Processed foods are everywhere these days, from pre-packaged snacks to restaurant meals and even the snacks in vending machines at work.
Processed foods offer convenience and taste, but unfortunately, they’re also known to be packed with preservatives and other additives that can damage your health over time and even lead to increased inflammation, weight gain, high cholesterol, and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, and cancer.
Keep reading to learn how to avoid processed foods and improve your health.
What is processed food?
Processed food is any food whose natural form has been altered during preparation. Nearly all foods go through some level of processing, and not all processed food is terrible.
For instance, dried beans may go through some processing to make them more shelf-stable, which doesn’t make them harmful. Likewise, cooking or boiling vegetables or legumes is a form of minimal processing that’s considered okay.
According to the food classification system, NOVA, processed foods can be classified into 4 categories:
1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods
This group consists of both unprocessed and minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They can undergo boiling, roasting, steaming, or pasteurization to promote safety and prolong their shelf life. This category is generally safe to consume.
2. Processed culinary ingredients
These are products obtained from unprocessed or minimally processed foods or from nature.
They are altered by various processing methods like grinding, refining, and pressing so that they can be used for cooking.
Examples include vegetable oils obtained from olives or seeds, sugar obtained from sugar cane, or maple syrup from maple trees.
3. Processed foods
These foods can also be referred to as lightly processed. They include frozen or canned foods immediately after they are harvested, such as green beans, tomatoes, and berries. Other processed foods may also contain one, two, or even three added ingredients like oil, sugar, or salt.
Examples include pasta, bread, and cheese. Foods with high-quality ingredients like oils, herbs, and spices like pasta sauces and salad dressings can be considered lightly processed.
4. Heavy/ultra-processed foods
Most of this food category is also referred to as junk foods.
These foods are often made with 5 or more ingredients and are high in fats, sugar, oils, salt, stabilizers, antioxidants, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients that don’t exist naturally.
Ultra-processed foods make up for 90% of added sugar consumed in the U.S.
Any ultra-processed food is unhealthy, and eating too much has been linked to an increased risk of chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Are all processed foods harmful?
Any form of processed food is synonymously referred to as unhealthy; however, not all processed food is harmful.
Minimally processed food should be okay. Unfortunately, many foods people know and eat are highly processed.
It’s estimated that 60 percent of the calories consumed in the US are from the highly processed category, meaning lots of calories but minimal to no nutrients. This can indeed be harmful to your health, but even more, they can cause a significant problem when trying to eliminate these foods since they are highly addictive.
What is ghrelin?
Ghrelin is a hunger hormone that compels one to eat. It is high before meals and low after meals.
Studies show that a high glucose diet, such as a highly refined carbohydrate diet, may also increase the ghrelin hormone, making you eat more during a meal or feel hungry soon after.
You can always lower your ghrelin levels by consuming healthy fats like olive oil, consuming a high fiber diet, and adding more protein to your diet.
How to Avoid Processed Foods
There are many ways to reduce the number of processed foods in your diet. Here are a few ideas:
1. Swap processed grains for whole grains
If you are going to take out processed foods, you need to replace them with healthy ones. Processed grains such as white pasta, bread, rice, and tortilla are the most consumed as they can be included in many diets. So you can’t really eliminate these foods without a proper replacement from the same group. Consider stocking up on brown rice, whole-grain pasta, bread, and tortillas.
There are a number of benefits to going from processed grains to whole ones, including:
-Improved digestion: Whole grains are rich in nutrients that help feed good gut bacteria, which in turn enhances healthy digestion.
-Reduced inflammation: Processed foods and refined carbohydrates can increase inflammation in the body, while whole grains are rich in anti-inflammatory properties which help reduce inflammation in the body.
-Increased energy levels: Eating whole grains can boost energy levels and endurance because they are high in protein and fiber.
-Lower blood sugar levels: A diet high in whole grains can help reduce blood sugar levels after eating, which is beneficial for those with diabetes or prediabetes.
2. Stock up on healthy snacks
It’s no secret that the more processed a food is, the fewer nutrients it has. Processed snacks can be dangerous for your health as they often contain a number of harmful additives and preservatives while having few to no nutrients. In order to avoid these bad foods, you have to take action like stocking your kitchen with healthy snacks so that you can grab something healthier if you’re anywhere but home.
So, whether at home or at your office desk, always have healthy snacks at hand. People tend to reach for unhealthy snacks when they feel bored, hungry, or craving sugar. So stocking up on something healthy will help you quench the craving and promote nutrient intake, which is beneficial to your health.
That being said, it’s easy to fall into the habit of buying pre-packaged snacks, cookies, and other processed foods that are high in sugar and unhealthy fats. So what can you do to avoid this trap?
Make sure your snacks are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Some healthy snacks to have at home include nuts, fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, and dips like hummus or trail mix.
Also, keep your snacks portable to avoid mindless munching on unhealthy snacks throughout the day.
3. Get creative with your recipes
Recreate your favorite processed foods with natural and whole ingredients.
4. Create your meals around fresh foods
Filling up your plate with vegetables will take up more space in your meal and replace processed foods, thus minimizing your intake.
You can also add fruit or use bulkier vegetable fillings for tacos or casseroles.
For example, if you like sweetening your breakfast oats with table sugar or maple syrup, consider adding sliced banana or dried fruits like grapes and figs for added sweetness and nutrients.
5. Read labels
If you buy a packaged shelf-stable product, be sure to read the labels. The first three ingredients are often a clue of the kind of product you’re about to buy. The 3s – saturated fat, sugar, and salt often signify that the product is highly processed and not healthy.
Also, go through the:
Allergen label: This label indicates whether a product contains any allergens. Allergens can include foods like peanuts, soy, dairy, wheat, eggs, or nuts.
Food-grade label: This label tells you whether a food product has been through a specific process (such as being cooked at a specific temperature) to make it safe for consumption.
GMO labeling: This label indicates whether a product contains genetically modified ingredients. GMOs are foods that have had their genetic material modified in a way that is not natural. Some people worry about GMOs because they may have negative effects on health.
Use the food comparison tool on food labels. This tool will show you how different foods compare in terms of calories, saturated fat, sugar, and other nutrients.
6. Pack your lunch for work
This small change can have a big impact. Packaging food at home means you’re less likely to be lured by convenience and more likely to consume high-quality, whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and grains. By packing your own lunch, you can control the ingredients and nutritional content of your food. Plus, packing your own lunch can help you avoid eating out too often or buying prepackaged foods that may be high in sugar or unhealthy fats.
Other benefits of packing your own lunch include:
- It can help you stick to a healthy eating plan.
- You can save money.
- You can have more control over what you eat.
- It can be fun!
7. Go gluten-free
A gluten-free diet is a popular way to avoid processed foods. This is because most processed foods are gluten-based, including pasta, cookies, white bread, cakes, etc. Gluten is also a common ingredient in most processed foods.
Gluten-free diets can also help improve overall health. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that people who followed a gluten-free diet had lower levels of inflammation than those who did not. Inflammation is a common cause of chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes.
Gluten-free diets can also help reduce the risk of autoimmune disorders, such as Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. These diseases are caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissue cells.
8. Start from scratch
There are many benefits to cooking from scratch, the most important of which is that you can control the ingredients and how they are cooked. When you cook from scratch, you also have more control over the nutritional content of your meals, and you can avoid additives and preservatives.
One of the main reasons people choose to cook from scratch is because it is more economical. When you cook from scratch, you can use fresh ingredients that are in season, which will cost less than processed foods. You also won’t have to worry about food safety concerns since cooking from scratch doesn’t require any chemicals or harsh temperatures.
Cooking from scratch can be a challenging task, but with a bit of practice, it can be easy and fun.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
Follow a simple recipe
When cooking from scratch, keep things as simple as possible. Avoid using too many spices or cooking techniques that are not called for in the recipe. This will ensure that your food is flavorful and healthy without all the extra sugar or fat that processed foods often contain.
Choose recipes that you are comfortable cooking
When you try new recipes, it can be hard to decide if the end result was worth the effort. Make sure that the recipes that you choose are ones that you would like to eat yourself. This will make the process much easier.
Start with simple recipes first
Once you have mastered a basic recipe, you can try out other recipes that are more challenging. You will have a better time when you stick to easy recipes and let the more complicated ones wait until you master them.
Final thoughts on how to avoid processed foods
Processed food is any food whose natural form has been altered by processing, including boiling, canning, freezing,
However, keep in mind that not all processed foods are equal. While minimally processed foods are healthy to consume, you may want to avoid ones that are heavily processed.
Try a few things, such as experimenting in the kitchen with new healthy alternative recipes, serving more vegetables on your plate, stocking up on healthy snacks, and reading the labels carefully.
Also, try to lower your hunger hormone ghrelin as much as possible. You can do this by reducing the amount of processed carbohydrates and preservatives from your diet.
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