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.