard to make changes. 

Here are some strategies to help shift towards a more whole-food way of eating: 

  1. Read labels! When you turn a package over, look at the ingredient list first. If the product contains a long ingredient list, including additives you don’t recognize, look for another option with a short ingredient list containing whole foods. If you can’t find something suitable, try making a nutritious version yourself. 
  2. Shop the perimeter. The grocery store’s perimeter is where you’ll find the most whole food options – fresh produce, the meat counter, and refrigerated dairy products. Go down the center aisles for ingredients like whole grains, beans, spices, etc., to complete your recipes.
  3. Make healthy swaps. Every food category will have highly processed options and minimally processed ones with better ingredients. When you identify an ultra-processed food in your diet, read labels and swap it for a better option. Instead of overhauling your pantry and habits all at once, look for healthy swaps one at a time. 
  4. Cook more. When you cook at home, you naturally eat more whole food. Cooking doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. Simple recipes utilizing fresh, quality ingredients taste great and make you feel good. Utilize meal planning, batch cooking, and other strategies to make it easy.  
  5. Reset your taste buds. Because of the addicting nature of ultra-processed foods, some people will have difficulty replacing them because of intense cravings and the body’s preference for hyper-palatable food. Eliminating ultra-processed food for two weeks is often enough to return the taste buds to baseline, where you’ll appreciate the real flavor of food without the need for hyper-stimulation. 
  6. Support small food producers. Look for smaller food companies that operate with integrity and aren’t cutting corners with ingredient quality. Go to the farmer’s market, find locally-owned grocery stores, or shop online to find whole foods and products made with whole food ingredients. 

Twenty2 Nutrition Whole Food Bars offers an alternative to ultra-processed granola bars, protein bars, and candy bars without sacrificing flavor or convenience. Made with a base of organic nuts, seeds, and dates, they contain ingredients you recognize without preservatives, flavorings, or other additives. You’ll get quality nutrition, including protein, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants, from a brand that cares about your health. 

The simple truth is eating whole food while reducing or avoiding ultra-processed items will take you a long way on your health journey. When you eat this way, calories don’t matter as much because you’ll be able to trust your hunger and fullness cues; you’ll naturally stop eating when your body has met its needs. 

Within a whole food framework, there is much room to personalize your diet to your needs and preferences. Plus, it’s easier than ever before to find organic, real snacks, like Twenty2 Nutrition Whole Food Bars, that easily fit into a whole-food eating plan. 

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before changing your diet or beginning a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, take medication, or have a medical condition. 

Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10260459/ 
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002916522001253?via%3Dihub 
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34152831/ 
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33167080/