Over the weekend I was invited to a one-on-one tour of my local Whole Foods Market in Annapolis, Maryland. Although we shop at this store often, it was enlightening to walk around the store with their resident Healthy Eating Specialist and discuss some of their programs and policies. While we had a few opposing food philosophies, the amount of overlap between their goals and my health principles was impressive and encouraging. So, let’s talk about what I discovered.
Four Pillars of Healthy Eating
The essence of Whole Foods is captured in their simple Four Pillars of Healthy Eating: whole foods, healthy fats, plant strong, and nutrient dense. Let’s break down these ideas a little:
1. Whole foods. This principle is spot-on, focusing on whole, fresh, natural, organic, local, seasonal, and unprocessed foods. As explained by Randi, their Healthy Eating Specialist, the stores work to find a meeting point between whole foods and affordability, and offer conventionally-grown food items to increase accessibility of their produce.
2. Healthy fats. While there is some overlap, in general Whole Foods’ idea of healthy fats is in contrast of my own philosophy. WFM focuses on nut and seed oils and seeks to minimize rendered animal fats. They are also working to eliminate added oils altogether, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing on the surface (more on that later).
3. Plant strong. There’s no mistaking the fact that Whole Foods is pro-plant. I’m pro-plant, too, just not plant-exclusive. More on that later.
4. Nutrient dense. Again, a philosophy I can get behind; changing to a nutrient-dense diet had a profound impact on my health. While our ideas of what constitutes nutrient density differ, this is still a crucial factor that any group can take advantage of since their stores offer the basic building blocks required to eat a nutrient dense meal – quality meats, seafood, and vegetables.
Health Starts Here
The underlying reason for my visit to the store was to show me the Health Starts Here campaign, a program that implements their four pillars principle. Whole Foods has begun to apply a “Health Starts Here” label on some of their products, provided they are made with whole foods and contain no dairy, no added oil, and no added sodium.
For everyone that reads my blog regularly, you probably already know that I think that fats are an essential part of human history and that fats from olives, coconuts, avocados, and healthy animals should constitute a large part (30-50%) of your daily caloric intake. While the concept of zero oils is contradictory to culinary principles dating back thousands of years, I actually support this campaign for one simple reason: I would rather have a dish with zero oils than a dish with seed or grain derived oils. So by offering meals with zero oils, WFM is actually appealing to both sides of the coin – those who avoid added oils, and those of us who are then free to season our meals with the fat of our choosing.
One misgiving I have about their campaign to minimize added oil in their foods is that this diminishes the bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K). A salad complemented with an oil-based dressing has more bioavailable nutrients than a salad without oil. With a platform focused on nutrient density, it almost feels like Whole Foods is inadvertently undermining one of their own pillars of healthy eating.
Plants, Whole Foods Market, and You
A quick note about Whole Foods Market’s focus on plant-centered eating. I couldn’t agree more that Americans in particular give vegetables too low a priority. As I mentioned in a recent article in Paleo Magazine (Feb/Mar 2014 issue), when comparing the most economically developed areas of the United States (those with the most money to spend on food) to similarly developed regions in Europe and the Western Pacific, we only eat about 75% as many vegetables as the other regions. Comparing the lesser economically developed areas of the United States to their global counterparts is much worse: there, we eat only around 35% as many vegetables.
So I support WFM’s appeal to eat more vegetables and fruits. Part of their Health Starts Here campaign is to divide your dinner plate so that 3/4 of the plate is made up of plants. This is how I eat, with my plate divided into a meat/seafood, starch, and two vegetable sides (one hearty vegetable like root or cruciferous vegetables, and one leafy vegetable like salad). Whether someone should make plants 100% of their diet is an individual choice, and one that Whole Foods Market promotes. And I respect that, even if I have pitched my tent in a different camp.
Whole Foods still supports an omnivorous clientele, as they offer some of the most humanely-raised, sustainable meats and seafood available in a supermarket setting. Their Animal Welfare Rating is a program that should at a minimum be implemented on a larger scale, as it’s an easy way to identify the quality of the meat you’re buying. In a nation that has become increasingly vague about its animal husbandry, it’s refreshing to see animal welfare a priority for Whole Foods.
Putting it All Together
When agreeing to do this tour I knew that there were going to be some philosophical differences between Whole Foods Market and my own nutritional tenets, but I had a hunch that there was going to be enough overlap to warrant the trip to my local store. Between their array of produce and impressive meat selection (the Annapolis WFM in particular is the largest-producing butchery of all their stores), I was satisfied that Whole Foods Market has the right goal in mind – our nation’s health – regardless of the path they choose to get there.
Not every food item in their stores is infallible, as they still carry processed and refined foods (though a far cry from what you find at most other grocery stores). As with any shopping environment, personal vigilance and research are important, so be sure to check what you’re putting in your body. And the way I see it, Whole Foods Market had done some of that legwork for you already by offering a majority of healthy products.
I left the tour on Saturday with an optimistic outlook on the company and what they’re trying to achieve; in truth, they’re offering a variety of healthy products to satisfy a huge number of diverse, health-minded eaters, which is an impressive feat. Before heading out I grabbed some high quality asparagus, tarragon, and a chunk of butter – and the rest is history.
Note: this post represents my opinions based on a free “Healthy Eating Tour” provided by Whole Foods Market at my local store. WFM gifted me two gift certificates to their stores which I will be giving away on my Facebook page tomorrow, Friday March 7th, 2014.
18 thoughts on “A Morning with Whole Foods Market”
Nice article Russ! Lots of good points. I notice more and more Paleo displays on endcaps at different WFM, which gives me hope. But you are right – I wish they would start carrying more healthy animals fats, like pastured lard, and grassfed tallow! I like to buy duck fat from them, and they always seem to be running out quickly after they get a shipment… they should learn something about their customers from that ;)
This is an excellent article. Being new to Paleo, this was very helpful to me. Thank you. Presently Whole Foods is the only “healthy” store I have access to, except for one other independent store where the prices are so high I can’t afford it. My local Harris Teeter carries a few organic healthy choices. I’m left with ordering some food online. Soon I’ll be living near Asheville, NC where I’ll have more choices, plus organic and grass-fed farms. Are you familiar with Earth Fare, and by any chance, do you have a review of EF somewhere here on your blog? Isn’t this basically what all “health” stores are doing: “offering a variety of healthy products to satisfy a huge number of diverse, health-minded eaters.” This may sound like a dumb question, keep in mind please that I’m new to all of this, but are there Paleo stores?
Hi Betty Jo, I’m not familiar with Earth Fare, they don’t have any in my state (Maryland). In general, there is no actual Paleo store out there – but there are plenty of stores that sell Paleo-friendly items. It makes sense from a business perspective, and something I discussed with WFM during my tour – for better or for worse, groceries are businesses, and it is in their best interest to offer a variety of foods, even those they don’t agree with. For example, WFM would rather not sell meat at their stores – they actually consider meat to be a “special diet” item – but due to customer interest they sell meat. Personally, we shop at a large number of stores to maximize our savings and to access a variety of foods.
It’s true that there are other health stores offering similar products, but nothing at the same scale as Whole Foods. I appreciate their mainstream appeal, because for better or for worse, they are reaching a larger audience and carry the potential to make a larger impact on our nation’s health outcomes.
Do you think that Whole Foods will one day stop selling meat, based on your visit? I had a strong feeling they could care less about meat. It’s sad :(
I don’t think they’ll eliminate meat, in the same way that they won’t eliminate their bakery or frozen foods sections. I think they need those sections to maintain their business – no one wants to go to one store for groceries and another for meat. According to Robb Wolf at PaleoF(x) last year, WFM in Austin told him that the company was thinking of eliminating meat a few years ago, but with the increased interest in quality meats – mostly stemming from the Paleo movement – they decided to keep meat in stores.
We’re only a mile down the road from our local WF, so we shop there fairly often.
My only complaint is that they use canola oil in practically all of their prepared foods.
Me too, Kenny! I hate that I can’t eat the cooked veggies on their salad bar or hot bar because 95% is cooked in canola oil. I occasionally find something cooked in olive oil, and rejoice.
Same here Whitney. I eat there occasionally at breakfast. I have a few slices of bacon, and build my own salad of the cut-up veggies, a few raw nuts from the cereal toppings, and take my own salad dressing from home.
Hah, I love their salad bar, but because I can get about 10x the variety in my diet. I usually fill up their salad box with everything (acceptable) except greens and walk over to the veggie section and buy a box of organic mixed greens. BAM. Salads for a week.
Side note: their grilled tofu looks way too close to chicken with skin on at first glance, except when you realize that *every piece looks exactly the same*.
Kenny what a great idea for a weeks worth of salad. Why didn’t I think of that? Thanks for the tip!!
I agree too…it is funny, there are some paleo employees at my WF in Houston, TX…they gripe about the canola oil to as they can’t grab a quick meal and use any of those prepared items. But true, they are getting more things on the shelves with no oil, which is better than canola! An I doubt they will ever eliminate meat…they make a ton of money there, and their local grassfed in our store is beautiful!
Russ, your article is spot on and I’m in your camp as far as healthy fats are concerned. I get an enormous amount of energy from these fats, especially coconut oil. As Kenny mentioned above, Whole Foods does utilize canola oil in almost all of their prepared foods in addition to it being contained in the products on their shelves.
Too many of their products also contain an excessive amount of sugar–even if it is evaporated cane juice, honey, agave, maple syrup, etc. This is not necessary and will definitely contribute to the current epidemic of diabetes occurring in our nation. People ought not delude themselves into thinking that these type of sweeteners are healthy to consume on a regular basis. They will all affect one’s blood sugar levels and you can bet your bottom dollar that most Americans’ pancreas, liver and adrenal gland functions are not operating at optimal levels. Stevia, on rare occasion, would be the best choice for a sweetener. To maintain excellent health, one must truly read every label to ensure what ingredients are contained in all products–no matter where one shops.
An interesting point about a purely plant-based diet: the sickest, most unhealthy people my nutritionist has seen are clients that are vegetarians and strict vegans. This gentleman has 40+ years of experience, has studied all over the world and established an excellent track record with many who were chronically and/or terminally ill. After he informs these clients of the damage they are doing to their bodies, they begin to consume healthy, humanely raised animal foods and their health improves dramatically–without exception. There simply is no getting around it–evolution reveals what we require in our diets.
Looking forward to more great articles and delicious recipes. Thanks, Russ!
This was a really good article! I love shopping at Whole Foods so this was interesting to find out how they feel about certain issues. I am new to your blog and am glad to have discovered it.
Great post. I agree with you on the healthy fats. Who can pass up butter, anyway? :)
I figured Whole Foods possessed some type of program, as you described, but I have never taken advantage of it. I honestly don’t feel the need to… since you have provided so much information in this post. (Thanks!) Yet, it sounds like some good ol’ educational fun!
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A stylist, foodie, & writer's blog in development.
It is good to see that more paleo foods are becomeing “mainstream” and i agree with the comment by mecurianmind that use of suger either artificial or natural, and by that i mean things like fructose based.. is becoming so pervasive that even “healthy foods” are going to be causing issues with our glycogen levels.
We are as a society addicted to sweet things… its not how nature intended it to be.. so we need to take control and check how much it is we are feeding our kids in “healthy” foods