Can you do it? Is it worth the effort?
OK, let’s be real. Trying to go an entire month without eating a single morsel of processed food would be a challenge. First, depending on how geeky you want to be about defining “processed,” it might be difficult to come up with a complete menu of foods that haven’t been processed at least a little.
The definition of processed food is somewhat open to interpretation, depending on how strict you want to be. When considering various meats and seafood, for example, unless you are buying a whole animal, some level of processing is involved, and unless you live on a farm, that’s hard to avoid. Likewise, a bag of fresh, organic spinach has been picked and washed and bagged. Is that processing? Maybe for some people.
Why would you want to eat this way?
What are the benefits of minimizing processed foods in your diet? There are actually lots of them. One of the primary reasons people change their diet is to lose weight. Eliminating processed food means doing away with things like fast food and soda, major culprits in the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics. If you made the switch, you’d probably lose weight, feel better, and be healthier.
Providing your body with the nutrients it needs to achieve and maintain good health may be another reason to pursue a “clean eating” plan. Nutrients that come directly from your food (rather than supplements) are the most beneficial and bioavailable for your body.
It’s not just about what your body is gaining by eating clean. Eliminating processed food could also significantly reduce your exposure to chemicals used as preservatives, artificial flavorings, artificial coloring, stabilizers, and thickeners. The things you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce on an ingredient list aren’t necessary in the human diet, and as many studies have shown, a lot of those chemicals are harmful.
If you aren’t particularly concerned about your weight or overall health, you might be motivated to eliminate processed foods for environmental reasons. Choosing organic, locally grown, and seasonal items means less environmental impact from things like pesticides used on crops, hormones and antibiotics in the food chain, and transportation that relies on fossil fuels to get products to the market. It’s also a way to support local businesses if that’s important to you.
How do you begin?
It may be easier to think in terms of choosing foods that are unprocessed. To remove processed foods from your diet, focus on eating whole, preferably organic, foods. Think of it in terms of single-ingredient foods that will eventually spoil. This includes fruits and vegetables in their raw form; meats and seafood that haven’t been colored, flavored, or injected with solution; and pretty much anything white — white flour, white sugar, white rice.
What about foods that have an ingredients list?
Unless you’re going to mill your own flour or grow and harvest your own oats or quinoa, you’re going to have to purchase ingredients that have been somewhat processed to make some of your meals. But there’s a huge difference between buying a bag of whole wheat flour, stone ground from intact grain, and using it to make your own bread, for example, and buying a loaf of whole wheat bread that may contain additional gluten, preservatives, and a bunch of other unnecessary ingredients. If you have to include some foods with an ingredients list (most likely you will), pick those with as few ingredients as possible and make sure they contain things you recognize and can pronounce. Being an avid label reader is one of the best things you can do to support your quest to clean up your diet.
A good resource for finding information about processed foods is the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s Food Scores rates more than 80,000 products on a scale of 1 to 10. EWG ranks foods based on three food scoring factors: nutrition concerns, ingredient concerns, and processing concerns. An associated mobile app allows you to scan a product’s bar code while you’re at the grocery store so you can see its ranking on the fly. To help you choose the best whole foods, EWG also issues its annual “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists. The lists rank conventionally raised produce (as opposed to organic) based on the level of pesticides detected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“USDA EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce recognizes that many people who want TO reduce their exposure to pesticides in produce cannot find or afford an all-organic diet. It helps them seek out conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that tend to test low for pesticide residues. When they want foods whose conventional versions test high for pesticides, they can make an effort to locate organic versions,” the website states.
Yes, you’ll have to cook
If you don’t already cook or do so only occasionally, preparing you own food is one of the most important activities you can do to eliminate processed food as much as possible. Cooking gives you the most control over what you’re putting in your body. Sure, it’s more labor intensive, but there are ways to streamline the process that will save you time.
Although eating whole and minimally processed foods is surely more expensive than a diet of ramen and boxed meal helpers, there are ways to minimize the costs, like buying raw ingredients in bulk. It’s much cheaper to buy dried beans and cook them yourself, for example, than to buy canned beans. Buying in-season produce — when it’s plentiful — may also help minimize costs. Furthermore, the higher expense of eating better food may well be offset by improving your overall health long-term, and potentially reducing your healthcare expenditures.
If you’ve decided to take a stab at minimizing your exposure to the unhealthy aspects of processed foods, here are some additional tips to get you started:
- Meal plan. Start by planning out a week’s worth of meals. By planning ahead, you’ll avoid having to grab fast food for lunch or pizza for dinner.
- Make a list. Using your meal plan, make a grocery list of everything you’ll need for the week so you’re only making one trip to the store, which saves time.
- Cook ahead. Choose one day of the week to do your prep work and cook some of your meals ahead of time.
- Cook in batches. Choose meals that can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated for the coming week. This may include a big pot of stew for dinner one night with the leftovers used for several lunches during the week.
- Keep a well-stocked pantry. If there are ingredients you use repeatedly, buy them in bulk so they are on hand when you need them.
Completely eliminating processed food from your diet, for a month or a week, would probably challenge most people. But making an effort to cut out processed foods as much as possible can pay big dividends to your health, removing many of the toxins that are ubiquitous in so many of our foods. Even small changes are a step in the right direction.
April 09, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN