3 Easy Ways to Cut Back on Processed Foods
The American diet is definitely full of one thing-- processed foods. Processing refers to any type of food preparation, including freezing, drying, and cooking. The food industry uses much more technologically advanced processing methods, however, in addition to these basic types of preparation. Legally, processed foods are considered to be anything other than any food product that isn't fresh produce. In general though, what we mean by processed foods are things that come in boxes, cans, cartons, and plastic bags, such as cookies, chips, crackers, soups, and the ill-fated Twinkies. Many foods we consider healthy are also processed foods. And it's important to note that not all processed foods are bad for you - for example, canned beans and vegetables, nut butters, and many types of yogurt can all be part of a healthy diet. However, some products are so far from their natural state, they're hardly food anymore. These foods tend to be cheap, convenient, and highly advertised, all of which have led them to be a major part of the standard American diet. Some of the worst offenders are candy, processed meats, and soda, which is completely devoid of nutritional value. These types of foods are often more convenient to take on the road and have a longer shelf life than produce. However, they also tend to contain hidden ingredients that tend to encourage overeating and may have harmful effects in the short and long term. Important nutrients are also removed in processing - they may be added back in later through additional processing, but it's difficult to recapture the nutritional balance of whole foods. Cutting back on processed food is a sure way to improve your diet so let's take a look at 3 easy ways you can do it!
#1. Eat clean or read the label.
The alternative is clean eating, which aims to keep the diet as unprocessed as possible. The blog TakePart has some tips for cutting back on processed foods, starting with reading the nutrition label and ingredients list on everything you buy (if there's no ingredients list - on an apple, for example - that's usually a good sign). Focus on whole foods, including whole grains. If you eat bread, buy it from a local bakery or make your own. Another great way to take part in clean eating is to shop at farmers' markets - you won't just be buying whole foods, but also supporting local and often organic farmers. (Find markets in your area at http://www.localharvest.org.)
#2. Avoid trans fats and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Ingredients to pay particular attention to on food labels are any amount of trans fats (also listed as hydrogenated oil), and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Sometimes referred to as corn sugar, HFCS is extremely concentrated, highly processed, and included in foods that you wouldn't expect to contain sugar (salad dressings, bread, ketchup, etc.). A study published in Environmental Health found that the HFCS the researchers tested was contaminated with mercury as a result of processing. Other ingredients in processed foods may be added as preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and sweeteners. These additives are regulated by the FDA but vary in the level of research available on their safety and long-term effects on health. By avoiding trans fats and HFCS you will naturally decrease your intake of processed foods.
#3. Eat more raw food
Some nutrients can be lost when you "process" food at home. Cooking can reduce the vitamins and minerals of most foods by anywhere from 25% to 70% depending on the nutrient, even more so if the water is drained afterward. However, there are instances in which nutrient levels rise during cooking, such as with tomatoes, carrots, and garlic. And cooking from raw ingredients is still a healthier option than most boxed snacks and mixes, especially if cooking vegetables makes you more likely to eat them. What makes the processed foods found on grocery store shelves so insidious is that we don't know everything that's happened to the food during processing, or what chemicals have been added or created during manufacturing. There's no need to sacrifice taste, but keep your diet as close to natural as possible.