Processed foods have become a significant part of the American diet. Before we can talk about the downside of process foods, and which processed foods to avoid, it helps to understand what a processed food is. A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. Even altering food in simple ways, like baking, freezing, canning or drying, produces a processed food product. Examples of processed foods include breakfast cereals, cakes and bread, sodas, meat products, and canned vegetables.
Although these foods are tasty and convenient, many contain loads of sugar, salt and fat to both enhance flavor and extend shelf life. A diet high in processed foods can lead to excessive intake of these unhealthy ingredients, leading to weight gain and possibly the development of chronic diseases, like hypertension and hyperlipidemia. Additionally, processed foods contain artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and saccharin, and chemicals such as MSG, BHT, CHA, carrageenan, and sodium nitrate, which have been linked to heart disease and cancer. It can be difficult to determine what is really in the processed foods you are consuming, meaning you may be unknowingly consuming these nutrients and unwanted chemicals in excess.
Yet, not all processed foods are created equal. Processing is necessary to make certain healthy foods safe. For example, the pasteurization of milk is necessary to remove harmful bacteria, ensuring the milk is safe to drink. Some forms of processing help with shelf life or make foods more convenient to store and prepare with minimal impact on nutritional quality. Frozen vegetables and fruits are cleaned, cut and frozen just after harvesting, which helps to preserve their nutrient profile.
Replacing additive-heavy processed foods with fresh foods can help you to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle. Here are some tips on which processed foods to avoid to meet those goals!
25% of Americans currently consume at least 200 calories/day from liquids and at least 5% consume greater than 500 calories/day from liquids. Most of those calories come from sugars, whether they be the natural sugars in fruit juice or from sugars added to drinks like iced tea. All that sugar adds up, increasing total calorie intake and leading to weight gain. Drinking sugary beverages is also linked to heart disease, gout, and Type 2 diabetes.
Sodas, juices and other flavored drinks (like smoothies, bottled coffee drinks and iced teas) contain tons of sugar with little nutrients. In fact, the average can of soda contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar and more than 240 calories (to understand what this really means, watch this video).
Although juice seems like a healthier choice, most juices contain just as much sugar as soda! Bottled coffee and tea drinks are no better, especially when compared to their simply brewed counterparts. A bottle of Starbucks vanilla frappuccino contains 200 calories and 20 grams of sugar, while a cup of Grady’s cold brew contains only 10 calories with zero grams of sugar. Even adding 1 teaspoon of sugar to a cup of Grady’s brings the calorie count to 26 and amount of sugar to 4 grams (1 teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories and 4 grams). Likewise, a cup of Arizona lemon iced tea contains 90 calories and 24 grams of sugar, while a cup of brewed lemon tea over ice sweetened with 1 teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar.
The best beverage choice is always water or seltzer. If you’re looking for something with more flavor, try adding freshly squeezed fruit juice (like lemon, orange or grapefruit). If you’re craving something sweet, eat the whole fruit, as opposed to drinking the juice. And finally, if you’re searching for a caffeine fix, choose simply brewed coffee or tea. Even with a teaspoon of added sugar, these options beat the bottled products. While aiming for a no processed food diet may seem too daunting, achieving a no processed beverage lifestyle is very do-able, and can have a huge impact on your health in and of itself!
Canned fruits and vegetables may seem like the easiest and most economical way to eat your 5 a day, but they are an important processed food to avoid. Many canned varieties contain added sugar and salt to preserve the food and enhance flavor.
Canned fruits and vegetable may also contain BPA, a compound that has been linked to cancer and heart disease, and sulfites, which can trigger allergic reactions among certain individuals. Draining and rinsing the food may help to get rid of some of these additives, but certainly not all of them.
No processed food is as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables, which contain no added sugar, salt or any other harmful chemicals. They are more hydrating than canned or frozen varieties, as they possess a higher water content. In addition, fresh fruits and vegetables contain enzymes that can help aid in digestion, nutrient absorption, antioxidant production, and inflammation reduction. These enzymes are deactivated during processing, so they are not found in canned and frozen varieties.
And fresh is more convenient than you may think. Many fresh fruits and vegetables are easy, natural grab and go foods, as most can be eaten raw. Fruits like apples, bananas and oranges don’t even require a container for storage. Purchasing baby carrots, snap peas, or pre-sliced celery can help to make snacking on veggies just as easy. For a little extra flavor, dip the veggies in a tub of plain hummus, which is minimally processed and totally delicious.
If fresh isn’t available or convenient, choose frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned–you’ll get the same benefits without the extra additives. When you can go fresh, selecting based on seasonality will help to ensure great quality and flavor, as well as more affordable pricing. Check out this list to see which fruits and vegetables are grown during which seasons.
Meat-based proteins can be a healthy component of any diet. However, processed meats, like bacon, salami, hot dogs and jerky, are laden with fat, salt and sugar. In addition to contributing to weight gain and metabolic disease, processed meats have also been found to contribute to cancer development. In 2015, The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report labeling processed meats as carcinogens. One major culprit is the nitrates and nitrites found in bacon and other processed meats. Unfortunately, when these products say they are produced without added nitrates, that does not mean that they are actually nitrate free.
These types of meats should be eaten in moderation, no more than once or twice a month. Instead, choose fresh meats and poultry, like chicken and turkey. When picking red meat, look for leaner cuts. When available, choose grass-fed or organic meats, as these choices contain more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins (especially A and E) and less fat. As often as possible, replace meats with fish and shellfish, like salmon, tuna, shrimp and white fish. Fish is rich in vitamins and omega-3s, and is a delicious meat-protein substitute.
Interested in fish options that are both low in mercury and sustainable for the environment? Check out fish recommendations by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Fish Watch.
Your grocery store salad bar is a great place to browse for simply cooked, healthy proteins. Pick up a few hard boiled eggs to snack on throughout your week, or grab a cup of pre-sliced grilled chicken. Just steer clear of pre-prepared add ins, like tuna or chicken salad, as they are usually made with mayonnaise and heavy on fat. Check out this article for more information about why incorporating a variety of healthy proteins into your diet is essential.
Highly processed vegetarian proteins (i.e. veggie meats like Tofurkey) are also processed foods to avoid. Many of these foods contain textured soy or vegetable protein, which is made with hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause severe nerve damage and is classified by the CDC as a neurotoxin.
Processed vegetarian proteins also often contain MSG, a byproduct of processing the hydrolyzed protein found in these foods. Additionally, the foods are just as laden with sodium, fat and calories as their processed meat counterparts. As an alternative, choose plain tofu or tempeh, or eat protein rich legumes, such as beans, lentils, peanuts or chickpeas.
We all know that baked goods, such as cakes, cookies and muffins, should be eaten as a treat as opposed to a daily part of our diet. Yet, it’s still important to consider the health impact of processed foods, even when indulging. When baking your own treats, you can control the amount of salt, sugar and fat that goes into them, making them healthier than the packaged version.
To create even healthier baked goods, you can substitute whole wheat flour or coconut flour for regular flour, applesauce or mashed banana for sugar or butter, or skim milk for heavy cream. Check out how to use these substitutions plus even more options here.
For example, let’s compare a 30g serving of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies to that of Cooking Light’s brown butter chocolate chip cookie recipe. An Entenmann’s product contains 150 calories, 7g of fat (including 3g of saturated fat), and 90mg of sodium per serving. The freshly baked chocolate chip cookie prepared from this recipe is the same size and contains 130 calories, 5g of fat (including 2g of saturated fat), and 56mg of sodium per serving.
The same is true for seemingly healthier brands, like Trader Joe’s. A Trader Joe’s blueberry muffin with streusel topping contains a whopping 350 calories and 12g of fat, while a homemade blueberry muffin of the same size contains only 270 calories and 9g fat. Using baking substitutions, such as applesauce or prune puree to cut back on sugar and oil, will make these homemade recipes even better for you.
Condiments and sauces add flavor to simple dishes and enhance the nostalgia of many of our favorite comfort foods. However, such additions also increase the amount of sugar, salt, fat and calories in your meal. Just one tablespoon of mayo contains 94 calories and 10g of fat, while 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains almost 4g of sugar!
Jarred sauces aren’t much better. Most contain tons of added sugar (with one serving of a pasta or sloppy joe sauce totaling more grams than a bowl of Frosted Flakes), as well as unhealthy oils (e.g. canola or soybean). Let’s take a closer look at Barilla’s Marinara jarred sauce. A half cup serving of sauce contains 70 calories, a whopping 420mg of sodium and 8g of sugar (about 2 teaspoons). And half a cup of sauce is not a whole lot; you may top your pasta with much more!
Don’t assume that products with names that sound healthy, like“farmer’s market” or “heart smart,” or even certified organic products, are any better in terms of nutrient composition. For instance, Prego’s Farmers’ Market Classic Marinara contains 90 calories, 430mg of sodium, and 7g of sugar, while Prego’s Heart Smart Traditional sauce contains 70 calories, 360mg of sodium and 10g of sugar! Bertolli’s Organic Traditional Olive Oil, Basil and Garlic sauce is just as bad, with 80 calories, 520mg sodium and 6g sugar.
Instead of choosing processed condiments and sauces, try making your own! Check out these homemade condiment recipes and these homemade sauce recipes. If you can’t give up the jarred stuff, or are in a bind, choose brand with less calories, sodium and sugar. Cucina Antica’s Tomato Basil Sauce, containing 35 calories, 210g of sodium and 3g of sugar for half a cup, and Victoria Low Sodium Marinara Sauce, containing 70 calories, 120mg of sodium and 4g of sugar for half a cup, are good choices.
The most common snack foods–think chips, granola bars and candy–are highly processed, containing little nutrients and loads of salt and sugar. Processed snack foods tend to be carbohydrate and fat heavy, with little protein content. The sugar and simple carb-filled foods will give you a jolt of quick energy, only to cause a crash soon after. Due to their low protein and fiber content, these snacks fail to keep you feeling full and satisfied, leading to more snacking later on and an increase in calorie intake. Replace these foods with better alternatives (some great options are below) to keep you energized throughout the day and one step closer to meeting your weight loss goals!
For a sweet treat, try blending your own smoothie. Throw in your favorite fruits (fresh or frozen) with either some milk (or milk alternative) or low-fat yogurt and you’re good to go. For a protein boost, try adding a nut butter or protein powder, and for an added bonus, throw in a handful of spinach or kale! The dairy and protein will keep you full, as well as add a richness to the drink, while the fruits and veggies will help you meet your 5 a day goals.
Trail mix is the perfect combination of salty and sweet. Making your own allows you to control what goes in and how much. Mix a big batch, using your favorite ingredients, and portion into plastic bags for on the go munching.
Some of our favorite mix-ins include unsweetened dried fruits (like raisins, goji berries and/or mango), unsalted nuts (which are rich in heart-healthy fats), unsalted seeds (sunflower or pumpkin) and dark chocolate chips for a healthy treat. The fruits and dark chocolate provide antioxidants and sweetness, while the nuts and seeds will keep you full and satiated. For more ideas check out this article.
Non- and minimally processed packaged foods can also make great snacks. Plain low-fat or non-fat yogurt adds protein to your diet and will keep you from feeling hungry throughout your day. String-cheese is a convenient low-calorie choice. Fruit is always a great option (bananas and oranges come in their own package and are available year round!), as are veggies and hummus.
Cutting down on processed foods can seem like a chore, but starting with simple switches can make all the difference. Each switch takes you closer and closer to eating a diet composed of no processed foods at all! Making smarter choices and choosing fresh and homemade foods will help you to meet your weight loss goals and live a healthier lifestyle.
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