Why You Need to Eat Less Processed Foods

The ability to process foods has enabled man to extend the nutritional shelf life of food since the earliest time of civilization. These processes included fermentation, salting, drying and smoking foods. Yet today’s processed foods may include many additives—and many are not good for you. Specifically, you should steer clear of processed foods that:

  • Contain lots of artificial ingredients
  • Are high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup
  • Are high in refined carbohydrates
  • Are low in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • Are low in fiber

Experts agree that snack treats and fast foods achieve a taste bud trifecta: sweet, salty and fat. “In high concentrations these taste sensations are not naturally abundant in nature,” says Tim Higgins, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Meritus Health.

Readily available, appealing to taste buds, and relatively cheap; many people gravitate toward highly processed foods. Competitive food manufacturers engineer food to be incredibly rewarding to the brain—so much so that preferences for these food replace whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. “As a result, basic foods don’t taste as good to people,” says Tim.

And because of the brain’s “reward” response, processed foods facilitate overeating. Eating too much causes weight gain and that can lead to insulin resistance and increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

How to get back to basics

Eliminating processed foods from your diet can be challenging, but Tim offers a more realistic approach. “It’s really about making gradual changes to your food choices,” says Tim. He recommends five simple steps to eating more whole foods:

Increase consumption of foods in their natural state. Think basic foods like fish, meat, fruit and vegetables—or foods that your mother or grandmother once prepared.

Establish regular eating patterns. Our metabolism works best when we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Avoid processed snacks between meals. “If you’re not hungry for an apple, you’re not really hungry,” says Tim. Remember mom’s advice, “Less snacking or you’ll spoil your supper.”

Plan and prepare foods ahead of time. Prepare salads for lunches or make meals over the weekend and freeze for future meals throughout the week. Planning and cooking takes time. Although lack of time may be seen as the biggest challenge, consider time spent driving to and from fast food restaurants and waiting in drive-through lines, or hours spent on a smartphone. Meal planning involves time management according to Tim.

When grocery shopping, read food labels and chose foods with no more than five ingredients and avoid those with ingredients you can’t pronounce. “If the top five begin with sugar, salt and corn syrup, you should put the item back on the shelf,” says Tim.

Slowly replace processed foods with healthier choices. “Not all processed foods are unhealthy so they don’t have to disappear from your menu completely,” says Tim. Instead, switch out nuts for chips or drink a smoothie versus eating a fast-food breakfast sandwich. “It’s all about making changes gradually and sustainably,” says Tim. “Slow and steady wins the race.”