While processed food can have a place in a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation, many comprise a dangerously large portion of our diets.
Generally speaking, processed foods are anything that has been altered from its original state, whether it be through cooking, freezing, canning, dehydrating, or packaging. Conversely, whole foods are those closer to that original state, like fresh vegetables or unrefined whole grains. Frozen, canned, or dried items – like frozen or canned vegetables and dried beans – are considered “minimally processed,” and still retain a good number of their nutrients, as does milk, whole grain bread, etc.
Many processed foods – especially those that are heavily processed, like packaged snacks frozen meals, and sugary drinks – have negative consequences for both the environment and our health. Such products usually come in plastic packaging, which eventually ends up in landfills and waterways. As a food item is processed, it also loses a good deal of nutrients, wasting that energy and resulting in a less nutritious product. Take corn for example: fresh corn from the cob is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients. As the corn is processed further away from its original form – as it’s canned, frozen, and bagged, or made into highly-processed foods like chips and cornflakes – it loses many of those vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Processed foods also usually contain more salt, sugar, and saturated fat than whole foods, as well as additives and preservatives, to extend their shelf life and preserve taste.
Eating less processed food is, of course, a privilege; access to fresh food is often limited by location, cost, and other factors, and marginalized communities are more likely to have limited access to whole foods.
If you are able to alter your eating habits, here are a few realistic ways to cut back on processed foods in your daily life.
1. Replace Refined Grains With Whole Grains
Refined grain products – like white pasta, rice, and bread – are stripped of most of their vitamins and minerals during processing, leaving a far less nutritious product behind.
Whole, unrefined grains, however, are higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protein, keep you full for longer, and are proven to lower your risk of various conditions including stroke, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes.
Try replacing refined grains in your diet with whole grains by swapping out white rice for brown, and buying whole wheat pasta, bread, and tortillas.
2. Drink More Water
Sugary drinks are usually highly caloric but provide very few nutrients. Soft drinks like soda, sports drinks, lemonade, and powdered drink mix often come in single-use bottles as well, contributing to the massive amounts of plastic waste generated each day in the United States.
Sometimes you’ll crave a sports drink or can of soda (we all do), but shaking the daily habit is a relatively easy way to cut back on highly processed products in your diet. Infuse pitchers of water with fruits and herbs – perhaps trying some new creative combinations – to enjoy throughout the day in place of soda or sugary juice, or invest in a sparkling water maker for a package-free carbonated drink.
3. Take Smaller Shopping Trips
If you have frequent access to the grocery store, try shopping every few days (or even every day) for only the things you need. That way, you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables without worrying about spoilage, or running out of produce before the next time you head to the store.
Shopping for only a few items at once also saves money; you won’t be tempted to stock up on things you might not actually need.
If shopping more frequently isn’t possible for you, buy frozen vegetables to have on hand, or save money and plastic by freezing your own: broccoli, spinach, fruit, or your favorite combination of vegetables to easily toss into the pan.
4. Make Your Own (Healthier) Snacks and Staples
You don’t have to give up all the foods you love! Replace processed foods with homemade kitchen staples and your favorite snacks.
Try making your own veggie chips, crackers, popcorn, granola bars, and trail mix; they’ll be healthier, nutrient-rich, and preservative-free. Package snacks in reusable Ziploc bags or Tupperware so they’re just as convenient to grab on the go as store-bought alternatives.
Take stock of your kitchen and the staples you always have around – like nut butters, flavored yogurt, ice cream, and salad dressing – and try making some of your own. Or, if you’re short on time (or don’t particularly enjoy spending time in the kitchen), replace the processed option with an un-processed one. Try swapping sugary breakfast cereal for oatmeal, or flavored yogurt for plain with fruit.
5. Add More Fresh Foods to Meals
To keep heavily-processed food off your dinner plate, fill it up with vegetables.
Add some easy fruits and veggies to meals for extra nutrients: spinach into eggs or breakfast potatoes, bulkier vegetables into casseroles or taco filling (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), and sliced fruit to breakfast oats. These fresh foods will take up more space in your meal and replace refined grains or other less-healthy ingredients.
Greens like kale, bok choy, chard, or spinach can be prepared as an easy side (or wilt it into the main dish, like a pasta sauce). Keep these frozen vegetables on hand to easily toss into the pot.
6. Read Labels
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Of course, we all still buy packaged, shelf-stable products at the grocery store. Be sure to read the labels on what you pull from the shelf, comparing ingredients of products before choosing which one to put in your cart.
A good rule of thumb is to look at the first three ingredients on the label, since they’ll tell you what the majority of the product is made of. The 3S’s – salt, sodium, and saturated fat – are a pretty good indication that the product is highly processed and not very healthy, whatever convoluted name they might take. Hydrogenated oils (also called trans-fats) and refined grains are usually a red flag as well. Be sure to also check the serving size; the Daily Values and calorie count might seem low, but the serving size could be deceptively small.
7. Be Wary of Advertising
While checking out those labels, be wary of false or misleading statements on packaging.
When it comes to grains, don’t let phrases like “multigrain” or “made with whole grains” fool you; two types of grain (potentially refined grains) still counts as “multi,” and there might be very few whole grains mixed in. “Low-fat,” “low-carb,” and “low-calorie” foods can still be highly processed and contain other unhealthy ingredients (like sugar) to compensate. “Gluten-free” and “organic” also don’t necessarily mean the product is healthy (organic sugar is still sugar).
If whole foods aren’t included in the first three ingredients, it’s likely that they’re in very small quantities.
8. Meal Prep
Cooking and eating at home is a good way to avoid processed foods – but, preparing three meals a day isn’t always realistic, and fast food or pre-made meals can be tempting when you’re short on time.
Prepare staples ahead of time that can be mixed and matched throughout the week for meals, such as brown rice, roasted vegetables, homemade pasta sauces, and fruit salad.
If frozen dinners are your go-to on busy nights, freeze entire meals to treat like those you might buy from the grocery store. Package meals in microwavable Tupperware to cut down on dishes too. You’ll be able to enjoy much healthier, minimally-processed meals without cooking every day.
9. Ease Into It
Don’t implement major changes to your diet all at once. If you eat a significant amount of processed food throughout the week, instead of going totally cold-turkey, try modifying aspects of your diet incrementally. Start by swapping out your sugary cereal for oatmeal a few days a week before making it a daily habit, or tackle your snacking tendencies before moving on to dinner foods. Making these changes all at once is hard, and can be a recipe for discouragement.
Diet and health looks different for everyone; don’t compare your eating habits and desires to those around you. Listen to your body and what it needs – which will sometimes be white pasta or chips – and develop habits that are right for you.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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