4 Benefits of Eating Whole Foods for Families

Photo of a large salad with spinach, pomegranate arils, and chicken. Text reads "Benefits of Real Foods for Families"

We’re busy. Our kids are picky. Grocery prices keep climbing.

These are all very valid reasons that we are choosing ultra-processed foods.

But, in the quantities we’re consuming them today, these foods aren’t doing us any favors. In fact, they’re playing a starring role in the deterioration of our health and our children’s health on a global scale.

Let’s forget carbs, fat, protein, and calories for a second, and talk about food in terms of its wholeness. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the carb and fat debates of the past couple of decades, it’s that there are lots of different macro patterns that can help us reach our weight and body composition goals.

But there’s one thing, in my opinion, that all of the healthiest eating patterns have in common: they’re mostly based on real, whole foods.

In this post, I’m going to talk about real food, what a real food diet actually looks like, and some of the benefits of real food for families.

  1. What Is “Whole Food?”
  2. Benefits of Eating Whole Foods for Families
    1. Nutrient Density
    2. Weight Management
    3. Reduced Disease Risk
    4. Better Eating Habits Into Adulthood
  3. Takeaway

What Is “Whole Food?”

Before we dive in, let’s define “whole food.” It’s not food that comes from Whole Foods (although, admittedly, it’s a pretty good place to start).

There are different levels of processing when it comes to food, and not all of them are bad. Some processed foods — many, actually — can still be part of a real food diet. Here’s how it breaks down, according to something called the NOVA classification system: (1)*

  • Unprocessed foods: Unprocessed foods are foods that are edible just as they are, except for maybe giving them a wash. This includes things like whole fruits and vegetables, plain animal meats, and eggs.
  • Minimally processed foods: These are foods that undergo minimal processing, like fermentation, removing shells or pits, or drying. Minimally processed foods would be things like raisins, plain yogurt, and air-dried beef jerky — as long as they only contain other unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients. Within the NOVA classification system, unprocessed foods and minimally processed foods are grouped together.
  • Processed culinary ingredients: These are food ingredients (that aren’t really eaten as standalone food items) made exclusively from unprocessed and minimally processed ingredients. Think butter, oil, flour, and sugar.
  • Processed foods: Processed foods are made by combining processed culinary ingredients with unprocessed or minimally processed foods. This category includes things like homemade bread, peaches canned in syrup, tuna in oil, and vegetables canned in salt brine. When you cook a meal from scratch, it typically falls into this category. However, not everything in this category is necessarily health-promoting. These foods can still be high in calories, sugar, and/or fat.
  • Ultra-processed foods: Ultra-processed foods are made with patented combinations of industrial ingredients and meticulously designed to taste great. “Hyperpalatable” is how they’re often described, because they taste unnaturally good. This includes but is not limited to: candy, soda, corn chips, mass produced bread and baked goods, cereal, canned soup, frozen meals, fast food, boxed macaroni and cheese, and so on.

People have been eating unprocessed foods, minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, and even processed foods since humans have been around.

The main problem is ultra-processed foods. They’re new to the game, and it kinda seems like they brought a lot of problems along with them.

Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked to weight gain, overweight and obesity, metabolic syndrome, depression, heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, cancer, tooth decay, and more. (2, 3, 4, 5)

The tricky thing about ultra-processed foods, though, is that many things that you’d think may be categorized as merely processed are now categorized as ultra-processed. Things like packaged bread, dry pasta, salad dressings, and ice cream — although they seem like fairly basic combinations of unprocessed/minimally processed foods and culinary ingredients — are now almost universally made using the addition of industrial ingredients such as flavors, colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, and conditioners.

Not even a bag of flour is safe from ultra-processing. Much of the flour available on grocery store shelves has been bleached, which involves spraying the flour with chemical agents designed to improve their texture and flavor characteristics when baked. Likewise, most cooking oils could be defined as ultra-processed culinary ingredients. These oils must undergo extensive industrial processing just to be extracted (can you imagine how difficult it is to get the oil out of a soybean or a kernel of corn??) — followed by even further processing to made them clear, neutral smelling, and edible.

On the other hand, ultra-processed food isn’t all bad. Baby formulas and tube feedings are highly processed, and anyone who’s ever needed one of those (or loved someone who needed one of those) is very grateful for them. Additionally, without ultra-processed foods, some people probably just wouldn’t eat. They’re cheap, readily available, high in calories, and convenient, and they tend to have a long shelf-life.

One of the main problems with ultra-processed food is that our food system has developed in a way that seems to hold these foods up above healthier alternatives. These are the foods that are inexpensive and widely available, making them a natural choice for almost everyone.

The other problem? These foods are hyperpalatable and addictive. That makes it very difficult for people — especially children — to self-regulate their intake. (6, 7)

In fact, a 2021 study found that nearly two-thirds of calories consumed by U.S. kids and teens came from ultraprocessed food. This is an entirely new classification of food that essentially didn’t exist 100 years ago, that now represents most of the average American child’s diet. (8)

*Side note: The NOVA classification system isn’t perfect. One very valid complaint is that it leaves no room for functional ingredients, or nutraceuticals. However, I think it provides a good enough framework for us to use for categorizing foods and moving towards a more whole foods-based diet. (9)

Benefits of Eating Whole Foods for Families

The ultra-processed food problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon. In fact, I don’t even think we’ve reached the fever pitch yet.

What I do know is that education is going to play a major role in turning this ship around. That’s why, on this very first post on Real Food for Families, I want to go over some of the major benefits of eating real food.

Any small change toward eating fewer ultra-processed foods can have a big pay-off.

So, as you’re reading through these points, remember that you don’t have to eat a flawless, organic, paleo diet to experience these benefits for yourself or your family. Small, incremental changes will get you there.

Here are just a few of the benefits of whole foods for families.

Nutrient Density

Ultra-processed foods are very nutrient poor. They contain ingredients that have had a great deal of their vitamins and minerals stripped away.

So, while they can contain lots of calories, many of them don’t contain much else.

Your body needs these vitamins and minerals in the right quantities to power all of its processes, from the most seemingly insignificant (like making the hair on your arms grow) to the most vital (like keeping your heart beating).

Swapping out ultra-processed foods for less processed alternatives can help you and your family get more of the nutrients you need. (10, 11)

Weight Management

Eating a whole foods based diet may also help you maintain or achieve a healthy weight. It can also help course-correct if your child is trending towards obesity — without putting them on a diet.

There are a few ways that a whole foods-based diet can help with this:

  • Reduced calorie intake: In general, most ultra-processed foods are higher in calories from sugar and fat than whole foods. This isn’t always the case, particularly if you cook a lot of rich meals from scratch. But, for the most part, a real food diet is lower in calories than an ultra-processed diet.
  • Less hunger and cravings: Ultra-processed food is cheap. For food manufacturers to make money on it, they need you and me and everyone else to buy a lot of it. That’s why it’s specifically designed to taste amazing and leave you wanting more. I’ll admit, I can’t control myself around Cool Ranch Doritos. I don’t know many people who can. And that’s the point. These foods can rewire your brain, just like other addictive substances. Additionally, they’re not filling. Mostly made of highly refined carbs with no filling fiber or protein, they leave you feeling hungry again fast. Fortunately, removing these foods and replacing them with less processed, more filling alternatives — although it may be difficult at first (you know, because of the whole “addictive” thing) — could help you feel less hungry and have fewer food cravings over time. (12, 13, 14, 15)
  • Improved insulin sensitivity: Insulin is a hormone that helps process blood sugar. It tells your body to store extra blood sugar as fat. When you eat a meal that’s very high in carbs (particularly refined, processed carbs that have been stripped of fiber and nutrients), your blood sugar rises very quickly — causing a quick rise in your insulin levels. Over time, your body may start to ignore insulin, so your insulin levels must rise even higher to get the job done. This is called insulin resistance. With consistently high insulin levels, it may be difficult to lose body fat because your body is primed to store fat. Although insulin resistance was helpful back when we needed to put on a few extra pounds to survive the winter, these days we want our bodies to be sensitive to insulin. Real food diets are typically lower in carbs, and much lower in refined carbs, which may help your blood sugar, insulin levels, and insulin sensitivity improve. Still, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the effect of real food diets on insulin levels and insulin sensitivity yet. (16, 17, 18)

Reduced Disease Risk

A diet higher in minimally-processed foods could also help reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome is a condition that’s essentially your body’s warning light for future heart disease or type 2 diabetes. It includes high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, excess abdominal fat (AKA a thick waist), and high blood sugar levels.

One 2018 study found that adults who ate a minimally processed diet had a significantly lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those who ate an ultra-processed diet. (19)

In a 2020 review of 11 studies, researchers noted that ultra-processed foods were associated with excess weight, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. (20)

Additionally, studies have illustrated the powerful influence of ultra-processed food on several other disease states. Although we haven’t yet seen a lot of research on the effect of a real food diet on these diseases, I suspect that they would offer an advantage over a highly processed diet. (4)

Better Eating Habits Into Adulthood

Finally, we have to think about our children’s futures.

How they eat now, and how we model eating and and other health behaviors for them, is likely to stick with them into adulthood.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, I was an ultra-processed food kid. My parents both worked full-time outside of the home, and this food was easy, fast, and inexpensive. I had a giant bowl of cereal for breakfast, pizza and chocolate milk for my school lunch, a snack cake (or two) after school, and a fast food kids’ meal or Hamburger Helper for dinner. Oh, and I drank Coke or juice. Anything but water. I was a self-described lover of “gas station food” (ugh), and I could always count on junk food to make me feel better after a bad day.

Our diet as a family really improved in my high school years, thanks to my mom’s dedication to get us all healthier. I lost a bunch of weight my senior year in high school, which is what inspired me to become a registered dietitian and eventually led me to this extremely fulfilling career as a health writer. (Thanks, Mom!)

Still, the foundation was set. As an adult, I struggle even to this day to control myself around the ultra-processed foods that I ate so much as a child. I can’t keep cereal in my house, and I have to wrestle with the compulsion to eat in response to stress or sadness.

And that’s something I absolutely do not want my children to share with me.

In study after study, researchers have found that one of the major influences on a child’s eating and health behaviors is their parents’ own eating and health behaviors:

  • In a 2016 study, kids who thought their parents followed a healthy diet and exercised often self reported that they themselves ate a healthy diet and got more exercise. They also had a lower body mass index (BMI) than other participants. (21)
  • According to a 2022 study, people who overate (AKA, were overfed) between the ages of 2.5 and 6 years old were more likely to be overweight or obese and fast eaters at the age of 22. (22)
  • A 2021 study found that family mealtime, parental role modeling, and moderate dietary restriction played a major role in the development of a healthy dietary habits in children. (23)
  • According to a 2018 study, kids with healthy eating habits had parents who modeled those behaviors and also introduced them to a wide variety of healthy foods at a young age. (24)
  • In a 2017 study, researchers found that the two main factors that influenced the healthfulness of a child’s diet were availability (healthy vs. unhealthy foods available to them) and parental modeling of healthy or unhealthy eating behaviors. (25)

Let’s be the best role models we can be for our kids. They’re watching what we eat and what we do, and it’s going to shape them for life.


Ultra-processed food is destroying our health, and setting our children up for lifelong food struggles and health problems.

However, you can put your family on the path to better health starting today, just by making some small changes and slowly building on them over time.

The potential benefits of more whole foods? More nutrients, better weight status, less disease risk, and healthier eating habits for your children, even into adulthood.

I have loads of plans for Real Food for Families, including really practical and realistic tips on how to start eating more real food. Want to stay up-to-date? Subscribe to my email list!

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