Eat more whole foods and cut back on processed foods.
Many us of think that there is just one kind of food – the stuff we eat. But, there are two – whole foods and processed foods – and there is a big difference between them. Whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) come from orchards, farms and gardens and are unprocessed and unrefined. Whole foods aren’t packaged in fancy containers and don’t contain preservatives or other processing additives. They have a more authentic flavor and are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber.
On the other hand, processed food (sodas, chips, cookies, crackers, sugary cereals, etc.) are neatly packaged in a box, bag, can or jar with a long list of ingredients on the side. These foods have been processed to have a longer shelf life and for convenience and were all made in a factory of some sort. About 90% of the money we spend on food goes towards these processed foods.
Although whole foods can take longer to prepare, aren’t as convenient and have a shorter shelf life, they are much healthier than processed foods.
Here are some good reasons to stay away from processed foods:
- Processed foods have less nutritional value.
- Foods lose much of their nutritional value during processing. Still more problematic is that the flavor void is often filled with man-made, unhealthy fillers that contain empty calories, extra sugar and carbohydrates and usually not enough protein.
- Processed foods contain high amounts of saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
- These foods are a big reason for obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- Processed foods contain potentially dangerous additives and chemicals.
- Food companies use more than 6,000 additive chemicals to color, stabilize, emulsify, bleach, texturize, soften, sweeten, flavor, hide odors and preserve the “food” we eat. Some of the most harmful ingredients in processed foods include high fructose corn syrup, trans fat, salt and artificial food dyes and artificial sweeteners containing aspartame. Many processed foods need preservatives to “survive” the manufacture, freezing, storing, shipping, storing again and refreezing.
- To make up for the original taste that gets lost during processing, food manufacturers add artificial flavorings, sugar and fat to make the remnant product taste “good.” Many processed foods that are “light” or “diet” are loaded with chemicals, often artificial sweeteners, to make up for the “loss.” The FDA doesn’t typically require food manufacturers to list many of the additives as long as they are Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS). All the label has to say is “artificial flavor” or “artificial coloring” or “natural.” The long-term effects of these chemicals in our food are unknown.
- Processed food keeps us from cooking healthier.
- We buy processed food mainly for convenience. It takes a lot less effort and time to make microwaveable mac and cheese than to cook pasta and prepare the cheese sauce from scratch. But taking the microwave meal shortcut (and, yes, we all feel THAT tremendous temptation after a busy day) also robs us of the opportunity to substitute with whole-grain pasta and use a recipe that contains less fat.
- The danger of processed food is that it’s simply there for us to grab without having to think much. Granted, it’s so much easier to run into the grocery store on your way home and grab a box of frozen lasagna than it is to stop and think about and then shop for the long list of ingredients you need to make lasagna from scratch.
- Then there is the issue of prep time. Opening the oven door, putting in the lasagna, closing the oven and waiting for the “ding” is much faster than taking the time to prepare all the ingredients from scratch and cook (which can be a great family activity). But think about all the nutrients your family is missing out on when you serve the “easy” dinner, not to mention the time spent together cooking as a family.
- Processed foods are billboards for dubious health claims.
- Processed food typically comes in excessive packaging, giving food manufacturers plenty of space for nutritional claims aimed at misleading and manipulating us into thinking we are buying something that’s actually good for our family. Like the gummy bear bag that says “fat free.”
- Strong flavors and colorful packaging of processed foods make real food seem boring.
- Over time, our taste buds become used to the strong flavors of processed foods, eventually making us crave the super salty and ultra sweet processed foods. Whole foods close to their natural state can’t always compete with the intense – albeit artificial – flavoring of processed foods. Better-for-you foods also often don’t come in the same kind of flashy, exciting packaging as processed foods.
How to add whole foods into your diet and cut back on processed ones:
- Anything in a package is usually processed. Avoid packaged foods as much as possible, and look for fresh food alternatives.
- Unhealthy ingredients in processed foods are easily spotted on food labels. If you cannot pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t eat it. Also, look for foods with the fewest ingredients as possible (no more than 5 ingredients is a good rule of thumb).
- Buy whole grain flours and breads instead of white.
- Buy whole fresh fruit or frozen fruit instead of canned fruit.
- Grow your own food to ensure the freshest, least processed possible.
- Minimize processed meats (ham, bacon, etc.) and replace them with freshly roasted lean meats.
- Buy and cook dried beans more often, and rely less on pasta and noodles which are more processed.
- Replace margarine or spread with preservative-free butter.
Michael Pollan’s Guide to Eating Whole Foods
(from the book Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual)
- Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
- Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients a third grader couldn’t pronounce.
- Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
- If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.