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There have been several studies lately that scientifically prove how awful processed foods are for you. And honestly, it's not that surprising, is it?
I mean...I don't think anyone is surprised by the notion that the farther food gets from its natural state, the less healthy it will be. And that there are plenty of processed foods to avoid like the plague...specifically the highly (or ultra) processed foods.
Did you know you can easily tell how much processing a food has been through JUST by reading its ingredient label.
Related: What's Wrong With Processed Food?
When I talk about the ingredient label, I'm referring to the part below the nutrition label that starts with "Ingredients:". Not the actual nutrition label with calories, protein, carbs, etc.
Related: 5 Tips for Reading Ingredient Labels
Let's pretend you're explaining it to your five year old. They ask, "Mom, how is this food made?".
If the answer is more than a few steps, it's a highly processed food.
Let's do a couple examples with almond butter and then Cheerios.
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Is almond butter highly processed?
5 year old: "Mommy, how is almond butter made?"
You: "Well, the ingredient list says it just has almonds and salt in it. So probably they make them like this...
- They pick the almonds off the tree and grind them up
- Then they add some salt."
Verdict: ALMOND BUTTER is NOT highly PROCESSED *
*At least the almond butter made with just almonds and salt isn't. Watch out for hydrogenated oils on the ingredient label!
Are Cheerios highly processed?
5 year old: "Mommy, how are Cheerios made?"
You: "Well, the ingredient list says...oh...um...I'm not sure what some of these are. Here's my guess...
- They take the oats, blend them up.
- Add some corn starch (which started as corn and then they do a bunch of stuff to it to get just the starch out).
- Then they add some preservatives. Which, I'm not sure how they're made...
- Add some sugar and salt, vitamins and minerals.
- And then they somehow bake them in a factory into these cute little circles that end up in your cereal bowl."
Verdict: CHEERIOS are highly PROCESSED
10 Ultra Processed Foods to avoid & What to Swap Them With
Here are 10 ultra-processed foods that you probably ate this week, with suggestions of what to replace them with. Remember...avoiding processed foods doesn't have to mean you give up all the food you love.
It just means you work towards finding alternatives to the store-bought highly processed versions.
1. Artificially Flavored Crackers
2. Flavored Granola Bars
I know it seems like granola bars are healthy, but in reality, 99% of them are loaded with added sugar and are NOT healthy. Just check the ingredients if you don't believe me.
Instead of the highly processed, sugar laden bars, buy Lara Bars. You should be able to find them at your local grocery store. And if not, Amazon carries a wide variety. What makes them different is that they are naturally sweetened with dates and only use simple ingredients.
You could also make your own bars for a LOT less money. Here's a recipe from Minimalist Baker that uses five ingredients for a tasty looking granola bar.
3. Energy Drink
Is this one obvious to anyone else other than me? Just don't do it.
Instead, make sure you're getting good quality sleep. Without enough sleep your body can't function properly. And no amount of "energy" drink can help when your body breaks.
If you need a pick-me-up in the afternoon slump, there are plenty of more natural ways to get your caffeine. Coffee? Tea? Or my personal favorite...chocolate? Make a batch of these energy boosting brownies and carry them with you. You won't be disappointed.
If you prefer to have a pick-me-up in drink form, try this homemade chai hot chocolate. You can control the sugar content and type of sweetener. Now doesn't that sound better than an energy drink?
4. Instant Potato Flakes
When I was growing up, there was always a discussion about whether the instant potato flakes tasted the same as the real deal.
I was ALWAYS firm in my "NO potato flakes, please". You see, as an extremely picky child who would ONLY eat mashed potatoes as one of the five things I'd eat...I knew. I could tell when they were fake. And it bothered me. In fact, it still does.
When you eat an artificial version of the real thing, you're robbing yourself of the natural flavors from the actual thing. And it's much less nutritious, too.
What do I recommend instead of the instant potato flakes? I recommend using a real potato...boiling it...and mashing it up.
5. Flavored Candy Bar
I think Halloween is a strange holiday. And each year, I'm just puzzled.
Candy...this thing that everyone knows is just about the most unhealthy thing you can eat...is given to the growing children. Everywhere. They dress up in a cute costume, and we reward them with...candy?
I know the kids love it (who wouldn't). I mean, our bodies need carbs for energy. And when we taste sugar, we automatically think...I need more of that. It's a survival instinct really.
Because back in the day there wasn't always an abundance of food. And there wasn't a never-ending supply of sugar. Ever.
So when our Paleo-selves ate something sweet (then it would have been a berry), we wanted to be sure we ate as much as we could.
Because A) the berry season isn't that long, and once it's over the berries are gone for the year, and B) to store up fat for the winter ahead.
So yes, Halloween is puzzling to me. Candy is an interesting reward.
Instead of candy, make your own chocolate bars at home. Get a chocolate bar of your choosing (the darker the better, in my opinion) and melt it down. Then add your favorite fillings. Like these chocolate almond clusters (pictured below), or dark chocolate almond butter cups.
Same idea, much more nutritious!
6. Sweetened Breakfast Cereal
I'm pretty sure all breakfast cereal is sweetened in some way. Maybe it's not all coated in a sugary layer, but even something as healthy sounding as granola often has a LOT of sweetener.
Cereal is a highly processed food.
Instead of buying boxed cereal, eat sauteed vegetables and a fried egg for breakfast. Or a bowl of steel cut oats, sweetened with fruit (if you like the breakfast bowl idea).
7. Store Bought Bread with a long list of ingredients
Ah...bread. You know, bread didn't always last six months sitting on a store shelf. That's a newer quality thanks to the preservatives, gums, and refined oils inside the bread.
Instead of buying store bought bread, you have options.
- Don't eat bread.
- Make your own bread. You can make a loaf of bread for a fraction of the price. Sourdough is even better.
- Buy bread from a bakery who makes it fresh daily. If the bread is made fresh each day, it doesn't need a five inch long ingredient label to keep it fresh. It just IS fresh.
Related: Baking Tools To Make Bread At Home
8. Potato Chips
When I was a teenager I heard the Pringles commercial all.the.time. You know..."Once you pop, you can't stop." And it was true. Once you opened one of those cans, the crunch combined with the salt was just addicting.
Instead of buying potato chips, make your own at home. You can use nourishing olive oil, or even naturally refined avocado oil, and you can control the salt.
9. Ice Cream
Michael Pollan once said, "you can eat whatever you want...just make it yourself".
I love that idea. If you take away the convenience factor, you learn if you really want to be eating that bowl of ice cream, or if you're just doing it because it was on sale and you're bored. If you follow Michael Pollan's advice, just make it from scratch. I can almost guarantee you won't eat it as much.
You can find old ice cream makers at thrift stores any time of the year. You can also get one like this that doesn't require the ice & rock salt combination.
Personally, we still use the thrift store "old" style (like this one). And even though we don't eat much milk in our house, I've still found a way to enjoy ice cream with a non-dairy milk, sweetened with honey, and chocolate...of course. Here's the recipe if you want a to make this chocolate almond treat.
10. Frozen Pizza
Oh the frozen pizza aisle. Have you ever counted how many frozen pizzas are in that aisle? I haven't either. But every time I walk by it I'm amazed at how many companies make frozen pizzas.
Ever since we transitioned to more of a Paleo diet, pizza night has looked a little different. But we still make pizza night happen. We make a grain free pizza crust (with almond flour or cauliflower), this delicious 5 minute, no-cook pizza sauce, and pile on the toppings.
We tried a frozen pizza the other day (with a grain free crust) and let me tell you...it was nowhere NEAR as good as the pizzas we make. It was all crumbly and tasted bland. The sauce was barely there (a BIG disappointment), and the toppings...well...we added our own toppings.
If you've never made homemade pizza, please try it soon. It's SO much better than frozen pizza (and healthier too).
I hope it's clear that the highly processed foods found in the middle aisles of the supermarket are not nearly as nutritious as whole foods.
That being said, I know not everyone has access to affordable whole foods. And that's certainly a problem. If you're in a situation that makes it hard for you to find whole foods you can afford, do the best you can with what you have.
If you're in a remote location without access to a health food store (or just can't afford those stores), I recommend these online grocery stores.
Other highly processed foods to avoid
This list is not meant to be an exclusive list, by any means. But it's a good starting point. When you're working to rid your meals of processed foods, remember to read the ingredient label and start eliminating or replacing the most heavily processed items first.
Moving towards wellness
While watching what food we're eating is essential to good health, wellness is much more than just food.
Other things to take into consideration when taking steps towards wellness:
- How you interact with others. Be social. Laugh. Have fun. The longest living, happiest people on earth are the ones with strong communal ties.
- Sleep well. Make sure you're getting enough rest so your body can function properly.
- Pay attention to your body and how it reacts to different foods. If you feel sluggish every time you eat potatoes (for example). Then try not eating potatoes for a while to see if it changes.
- Practice self-care. Be intentional with your time and give yourself time to rest and recover from stress. Need some ideas? Here are 32 self-care ideas to start with.