You’ve probably heard by now that processed food isn’t great. It can lead to obesity and all kinds of health problems. But what exactly is processed food, why is it so bad, and how do you go about cutting it out? Keep reading for the answers to all these questions and tips to help you cut out processed food from your diet (or at least cut it way down!).
I shared in my post, 10 Healthy Living Baby Steps, a little bit about the importance of cutting out processed foods. It is actually step #8 in my baby steps. Check out the post for the first seven steps I recommend when switching to a healthier lifestyle. Getting in the right mindset, making sure to get plenty of sleep, and managing your stress are very important first steps to take, but cutting out processed foods follows closely behind them!
What Are Processed Foods?
“Processed” means anything you do to a plant or animal to get it to the state it’s in before you eat it. So literally picking an apple off a tree is a form of “processing.” However, in this post, I’m talking about HIGHLY processed foods (also called Ultra Processed Foods, or UPFs).
Highly processed foods are:
- Foods that look completely different than what they looked like in the ground, on the tree, or wherever it was found naturally.
- Foods that undergo a lot of alteration to get it to the state it’s in when you eat it.
- Food products that contain several different ingredients.
- Foods that contain preservatives, sweeteners (whether real or artificial), artificial flavors, artificial colors, and other additives.
- Foods that come in a box or other package.
Why Cut Out Processed Food?
Processed foods can be filled with a number of different unhealthy ingredients. Let’s take a look at a few common processed food additives.
Preservatives are things added to food to make them shelf-stable and last longer without spoiling or growing harmful bacteria. That’s great. We want to food to last and not grow bad bacteria. But, most of the preservatives added to foods are chemicals that can cause harm.
One very common food preservatives is called TBHQ. This chemical is used to lengthen the shelf-life of foods. It’s also been shown in studies to harm the immune system and contribute to food allergies. Unfortunately, food labels do not always list TBHQ as an ingredient, but it can still be there. Sometimes manufactures add it to the oil they fry foods in. So, to avoid this chemical, it’s best to avoid processed foods.
Another harmful preservative that is added to meat is sodium nitrite. According to this study, sodium nitrite is associated with increased risk of stomach and esophageal cancers. Processed meat is also associated with increased risk of breast cancer and bladder cancer.
There are good, natural preservatives like salt and vinegar. Unfortunately, most processed foods do not contain ONLY natural preservatives (they do contain plenty of salt as well as other preservatives though!).
Most processed foods have added sweeteners, usually artificial sweeteners. Especially watch out for foods that are “low-fat.” If the fat is left out of the product, the manufacturer has to bump up the flavor somehow! Usually that’s with added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Another “greenwashing” word to look out for is “sugar-free.” If a food product says it’s “sugar-free,” but it tastes sweet – there’s artificial sweetener in it. Artificial sweetener is even worse than the real-deal sugar.
One problem with artificial sweeteners is that they are much more sweet than the same volume of regular table sugar, and they overstimulate the sugar receptors in our mouth. They can become addictive. Our taste buds crave that overly-sweet chemical, and normal amounts of sweetness, naturally occurring in fruit, no longer satisfies them.
Both added (real) sugar and artificial sweeteners in processed foods can lead to increased risk of developing diabetes, obesity, cancer, and more.
Food coloring is my nemesis. It’s a chemical concoction, usually made from petroleum. It’s added to food for the sole purpose of changing it’s color. That’s it. It doesn’t affect it’s flavor, it’s ability to last longer, it’s health profile – nothing else!
And food coloring has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Some colors have also been shown to cause irritability, depression, difficulty sleeping, allergies, and even cancer.
So, it’s best to avoid food color. When you do buy processed foods choose healthier alternatives using fruit and vegetables to give color to the food.
MSG, or Monosodium glutamate, is added to many processed foods to enhance the flavor. It’s commonly used in Chinese food, but can be added to so many processed foods we find in the grocery store. And many times the package doesn’t have it listed on the ingredients (we’ll get to that in a minute!).
Foods with MSG have caused all kinds of harmful health effects, like headaches, numbness, flushing, weight gain, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, asthma, nausea, and weakness. So we definitely want to avoid it!
Artificial flavor is just what it sounds like. It’s a mixture of substances, sometimes more than 100 chemicals, added to your food to make it taste better. Just like “fragrance” in household cleaners and beauty products, “flavor” is a company’s propriety blend they use to give a distinct flavor to a product, and they do not have to disclose what exactly is in it. It might contain preservatives, solvents, emulsifiers, and even MSG. Even “natural flavor” does not necessarily mean it’s safe. It still doesn’t say what’s in it. So, who knows if it contains something you’re allergic to?
I’m all for knowing what is in my food and avoiding artificial or natural “flavor.”
What to Eat Instead?
It’s best to choose foods that are as close to nature as possible. I stick to mostly foods that are considered “Paleo.” Instead of choosing frozen sweet potato fries, eat whole baked sweet potatoes. Instead of packaged cookies for a dessert, eat fresh antioxidant-rich berries with a little local honey drizzled over them.
Try to choose foods that are:
- Whole Foods (a potato, instead of potato chips)
- Organic (to avoid pesticides and artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors)
- Not in a box
- Not made with a LONG list of ingredients
How to Cut Out Processed Food
So, when you are ready to go about the process of cutting out highly processed food, where do you start?
Here’s a few tips for you to cut out processed food starting today!
1. Shop the edges of the grocery store.
The inside aisles are loaded with boxed and packaged processed foods. Instead, shop around the perimeter of the grocery store. Choose real, whole fruits and veggies and organic meat and dairy products as the majority of your purchases. Then grab whatever condiments, nuts, or whole grains you still need in the inner aisles.
2. Make your own condiments.
One way to majorly cut down on your processed foods is to make your own condiments. Try your hand at making salsa, salad dressing, mayo, tzatziki sauce, hummus, fruit dip, or peanut butter. Condiments are loaded with excess sugar, artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, and more harmful ingredients. Make it healthier by doing a little bit of prep on the weekends and making your own condiments.
3. Make your own desserts.
Another common processed food many people turn to is desserts, like cookies, candy, and cakes. These foods can contain all the harmful ingredients I listed earlier, with an abundance of sugar or artificial sweetener.
To cut out those ingredients and control your sugar intake, choose to make your own desserts. There are so many great dessert recipes out there that use simple, healthier ingredients. This Cranberry Walnut Chocolate Bark is a favorite of mine. It’s simple and quick to make, tastes delicious, and using real ingredients.
4. Become an ingredient detective.
Always check the label on packages that you do buy. Again, try not to buy a lot of packaged products. But I understand. Sometimes you want an easy, ready-to-go salad dressing or salsa instead of making your own. So when you do buy those things, check out the ingredients. Watch out for the ingredients I listed above. Choose products that are organic and aren’t loaded with artificial EVERYTHING.
Also, check the sugar content. Even if it is real sugar, don’t choose ones that are high in sugar. It’s recommended for adults to consume less than 36 grams of sugar a day. So if your condiment takes up a big chunk of that per serving, skip it!
5. Eat in.
Eating out, especially at fast food restaurants, is a sure way to get in lots of processed foods full of those harmful ingredients. Choose, instead, to cook your own meals and eat at home most nights. Cooking healthy meals doesn’t have to be hard. You can make simple meals like stir fry, baked chicken with sweet potatoes and a salad, or salmon with sautéed green beans.
Plan your meals out ahead of time, shop for your groceries, and try to eat it in at least 18 of your 21 meals/week. My family goes out to eat once a week for dinner. I love how going out just once makes it more special and something to look forward to, rather than just quickly going through a drive through when we’re busy.
I hope these tips were helpful for you! Let me know in the comments if you’ve started to cut out processed food and any other tips you have!