Processed Food: What Is It, What’s Wrong With It & How to Avoid It

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You’ve probably heard “avoid processed food” and “processed food is bad for you”. But maybe you’re not sure what people mean by “processed food”, and what’s so bad about it. And how do you even avoid processed food if you want to?

Keep reading to find out exactly how you can transform your diet (and your family’s diet) to a real food diet…for good.

I started paying attention to ingredient labels (and how much processing goes into food) over a decade ago.

When I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s about five years ago, I knew it was time to get even MORE serious about cutting out processed foods (moderate/heavily processed foods, as you’ll read about in this post).

I hope this post is empowering and helpful to you as you navigate how to get healthy and real food in your body.

Related: How I get my kids to eat 30+ fruits and veggies daily (with a smile)

How to cut processed food even if it feels impossible.

This post will cover three main questions. Click the question you’re most interested in if you want to jump ahead.

What is Processed Food?

Processed food, according to Wikipedia, is food that is commercially prepared to optimize ease of consumption.

Think about food and where it comes from. Food comes from plants or animals, right?

Now think about what the food looks like on the plant. If it looks different when you pick it out at the store, it’s processed.

Now, there’s certainly a spectrum of processed foods.

Minimally Processed Food

There’s minimally processed food like bagged salad greens, dried food, frozen fruit and vegetables, and food that’s been preserved with just salt.

You may be “processing” some of your own food at home using these methods. It’s a fun family activity to pick fruit at a farm or in your backyard and preserve it by freezing, drying, or canning.

But it’s certainly more convenient to be able to pick out a bag of frozen vegetables at the store and pay a little extra for someone else to do that step, right?

Moderately processed food

Then there’s the moderately/heavily processed food.

All moderately/heavily processed foods are processed and preserved by adding something other than salt (like sugar, flavorings (artificial or natural), chemicals, etc.). Some examples are cake mixes, crackers, boxed dinners, granola bars, salad dressings, and sauces.

From here on out, when I mention “processed food” I’ll be referring to the moderately/heavily processed food.

Sign up for the 5-day challenge here to kick-start your healthy eating habits and learn how to cut processed food from your diet.

Processed Food is Commercially Prepared

Think about some of the foods you see on the shelves in the store. Those companies make their products in a factory and ship them across the country (or farther).

And in order to mass produce food, they’ve got to make it in the most efficient way possible. In a factory there are machines that are programmed to add ingredients, stir, squirt the food into a package and seal it all up. It’s pretty impressive from the technical side of things.

And it makes a LOT of business sense.

Processed Food is Easy to Consume

Processed food is designed to be easy to consume. It’s often packaged in a convenient way to make it easier for us to eat it. Maybe it’s packaged in a single serving container, or preserved so that it will stay “fresher” longer.

Processed food started making its way into mainstream America in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s when refrigerators (and freezers) were increasingly popular. For the first time people could buy frozen meats, fruit, and vegetables and use them when they were ready.

But companies continued to experiment and develop ways to make even more ready-to-eat food to take the burden off the home cooks. And people welcomed the convenience of store bought bread, crackers, meals into their homes. Less time in the kitchen meant more time for other things.

Single Servings

Somewhere along the line, we complained about having to take food from a large container and put it in a small container. So the companies did it for us!

Some examples are granola bars, yogurt, single serving guacamole cups, and the bag of chips that come with your sandwich at the restaurant. Single serving items were created to fit into our busy lives. We’re always on the go. So we need convenient ways to eat on the go.

Long Shelf Life

Processed food is made with storage in mind.

If processed food spoiled quickly (like fresh produce does), the companies wouldn’t be able to ship it to stores in huge quantities like they do now. And the food wouldn’t be able to sit on the shelves for months before you bring it home and eat it.

But let’s think about it for a minute. If someone gave you a plate of cookies and said, “Here you go. I made these a couple months ago and they’ve been sitting on my shelf. But when I made them, I added some chemicals to them so they will stay soft for you.”

I think you’d at least think it was a little strange. Not only does it seem strange to eat food that is old and has been loaded with chemicals, there are serious health concerns for doing so.

True story: my mom found a Christmas ornament my sister made about 25 years ago. It was a sweet little snowman made with marshmallows. Would you believe me if I told you the marshmallows are still soft? Believe it.

And now think about that. No bacteria wanted to eat the marshmallow to decompose it. Nothing. For 25 years. And for some reason we want to eat it? Does that seem backwards to you?

What’s Wrong with Processed Food?

You might be asking…okay, so what’s the problem? We, as humans, are smart enough to make machines that solve the problems we have (like lack of time or the desire for convenience).

Well, maybe.

Or maybe we’re not really very smart at all.

We’ve been fooled to think the processed “food” on the shelves at the store is okay to eat regularly without causing problems in our bodies.

But really, processed food lacks the nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. And actually the ingredients found in processed food cause many diseases that we see today.

Processed food is full of refined oils, refined sugar, and refined salt (we’ll discuss each of these in detail later). In addition to these refined ingredients, you’ll also find chemicals, fillers, artificial flavors and artificial colors to make it taste or look a certain way.

Ready for a challenge? Take this 5 day e-mail challenge to kick-start your healthy eating efforts and cut processed food once and for all.

Information Backed by Science

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. I’m not on a vendetta against ALL processed food, I’m on a mission to help you understand the science behind it.

And for me personally, I’ve got personal experience to back it up as well. I feel better when I don’t eat heavily processed foods. I have more energy and my mood is better. Here are a few studies that have proven some harmful effects of processed food.

  • This study showed that people who ate a high processed food diet were more likely to suffer from depression than people who ate a whole foods diet.
  • In this study, they found that higher levels of HbA1c (a measure of glucose in your blood) is linked to cognitive decline.
  • Another study found that drinking sugary drinks could increase your risk for cancer.

In February 2018, the British Medical Journal published a study that found a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer

What is ultra-processed food? Well, it’s “food” that typically contains five or more ingredients. And these ingredients were manufactured, not grown.

Basically if it’s hard to figure out how the item you’re eating was once a plant or animal, it’s in this category. Unfortunately, these foods are extremely common in America. But because of clever marketing, we’re led to believe the food we’re eating is “natural” and “healthy”.

Some examples are cereal, energy bars, carbonated beverages, pastries, cake mixes, instant soups and sauces, and margarines and spreads.

I bet you wouldn’t have to look far to find a few of those items in your kitchen. Well, let’s dive in to figure out what’s wrong with the ingredients that make up processed food.

what are Refined Oils?

To make processed food, you need to use ingredients that won’t spoil (remember the long shelf life?).

Unfortunately (for our health) scientists stepped up and created an oil that fit the bill. It’s treated with very high pressure and heat so that it won’t spoil the food.

Well, the problem is that in heating the oil and treating it (called refining), you end up with a substance that’s altered at the molecular level. Sure, the oil won’t spoil the flavor of the processed food. But nutritionally, it is severely compromised.

If you’re interested in learning more about oils and the dangers of heating certain oils, read this post about important things to know about oils.

Processed food is filled with these refined oils which can release free radicals into our bodies. Free radicals damage the cells in your body. Did you know that research is finding that free radicals are the cause of almost every disease?

Sounds like something to avoid, if you ask me!

What is Refined Sugar?

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women (9 for men). And yet, most Americans today are consuming 57 pounds of added sugar each year. That’s about 17 teaspoons per day!

And a good chunk of this sugar is coming from processed foods.

My sister and her husband went an ENTIRE year without eating refined sugar. They learned pretty quickly that even though you wouldn’t think sugar would be added to something (like salad dressing). It often is!

And who would put sugar in a can of beans? Well, a lot of companies do.

What about cheese? Well…surprise surprise. There are even cheeses that have sugar added to them.

There’s sugar added to so many different foods, it’s unbelievable. If you start checking labels, you’ll see it.

Some problems with sugar…

What is Refined Salt?

Refined Salt (like table salt and the salt in processed food) is heated to such extreme temperatures in the extraction process that most of the beneficial minerals are destroyed.

To keep salt dry in commercial operations, harmful additives are often added, including aluminum.

And refined salt can be “hidden” in processed food since it doesn’t taste as salty…even though the sodium count is higher in table salt than natural salt. Did you know that a single flour tortilla has 25% of your daily value of sodium? Sheesh!

Natural Salt

Table salt and processed salt aren’t the same as natural salt. Here are some benefits of natural salt:

  • Natural salt is processed on low heat, if at all. This means the minerals are still present when they get to us.
  • The trace minerals found in these salts help us stay hydrated, and balance the sodium/potassium ratios.
  • They also contain important trace elements that are needed for thyroid and adrenal function.
  • Natural salt helps our bodies create digestive enzymes needed for optimal nutrient and vitamin absorption.

Some specific types of natural, unprocessed salts readily available on Amazon (click the link to read more about each type):

Our bodies need salt. Too little salt leads to problems, as does too much salt. But when we’re fueled by processed food, it’s hard to tell if we’re eating too much or too little.

Once your body has a chance to operate without processed food (and refined salt), you’ll be more able to tell just by taste if your body needs more. When you crave salt, add a little extra salt to your food. It’s as simple as that. Add salt, to taste.

What does processed food do to your body?

Eating a diet full of processed food does a few things to your body:

  1. It prevents you from eating more nutrient dense food.
  2. Processed food gives your body “emtpy” calories, so you need to eat more often to get the nutrients you need. Which can easily lead to weight gain.
  3. Creates an imbalance of salts and sugars. When processed food has hidden salts and sugars in it, it’s hard to know what you’re actually eating, and what those hidden ingredients are doing to your body.
  4. Sucks the energy out of you (from blood sugar spikes or not enough nutrient density).

why Should You cut out processed food?

Processed food is full of refined oils, refined sugar, and refined salt. In addition to these refined ingredients, you’ll also find chemicals, fillers, and artificial flavors and colors to make it taste or look a certain way.

These refined ingredients are basically heated, and “purified” (aka stripped of their nutrients) so they have a longer shelf life.

I’m not sure why we think we can eat this stuff and still be nourished and energized at an optimal level. It just doesn’t make sense.

Related: 10 Heavily Processed Foods To Avoid Like The Plague (That You Probably Ate This Week)

Are you trying to lose weight? Do you wish you had more energy? Do you have a disease that you wish your body would help you heal? Are you hoping to live a long and healthy life?

Eating a diet of real, whole foods can help your body get the nutrients it needs to function properly, and even heal itself from disease.

How to Avoid Processed Food?

So we’ve covered what is processed food, and why we shouldn’t be eating it. And maybe you’re convinced that it’s a good idea to limit your processed food intake, or eliminate it all together.

But…is that even possible?

Absolutely! If you want any new habit to last, it’s a good idea to take it one step at a time and make a plan. Here are the steps to cutting out processed foods…for good.

  • Find your “why”
  • Become aware of what you’re eating
  • Stop buying processed food
  • Clean out your cupboards
  • Make a plan for obstacles
  • 90/10 rule (or 80/20)

Then I’ll give you three awesome options to help you take the next steps.

  • A FREE 5 day email challenge to help you kick processed foods to the curb.
  • Make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need – sign up for Juice Plus+ auto-delivery of fruit and vegetable powders (in capsule or gummy) to ensure you’re getting all the good stuff to lay a good foundation. Sign up or learn more here.
  • If you’re serious about making a change, and frustrated nothing has worked yet, reach out to schedule a discovery call with me for one-on-one coaching. I help people break through barriers that are keeping them stuck – in life, business, health, and relationships. If health is an area you’re struggling to stick with healthy habits, I’d love chat and see if coaching is something that would benefit you. You can book a free discovery call here.
sign up for one hour of coaching to give you a strategy for transitioning out of the processed food habit

Find your “why”

Before you even start thinking about changing your food habits, I think it’s extremely important to figure out why you’re making the change.

Because I could give you all of my reasons for cutting processed food, but that wouldn’t help you stay motivated for long.

If you’re hoping for lasting change, figure out your “why”.

Maybe it’s so that your health problems will fade, or go away. Or maybe it’s to teach your kids about healthy eating and how to make good food choices. Maybe you’re desperate to lose those extra 20 pounds of baby weight that never “fell off”.

And maybe your “why” is something totally different.

That’s okay. It’s yours!

When you figure it out, write it somewhere you’ll see often. You’re bound to hit some hurdles in this journey. Keeping your “why” visible can keep you motivated.

Read the Ingredient List

The first step in eliminating processed food is to realize what you’ve actually been eating.

The best way I’ve found to do this is to look at the ingredient list. Instead of looking at the front of the box that tells you all the wonderful things about the product, turn it over and read the ingredient list.

Related: Tips For Decoding Food Labels and reading the ACTUAL ingredient label

If you don’t recognize the name of an ingredient, look it up. Usually if you don’t recognize an ingredient it’s because it is manufactured, not grown.

These are the ingredients to be very cautious of and try to avoid when you can.

If you do this each time you go to the store, it won’t take long for you to be more aware of what exactly you’re eating.

Becoming an informed consumer means being skeptical of the marketing claims on the front of the box. Once you know what you’re eating, you can start to make better decisions.

Don’t Buy heavily Processed Food

Once you’re aware of what you’re eating, the next step is to stop buying the food you’re trying to avoid. Start small and ease into this.

Here are a few ways you could do this:

  1. By category. First pick a food category that you usually buy at the store…maybe chips or crackers. Now, find a healthier alternative to the store-bought version. Take a few days or weeks to make the change, then pick a new category, like sides, meals, or desserts. Here are some great substitutions for common processed foods.
  2. By meal. Start with breakfast and eliminate processed food from your breakfast routine. Spend a week or two finding breakfast options that are nutritious, delicious and fit into your schedule. Then move on to lunch, dinner, and then snacks.

It doesn’t matter which path you take. Or maybe you make your own. The important thing is that you do it.

Related: What is “Real Food” And Where To Get It?

If you ease into it one step at a time, you’ll be more likely to succeed and stick with it than if you cut all processed food at the same time. Cutting food out cold turkey is HARD!

tips on avoiding processed food

  1. Make a meal plan. Use one of these FREE meal planning templates and plan out your meals each week. For DIY templates and apps that can help, check out this list.
  2. Follow a meal plan. This takes the guessing out of grocery shopping because you just follow the plan. If you’re looking for to get started by somebody else making the meal plan for you…this meal planning system has totally changed things for me and it taught me how to prep food ahead of time so I’m not scrambling to get food ready when I’m starving.
  3. Do your grocery shopping online. I find that it’s way easier to pass up an online purchase of chips as opposed to when they’re right in front of me at the store. I highly recommend online grocery shopping. Not sure where to start? Start with my recommended online grocery stores (including Thrive Market where you can get healthy / special diet foods at a discount).

Most of us aren’t super-human, so we need to take baby steps. And sometimes putting a name to the way you’re eating can help.

You can find Facebook groups full of people with similar goals and develop a community around you while you’re making this change. Not sure which diet to go with?

I’ve got you covered.

Learn what’s the difference between Paleo, Keto, and Whole 30…and which one is right for you in this post.

Clean Out The Cupboards

If you’re trying to change your habits, you need to set yourself up for success. That means if you’re trying not to eat store bought crackers…don’t have a box in the cupboard.

Your mind can play tricks on you and before you know it “I’ll just have one” turns into an empty box.

Ask me how I know.

Just get rid of the things you don’t want to eat. It’s helpful for this step if you have family on board. If not, you either will need to get creative, or have strong will power.

It’s hard at first, but it certainly gets easier. In fact, your taste buds will change so that you might not even want that store-bought pie (however hard it might be to believe). You’ll start to notice something different about the taste of processed food.

When you compare it to homemade food, it just won’t taste the same. It’ll taste “fake”, and you might not like the flavor anymore.

For example, I can’t eat store bought desserts anymore. They are so sweet that I almost instantly get a headache. So I just don’t.

And honestly I’m not even the slightest bit sad about it.

Because I know I can make these delicious desserts at home:

Make a Plan for Obstacles

Processed food is so ingrained in our culture, that it will be nearly impossible to avoid it 100% of the time (unless you never leave your house).

Obstacles will come up.

Be prepared and make a plan for when they do.

  • Eating out – Find something on the menu that’s unprocessed or minimally processed, or call ahead and see how your favorite dish is made. Do they make the sauces in the restaurant? Or do they come in a container? Pre-made sauces are usually not great. Maybe you decide that eating out is just too much work when trying to eat this way. In that case, try Sun Basket for clean ingredients and restaurant quality food in the comfort of your own home.
  • Food at work– If you sit right by the donuts at your office, you still have options. You can move the donuts, move yourself, or ask about a different breakfast food option that the office might get on board with. Many companies these days are seeing the value in healthy employees. Be an example for your ten friends who also are trying to resist the donuts.
  • Holidays and family events – These are hard if your family doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do. If they’re not willing to change the ingredients in their food, you can make a dish and bring it. Read these expert tips on how to stay healthy during the holidays.
  • Kids – I’ve found some of the hardest situations to be with my kids. At play dates or at school, snacks like crackers and sugary treats are everywhere. Something that’s worked well for me is always having healthier snack options in my bag. That way I’m not dependent on what someone else is offering. Our go-to snacks are dried fruit and nuts, homemade crackers, or veggies and hummus. Check out this family kickstart program for an easy way to transition into a healthy, real-food lifestyle to get your whole family on board.

The important thing is to make a plan ahead of time.

Think through the different obstacles you might face each day, each week and each month. And then sit down to make a plan of how you’ll handle them. You won’t think of everything, but over time you’ll develop strategies for how you want to hand obstacles when they come up.

Related: How To Eat Healthy Over The Holidays (Tips From The Experts)

Have Grace with Yourself and Others

This is the last step, but it’s probably the most important.

You need to have grace with yourself and others. Nobody is perfect, and no one expects you to be.

If you eat awesomely at home 80-90% of the time, you can afford to go out to eat once in a while, or eat the chips when someone offers.

When you’re in a situation that makes it difficult to stick to a no processed food lifestyle, have grace with yourself.

Our bodies were designed to be able to handle a certain amount of toxins. When we fill up 90% of the time on real food, our bodies should be able to handle a bowl of chips every now and then.

Stressing over every single meal will likely be worse for your health than if you were less anxious about your food.

Are you Ready to cut processed food?

Are you pumped? Ready to make some changes to your family’s diet?

Dip your toes in learning how to cut processed foods in my FREE 5 day email challenge. When you sign up for the free challenge, you’ll get an email every day for 5 days.

Each day you’ll get:

  • helpful information via email
  • a daily challenge
  • a question/challenge to help keep you accountable

Tell Me How It’s Going

I want to know if you’ve made the decision to cut back on processed food, or eliminate it all together. I’d love to hear how it’s going for you!

Leave a comment below and let me know!

Also, don’t forget to save this for later on pinterest!

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