We all know that, in general, processed foods are bad. They’re bad for your health, bad for your skin, and arguably bad for the environment. The problem is that processed foods are absolutely everywhere, and depending on who you talk to, the definition of “processed food” can vary greatly.
With processed foods in our faces at every turn down the grocery store aisle, and an unclear definition of what processed foods really are, it’s no wonder that cutting them from our diets and eating cleaner, whole foods has presented itself as such a challenge in our society.
If you’ve been looking at cleaning up your diet, improving your health or just finally being free from that sugar addiction, eliminating all the processed junk really isn’t as difficult as you might think. It starts by approaching the task with a realistic perspective, and then making minor adjustments that make the switch to eating fewer processed foods easy and intuitive.
Let’s say that you're reasonably conscious about the foods you fuel your body with. You make an effort to get in all your fruits, vegetables and fiber daily, but at least 20% of your diet is from processed foods. Is this really so bad?
Well, for starters, you’re doing better than most of us. It’s estimated that 61% of the groceries we buy in this country are processed foods. That’s tons (literally) of sugar, salt, saturated fats, excess calories and preservatives that we’re packing into our bodies.
But, what’s the real harm? Let’s take a quick look at the effects that the common additives in processed foods can have on your body.
- Sugar: Processed foods are responsible for 90% of the added sugar in the American diet. Sugar is an inflammatory substance, and too much of it can lead to inflammatory diseases, like Type II diabetes or even cancer. Too much sugar can also lead to inflammatory skin conditions and cause premature aging.
- Processing that Removes Fiber: One of the reasons that unprocessed whole wheat pasta is healthier than standard pasta is fiber content. Fiber is essential for proper digestion and keeping the gut flora in check to promote a healthy immune system. Overly processed foods have been stripped of their fiber, resulting in them being inefficiently metabolized. In addition to being less healthy options, these foods cause sugar spikes and keep you satisfied for a lesser amount of time.
- Chemicals added for texture and flavor have been formulated to be addictive. There’s a reason a popular potato chip slogan is “You can’t eat just one”. The result is overconsumption and cravings for more.
- Trans Fats: Not only are these guys bad for your heart health, there have been some studies that have linked them to increased moodiness and aggression.
- Salt: It’s no secret that too much salt is bad for your health and has been connected to serious health conditions such as hypertension. Processed food is loaded with salt that serves as both a preservative and a flavor enhancement. Without processed foods, you must add salt to your food to reach the recommended daily limit 2,300 mg. But, a diet that consists of processed foods can make you easily exceed that limit daily.
The list goes on, but you get the point. The bottom line is that additives found in processed foods are bad for health, no matter how you look at it. Something needs to be done to eliminate these foods from your diet, but how do you get started?
Defining Processed Foods for Yourself
Ok, so cutting out all processed foods is definitely the best move for your health, skin and general wellbeing. Except, doing so is nearly impossible. Here’s why.
If you take the definition of processed foods literally, practically everything that isn’t produce or meat counts as a processed food. Milk, yogurt, bread from the farmer’s market, the all-natural refrigerated salad dressing from the health food store…it’s all “processed.”
Basically, if it isn’t in its original, unaltered state then it’s a processed food. Barring food sensitivities, it’s easy to see that whole milk yogurt flavored with real fruit is not on the same level of being processed as a can of ravioli, and therefore not as damaging to your health. But both are technically processed foods.
Here is where you need to decide for yourself what constitutes being processed. If you’ve struggled in the past with cutting out processed foods, it could be that your approach was too radical.
A good starting point is to begin by eliminating all the obvious processed foods. Things like chips, packaged baked goods, canned soup and frozen convenience meals. Instead of excluding foods like yogurt or bread, just start paying more attention to food labels. Pick foods that have 5 or fewer ingredients that you can easily recognize on the label.
Be Realistic About the Time Involved
Let’s talk for a minute about why processed foods are so attractive to us in the first place. At this point, as a society, we’ve become accustomed to, and crave, the flavor and texture of processed foods. But, it didn’t start out this way.
The initial attraction of processed foods was that they’re convenient. It’s simple, we’ve become accustomed to having pretty much any food we want without needing to work or wait for it. But, we’ve sacrificed a lot for this convenience.
Take, for example, your grandmothers marinara sauce (or any food that’s treasured in your family). She spent hours preparing it, letting it simmer all afternoon. You crave it, but who has all that time to devote to a sauce? Instead, you buy a jar off the grocery shelf and maybe add a few extra ingredients to make it taste more homemade.
Not quite the same, but it only took 15 minutes instead of two hours, so that’s a win in your book.
Adapting to the time involved in eating a less processed diet is a huge adjustment for many people. It’s also one of the main reasons that people revert to their old processed standbys.
When you’re ready to give up processed foods, it’s important to be realistic about the extra time involved, and plan accordingly.
Simple Ways to Make Whole, Clean Meals Easier
Step one is acknowledging that there’s going to be some adjustments and a little bit of work, but trust that it’s worth it. There are simple modifications that you can make that will make kicking processed food to the curb easier than you imagined. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
If your breakfast is usually a coffee drink and a muffin from the drive-thru coffee shop, then you’re going to need to plan for a convenient breakfast at home. An option might be chopping up all the ingredients for a smoothie, putting them in the blender and then placing the blender carafe in the refrigerator, so that all you need to do is blend and go. You can even add a little green tea or Matcha for an energy boost.
Meal planning will become your best friend for all meals. For example, you can make breakfast muffins or wraps at the beginning of the week, keep them in the freezer and then do a quick thaw in the microwave before you head out the door.
For lunch, keep it simple. Salads and simple homemade soups are easy, portable and can be made ahead of time for the entire week. If you usually go out to eat with coworkers, opt to stay behind or suggest restaurants that are known for the freshness and integrity of their dishes. It never hurts to call a few places on your day off and ask questions so that you always have a list of fresh food options.
Dinner is the time that many of us have trouble with. The last thing you probably want to do after a long day is to spend another hour in the kitchen preparing a meal. It’s tempting to order takeout or pour a premade sauce over the chicken in the skillet and serve it with a seasoned, quick cooking rice blend. In the whole scheme of things, that doesn’t seem so bad, but you’re still introducing extra sugar, salt and preservatives that you don’t need.
Instead, choose one day a week when you have a little downtime and spend some time in the kitchen preparing meals for the week ahead. Keep it low key at first. Even roasting a chicken or two, so that you have a base meat already prepared for soups, salads, sandwiches and other meals will reduce the time you spend in the kitchen daily.
Also, once you bring those bags bursting full of produce home from the store, prepare what you can right away. Wash fruits so that you can just grab a piece when a snack craving strikes. Likewise, cut vegetables so that it’s easy to snack on them or toss them together for a quick salad.
So, let’s say you’ve eliminated the biggest sources of processed foods from your diet. It’s been a month or two since you’ve even considered venturing down the chip aisle and your freezer is stocked with frozen meals prepared in your own kitchen rather than a factory.
At this point, you should be noticing some differences in how you feel and look. You probably have more energy and healthy glow that didn’t exist before. You’re loving your new lifestyle and want to know how you can it up a level or two.
This is a good time to evaluate your diet. Are you happy with the number of processed foods you’ve eliminated, or are you ready to go further and cut out extra sources of sugar, like those that are found in most yogurts and “healthy” energy bars?
First, it’s fine to allow yourself a “cheat” every now and then. If you’re hungry while you’re out and about, a fruit and nut bar is going to be a healthier option than cruising through the drive-thru. Does the bar have a little extra sugar and maybe a couple other ingredients you’re not fond of? Maybe, but things like this will happen. Being prepared, aware of your options and acknowledging that an occasional nibble of a processed food is better than starving yourself or falling off the wagon completely will help keep you on track.
It’s also important to mention that eliminating processed foods from your diet can be just the first step to a healthier lifestyle in general. Once you’ve become comfortable with eating fewer processed foods, try doing more of your shopping at local farmers markets, and choose local seasonal produce whenever possible.Finally, an important next step is adopting the philosophy that less is more in the rest of your life. Make a commitment to choose household and personal care products from companies that focus on gentle, natural ingredients with a commitment to the environment. And, you might want to take this further by making an effort to eliminate artificial, toxic people and situations from your life. Adopting a clean eating style can help you be happier by encouraging you to clean up the rest of your life.