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What are the World's Healthiest Foods?

Introduction

Among the thousands of different foods our world provides, the majority contain at least several of the nutrients our bodies need. "The World's Healthiest Foods," however, are those that are the richest sources of many essential nutrients needed for optimal health and vitality; therefore, these foods do the most to promote your good health. Not only are these foods the most nutrient-dense, they are familiar, affordable foods that provide great taste as well as exceptional nutrition.

Our website is an information resource designed to help you understand why these foods are the cornerstone to your optimal well-being and can promote healthy aging. We also provide you with quick, easy menus and lots of tips, so no matter what your lifestyle, you will be able to incorporate these foods into your daily life.

So, just what are the criteria used to select a food as one of the World's Healthiest Foods? The foods selected as the World's Healthiest Foods must meet stringent, science-based criteria for nutritional excellence. Read Our Food and Recipe Rating System for a discussion of these issues.

All of these foods must share the following characteristics:

  1. They are whole foods (in contrast to adulterated or refined) foods. They are real foods complete with all their natural endowment of nutrients, and they have not been highly processed.
  2. They are the "Richest Sources of the Essential Nutrients" in their natural state, and not from artificial or synthetic sources.
  3. They are "Nutrient Dense," which means they contain the highest amounts of essential nutrients in proportion to the least calories and fat.
  4. They are foods that "Contain No Synthetic, Artificial or Irradiated Ingredients".
  5. Whenever possible, they are "Organically Grown" to promote not only your health, but also the health of our planet.
For a complete list of the foods that meet all these criteria--the World's Healthiest Foods--click here: Foods/Spices Database

What is meant by "Whole Foods"?

Whole foods contain nothing more than the naturally occurring nutrients and phytonutrients intrinsic to the original plant or animal from which the food was derived. Whole foods rely on the natural components for their delicious flavors, vibrant colors, and rich textures. Whole foods retain all their vital constituents in the original form in which Nature provided to them; no nutrients have been removed or remodeled, and no synthetic, artificial chemicals have been added.

The word "whole" is derived from the Greek root "holon," which means both a single organism and the entire universe, and signifies that these are single entities but are entwined, synergistic lives woven together to form the whole. The word "food" traces back to the Olde English word "fode," and means to foster, to nourish, and to encourage growth. So, philosophically, the concept of "whole foods" is rooted in an integrated universe in which foods contain the spectrum of essential, synergistic nutrients that, when consumed, foster in us a balanced vitality and wholeness.

Health-promoting foods such as plant foods contain thousands of molecules, some of which have been defined as essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and others are called phytonutrients but are not designated as "essential". Still, many of these non-essential phytonutrients have been shown to support health and well-being and are associated with a decrease in risk of a variety of diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and chronic conditions like arthritis. (For more information about the benefits of phytonutrients, see the Q&A: "What is the Special Nutritional Power Found in Fruits and Vegetables?".) Processed foods have many, if not all of the phytonutrients removed and, when they do contain nutrients that have been added back, generally contain only a few select vitamins and minerals: A far cry from the original food.

For example, whole, unrefined grains, such as wheat, contain three main parts: the germ, or sprouting part of the grain; the endosperm, which contains the starch (calories) to support the young sprout during its early stages; and the bran, which is the protective layer encasing the sprout and its endosperm. In a whole grain food, like whole-grain bread, all three parts of the grain are present; in a refined food, like white bread, the germ and bran are removed, and only the starchy endosperm is used.

Each of the parts of the grain has different purposes, and therefore a different complement of nutrient. The germ is rich in micronutrients to support the young sprout and contains high levels of vitamin E and the majority of the B-vitamins, among other nutrients. The protective bran contains a host of micronutrients to protect the young sprout from damage by the environment, and these same molecules protect your cells, which is one reason the bran is so good for you. The bran also contains over 60 percent of the mineral in grains, and is high in fiber. The endosperm, the part that is used exclusively in white bread contains some vitamins and minerals, but is primarily starch. It's easy to see how whole grains provide the spectrum of nutrients to promote optimal health, whereas processed grains provide mainly calories. For a full discussion on the benefits of the spectrum of nutrients in whole foods, such as whole grain wheat, see the FAQ: "How Healthy Nutrition Builds Your Health, Starting with Your Cells".

What are Essential Nutrients and why are they Important?

Essential nutrients are nutrients that your body can't make on its own, therefore, you must get these important molecules from the food you eat. Essential nutrients classically include vitamins and minerals, as well as some amino acids and specific fatty acids. Whole foods are a preferred choice for these important nutrients since whole foods contain a range of different molecules, and often have these nutrients at the highest levels. In addition, whole foods have these nutrients in their natural, unchanged state. Often during processing, these nutrients are either destroyed or can be changed to other non-nutritious compounds. For example, when oils are exposed to high heat during processing or cooking, not only is their natural complement of anti-oxidants used up, but free radicals and trans-fats may be formed. The result is a food that no longer promotes health.

It's important to remember that for the last 40 years in research on nutrition and health, whole foods have typically been overlooked in favor of individual nutrients. In fact, concern over a single nutrient—for example, fat—has often discouraged scientists from even considering the valuable role played by whole foods. Olives and high-fat fish are perfect examples here. It took very recent research on the Mediterranean Diet to get researchers away from their assumption that these foods could not be beneficial due to their high fat content. Now we know differently, and it's because we have learned to appreciate the unique benefits of whole foods, each containing its own complicated and unique matrix of nutrients.

What is a "Nutrient Dense" food?

Many foods have nutrients in them, but how much do you need to get the "most" nutrients? This is what the concept nutrient dense addresses. Dense literally means "massed closely together", and with respect to nutrients can be interpreted as — the most nutrient per amount or serving size.

As an example, think about the white bread discussed earlier, which is made from the endosperm of the grain, which contains the majority of the calories. This white bread contains starch, a handful of vitamins at relatively low levels. By adding the germ and the bran, and therefore making it a "whole" food bread, few additional calories are added, but a large amount of different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are added, as well as the health-promoting fiber. For about the same calories, the whole grain bread contains a magnitude of difference in both the amount and the number of nutrients. The whole grain bread is nutrient dense, whereas the white bread is not.

Why Should I be Concerned about Synthetic and Artificial Ingredients?

If you read a label on a processed food, you will notice a number of chemical names listed. These chemicals are generally not derived from food, but are made (synthesized) from starting materials such as coal-tar or other non-food chemicals.

Un-whole or processed foods must rely upon the addition of a variety of these synthetic compounds to make them seem to be like the whole food from which they were derived. Most often, processed foods will contain several synthetic, artificial chemicals for coloring, a variety of compounds for flavoring, and at least one chemical as a preservative.

For a more complete discussion, see Q&A "What Are the Problems with Conventional Foods".

What is "Organically Grown"?

Organic refers to "earth friendly"and health-supportive methods of farming and processing foods. Weeds and pests are controlled using environmentally sound practices and sustain our personal health and the health of our planet. The term "organic" applies to both animal and plant foods.

Organic farmers do not use pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers in an environmentally harmful manner. Because of this, organically-grown foods do not contain these potentially damaging chemicals. Many of the chemicals used in farming non-organically are classified as potential cancer-causing agents, and have been shown to damage cells, with the potential of damaging your health. Furthermore, organically grown foods have been shown to contain higher levels of key nutrients that are supportive of optimal health and vitality; that is, they are more nutrient dense than non-organically grown foods. So, by eating organic foods, you can lessen your exposure to noxious, damaging toxins and provide your body with foods that have a higher concentration of nutrients at the same time.

For more information on organically grown foods, see the FAQ: "Everything I Need to Know About Organic Foods".

Enjoy the World's Healthiest Foods--It's Simply the Healthiest Way of Eating

The World's Healthiest Foods are nourishment created by Nature — nothing more added, and nothing taken away. The key to maximizing the many nutritional benefits offered by The World's Healthiest Foods is to enjoy them as part of an overall healthy way of eating. If you choose to rely on the World's Healthiest Foods for the majority of your meals, you will automatically be:

  • Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean meat, fish, and olive oil as the main components of your diet. Without effort, you will be consuming a rich variety of nutrients, including all the essential nutrients that will promote your optimal health and energy.
  • Using monounsaturated fats like pure extra virgin olive oil that do not increase your risk for cardiovacular disease, rather than hydrogenated fats (also called trans-fatty acids or trans-fats).
  • Using foods rich in heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, walnuts, and flax seeds.
  • Substituting non-fat or low-fat dairy products as alternatives to whole milk products. You'll be getting the same vital nutrients as those in whole milk, but with far fewer calories and much less saturated fat.
  • Using only lean meats and getting more protein with less saturated fat.
  • Avoiding white sugar, "white" (wheat rather than whole wheat) flour, white pasta and white (refined) rice. By avoiding these highly refined foods, which have had the majority of their key nutrients removed and remain good sources only of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, you will lower your risk of high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, Type II diabetes, and cancer.

References

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