Generally, when we think of processed foods, it’s the junk food that we know is unhealthy: fast food, boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza, sugary cereal, potato chips and cookies. But there are many foods, such as bread, granola bars, salad dressings, sauces, soups and even yogurt that are heavily processed. By some estimates, 70 percent of the caloric intake External Site in the U.S. is processed food.
Highly processed foods generally contain preservatives, which allow for a long shelf life. They might also contain artificial colors, flavors and textures. To improve taste, they are often filled with sugar, artificial sweeteners or salt.
Why cut processed foods?
“Cutting out processed foods could benefit your health, give you more energy, help you lose weight or just feel better overall,” says Lisa Leake.
She is the #1 New York Times Bestselling author of 100 Days of Real Food: External Site How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love.
According to Leake, it makes sense to fully understand what you are eating, be able to pronounce everything on the list of ingredients, and know where your food comes from. “Making smarter — and sometimes more expensive — food choices now may reduce your health care costs later in life,” she adds.
100 days of real food
Just four years ago, Leake thought her family was eating healthy. After she read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food External Site , however, she wasn’t so convinced. The book convinced Leake to overhaul her family’s eating habits.
Four of the top-10 chronic diseases that kill most of us, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer, can be traced directly back to the industrialization of our food.
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
Leake learned that her family’s “healthy” food choices were actually highly processed food choices the food industry was labeling “healthy.” As a result, Lisa, her husband Jason, and their two young daughters pledged to go 100 days without eating highly processed or refined foods. She opened the challenge to readers of her popular website and blog, titled 100 Days of Real Food.
“It’s easy to be fooled by some processed foods,” says Leake. “You’ll find claims all over the packaging, things like low fat, low carb, vitamin fortified, no trans fat, contains omega-3s. Too often, these are the same foods that make us unhealthy, sick and fat.”
Where to start
Since processed food is everywhere, it can be overwhelming to get started. That’s why Leake suggests to get started with small steps. “First and foremost, read the ingredients,” says Leake. “You can start this today. Simply be aware. If you don’t recognize the ingredients, don’t buy it.” Leake recommends buying only products with five or less whole ingredients, adding that those ingredients should be words you can pronounce and understand. "It's like Michael Pollan says in his book, do your best to avoid foods that your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Steps for eating "real" food:
- Shop the perimeter
- Be wary of health claims
- Ask questions when you eat out
- Make extras when you cook
- Eat more produce, preferably organic
- Buy 100 percent whole-grain products
- Allow for the occasional indulgence
You’ll find most of the fresh and minimally processed foods around the edge of the grocery store: fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. Still, you should keep an eye on nutrition labels. When you venture into the center aisles, where most of the processed foods reside, search for healthy, minimally processed choices, such as natural nut butters, canned beans or frozen fruits and vegetables.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing of a product or health claims on the packaging. Just because something resides in the "health” section of the supermarket doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Get the information you need from the list of ingredients and the nutrition label. Certain health claims, such as added vitamins and minerals, can be a sign of poor nutrition. If a product is healthy, it should not need artificial ingredients.
Restaurants don’t have to reveal what they put in their food. Some large chains make their information available, while others keep their customers in the dark. The more you demand information about the food you eat, the more transparent restaurants will have to be about what they’re putting in your food.
For busy families, weekday meals can be hectic. To avoid giving in to fast food or unhealthy meals, make double when you cook, and freeze the rest. Incorporate leftovers into your weekday meals.
Many people don’t enjoy cooking. Others feel anything less than gourmet isn’t worth it. Keep it real, and don’t be hard on yourself. Look for practical advice that fits your family’s needs.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are obviously “real” food. There is little guesswork involved. Add more of them to your diet. If you don’t like certain vegetables or fruits, try different ways of preparing them. For example, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts tend to taste better when they are roasted rather than steamed. Smoothies made at home with fresh ingredients are a great way to add more produce to your diet.
Avoid refined grains commonly found in things like sandwich bread, pasta, crackers, rice, breadcrumbs, hamburger buns and croutons. According to Leake, this advice can go a long way to better health. Find five-ingredient breads from local bakeries, or make your own.
Do your best. Don’t be set back about your food choices (or lack of food choices). Aim to eat “real” food most of the time — say 80 percent of the time.
Help your kids eat "real" food
In most cases it’s almost completely up to the parent to offer their young children the right choices. Lisa Leake offers this advice:
- Talk to your kids about healthful choices. Grocery shop with your kids. Bring them to farmers' markets. Discuss where the food comes from. Let them help choose fresh produce. Cook with your kids. Simply talk with your kids about real food choices in terms they can understand. For example, show your kids how much sugar is in a serving of their favorite cereal. They will understand more than you might think.
- Offer your kids more real food. We expect kids to like junk food. But you might be pleasantly surprised at the healthful choices your kids like if you offer other choices. “Yes, my daughters both like real food, but if I handed them a bag of chips for a snack they would totally chow down. They are kids after all!” laughs Leake. “So, as a result, don’t hand them a bag of chips. Instead, offer them a banana with peanut butter, or a box of raisins, or some whole-grain pretzels, or an organic cheese stick for a snack. It’s just as easy as opening a bag of chips.”
- Avoid the kids’ menu. Typically, kids’ menus are filled with highly processed options like chicken nuggets, fries, and pasta made with white flour, among other things. Next time you eat out, assemble a meal that is healthier by sharing some of your own meal, and perhaps ordering some sort of side dish your child might tolerate, like baked potatoes, a fruit bowl or side salad.