I consider myself a bit of an expert on processed foods. That is because I used to eat them every day for years. It is thought that nearly 90% of the “food” at the grocery store is processed. Pretty much anything that is canned, jarred, bagged, or boxed is a processed food.
I can remember the good ol’ days. My go-to cereal with milk would be waiting for me in the morning. My mom would make me the same ham and cheese sandwich every day for lunch. Most nights I ate fettuccine alfredo for dinner—when it was really just something I put in the microwave.
Nearly every day I binged on my favorite processed snacks: potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, fruit snacks, and candy bars.
In my early 20s, I would also head over to the local fast food joint every few days, and chow down on a burger and fries. I truly was the expert! I could tell what foods tasted amazing. Unfortunately, just because something tastes good, it doesn’t mean that it is good for us.
Why to Cut Out Processed Foods
One day I had finally had enough. I began reducing the processed foods in my diet, and adding more real foods like fruits and vegetables. I also started food shopping more objectively. Let me tell you what I mean…
Basically, I would walk down every aisle of the grocery store writing down all the added ingredients in the foods I would buy. I wanted to know what I was really eating. It turns out that my food was more than advertised. It contained several suspect ingredients, including artificial colors, excess salt and sugar, added flavors, hydrogenated oils, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and preservatives like nitrates, nitrites, sulfites, butylated hydroxyanidole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). There were also various other ingredients I couldn’t pronounce even if I tried.
Why else is eliminating processed foods the best option for your health? Here are some other reasons why I quit eating processed foods a few years ago:
- They are very addictive: I remember that I couldn’t good to bed without eating some type of processed snack. I would consume whatever I could get my hands on. Evidence suggests that processed foods are rewarding to the brain, and they affect our behaviors and thoughts. In other words, they make us eat more of the bad stuff. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE in February concluded that highly processed foods appear to be associated with food addiction, and they also share similarities to drug abuse.
- Lack of nutrition: Why else is eliminating processed foods a good idea? Processed foods are essentially empty calories that are void of nutrition. Some processed foods contain enriched minerals and vitamins; however, they only contain minimal health benefits. The best way to get the proper nutrition is always to consume whole, unprocessed food that contains nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that support your health. Processed foods are also often low in fiber, which is important for digestion and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Associated with several health problems: Eating processed foods are associated several serious health concerns such as obesity, coronary heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, poor mental health, and even cancer. For instance, in a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006, researchers found that nitrites in processed meats can increase colorectal cancer risk. The harmful ingredients in most processed foods also wreak havoc by killing the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Processed foods are also high in refined carbohydrates, which can lead to spikes in insulin and blood sugar levels, and eventually diabetes.
Simple Steps to Cut Processed Foods
Today, I’m an expert on how to cut out processed foods from your diet. Here are some tips that can help you do it, too:
1. Eat veggies or fruit in every meal: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends two to three cups of vegetables, and one-and-a-half to two cups of fruit every day. It is a good idea to include at least two different fruits or vegetables for every meal. It is also best to eat organic whenever possible.
2. Replace your highly processed cereal: It is a good idea to start your day with the right nutrition. Contrary to popular belief, most cereals aren’t part of a complete breakfast. In fact, they contain a lot of added sugar, preservatives, and calories. A good alternative is minimally processed and slow-cooking rolled oats or steel cut oats.
3. Consider a morning smoothie: A smoothie is a great way to get a good dose of vegetables and some fruit in the morning. Some good ingredients for smoothie beginners include of variation of blueberries, avocados, bananas, almond butter, coconut oil, brown rice protein powder, spinach, kale, chard, and collard greens. Also add a cup or two of water or almond milk.
4. Drink mostly water and herbal teas: Sugar-sweetened juices and sodas lead to health problems like weight gain and diabetes. It is best to shift your perception about beverages. Look to consume around eight glasses of filtered water daily. Also, there are many health benefits of drinking herbal teas such as ginger, chamomile, lavender, or peppermint.
5. Check out a farmers’ market: Eliminating processed foods can be easy, especially when you avoid the grocery store. The farmers’ market is a great way to find local and organic vegetables and fruits. Many local farmers will also deliver fresh vegetable community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes right to your doorstep.
6. Replace your eggs: Buying organic foods may be difficult for a lot of people, but a good place to start is with meat and meat by-products, like eggs. They contain important nutrients such as vitamin D and vitamin B12. Organic eggs also come from pastured-raised and grass-fed hens that are also free from antibiotics, hormones, or steroids.
7. Replace cow’s milk with almond milk: Most milk products are loaded with antibiotics and genetically engineered bovine growth hormones rBST and rBGH. Almond milk is considered a healthy alternative, especially when you make your own. Simply combine four cups of water with one cup of almonds in the blender. Then strain with a nut milk bag, and enjoy! If you want, add a little bit of maple syrup or honey for some flavor.
8. Pick better pasta: If you’re like me, you can’t live without pasta. In North America, spaghetti and canned tomato sauce is a staple in the diet. Instead, choose alternatives like quinoa or rice pastas. Also, try to make your sauces with garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs like basil or dill.
9. Add more color to your diet: Eating unprocessed foods doesn’t need to be boring. It is a good idea to add more color to your plate. For instance, your salad doesn’t have to be only green. Brighten it up with some orange carrots, yellow peppers, and purple beets.
10. Try new foods: Do you want to challenge yourself from reducing processed foods in your diet? Simply, add two to three new whole foods you haven’t tried before to your diet. Some new favorites that I’ve added include okra, kohlrabi, fennel, eggplant, and artichokes.
No Processed Food Diet
What is the “no processed food diet?” It is a lifestyle that I call the “general clean diet.” In this lifestyle you avoid processed foods like dairy and other foods with additives and preservatives. What can you eat? You can enjoy plenty of healthy real foods, including:
- Fresh fruit and raw or steamed vegetables
- Grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, or brown rice
- Organic and grass-fed animal protein like eggs, poultry, and beef
- Wild fish such as salmon, trout, or mackerel
- All types of beans and legumes (acceptable soy products include miso, natto, tempeh, and tamari)
- Nuts and seeds, especially almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and freshly grinded flaxseed
- Healthy fats and oils like extra virgin olive oil, ghee, avocado, flax oil, and coconut oil
- Whole leaf stevia is considered a healthy sweetener; honey and maple syrup are also acceptable in moderation
- Celtic sea salt, Himalayan pink sea salt, cayenne pepper, and other herbs are considered appropriate for cooking
Want to know how to cut out processed foods? The best way to avoid eating processed food is to make them from scratch. The following are some common processed foods that you can easily make at home with food additives, preservatives, and other chemicals.
Homemade Salad Dressing
This is a great one! It’s a homemade salad dressing that takes minutes to make, and you know what’s in it. All it takes is five ingredients!
- 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
- 1 minced garlic clove
- Juice from two small lemons
- A pinch of Celtic sea salt
- Directions: Combine and whisk all ingredients in a small bowl. As an alternative you can shake ingredients in a jar.
A no processed food diet also includes homemade mayonnaise. It is a great addition to your chicken or tuna salad, and it only takes about five minutes to prepare.
- 4 organic egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
- 2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2/3 cup of coconut oil
- A pinch of Celtic sea salt
- A pinch of black pepper
- Blend the egg yolks in the blender, or whisk in a bowl.
- Add the vinegar and spices to the blender or bowl, and mix.
- Next, slowly add the oils and mix at low speed. (Begin with the olive oil.)
- The homemade mayonnaise stores in fridge for a week maximum.
Almond Butter Oat Cookies
You probably make cookies at home; however, you may not always use the best quality ingredients. For instance, the peanut butter in your famous peanut butter cookies may be loaded with hydrogenated oils and other harmful chemicals. The following recipe is a great alternative to peanut butter cookies, or any other store-bought snack.
- 1/4 cup of coconut oil
- 1/4 cup of almond butter
- 1 3/4 cups of hazelnut or almond flour
- 1 cup of quick-cooking rolled oats
- 1/2 cup of coconut sugar
- 3 organic eggs
- 1/2 cup of shredded coconut
- 1/4 cup of sesame seeds or chia seeds
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and grease a cookie sheet with coconut oil.
- In a small pot, melt the coconut oil and almond butter on low heat.
- In a large bowl, stir the coconut, seeds, oats, and flour. Also, stir the sugar and eggs in a separate bowl. Add the melted oil mixture and the other wet ingredients, and mix well.
- Form one-inch balls and arrange about two inches apart on the cookie sheet.
- Flatten the balls with a fork, and bake for about 12 minutes until they are golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Gunnars, K., “9 Ways That Processed Foods Are Slowly Killing People,” Authority Nutrition web site; http://authoritynutrition.com/9-ways-that-processed-foods-are-killing-people/, last accessed September 11, 2015.
Smith, D.L., “10 Easy Ways to Cut Processed Food From Your Diet,” Eat This! Health web site; http://www.eatthis.com/how-to-cut-processed-foods-from-your-diet, last accessed September 11, 2015.
Larsson, S.C., et al., “Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective studies,” International Journal of Cancer, 2006; 119(11): 2657-2664.
Schulte, E.M., et al., “Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load,” PLOS ONE, 2015; 10(2): e0117959, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959.
Haas, E., et al., Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2006), 153, 435-436.
McCarthy, J., Joyous Health: Eat and Live Well Without Dieting (Toronto: Penguin Group, 2014), 193, 219.
“Healthy Mayonnaise Recipe,” Wellness Mama web site; http://wellnessmama.com/1739/healthy-mayonnaise/, last accessed September 11, 2015.