Whole foods are foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, before being consumed.
Typically they don't contain any added salt, carbohydrates, or fats.
Examples include unpolished grains, beans, fruits, vegetables and non-homogenized dairy products.
The term is often confused with organic food, but they are not necessarily organic, nor are organic foods necessarily whole.
Diets rich in whole and unrefined foods, like whole grains, dark green and yellow/orange-fleshed vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, contain high concentrations of antioxidant phenolics, fibers and numerous other phytochemicals that may be protective against chronic diseases.
A focus on whole foods offers three main benefits over a reliance on dietary supplements: they provide greater nutrition for being a source of more complex micronutrients, they provide essential dietary fiber and they provide naturally occurring protective substances, such as phytochemicals.
According to experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), their studies indicate whole foods, and not dietary supplements, lower cancer risk.
Citing a huge and comprehensive AICR report—Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, the panel of experts cautioned:
"Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention".
The AICR panel examined over 7,000 studies on all aspects of diet, physical activity, weight and cancer risk.
The accumulated evidence from almost 50 different supplement trials, cohort studies and case-control studies showed that, under certain conditions, some high-dose supplements might be protective at specific doses, some did nothing, and some actually increased the risk of cancer.
The results were too inconsistent to justify using supplements to protect against cancer.
In contrast, when the AICR experts examined over 440 studies on cancer risk and foods that contain specific vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, the research was much more consistent.
The panel judged several categories of foods as protective against a variety of cancers, including:
Folate-containing foods, protective against pancreatic cancer.
Carotenoid-containing foods, protective against cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and lung.
(Convincing evidence indicates, however, that beta-carotene supplements promote lung cancer in current smokers.)
Beta-carotene containing foods, protective against esophageal cancer.
Lycopene containing foods, protective against prostate cancer.
Vitamin-C containing foods, protective against esophageal cancer.
Selenium containing foods, protective against prostate cancer.
(Selenium supplements may also be helpful, but the research outcomes have been mixed, and the potential for unfavorable side effects is real.)
Non-starchy vegetables, allium vegetables (onions, leeks, garlic, etc.) and fruits, protective against 7 different kinds of cancer.
Precisely why eating whole plant foods is so protective remains unclear.
The above nutrients in WholeFoods may interact in unknown synergistic ways to reduce cancer risk, or other substances also in whole foods may be responsible.
It might be simply that diets high in whole plant foods simply tend to be lower in foods linked to increased cancer risk, such as red and processed meat.
Regardless, the bottom line remains: diets high in plant foods are associated with greater protection against many different kinds of cancer.
Practical Tip: AICR Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins sums it up, saying, "When you compare the evidence on WholeFoods to the evidence on supplements, there's simply no contest.
It's clear that choosing nutrient-rich whole foods and drinks is preferable to loading up on dietary supplements."Tweet
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