Medically reviewed by Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
If you're thinking about cutting out processed foods in your diet, here are all the facts you need to know.
Thinking about cutting processed foods out of your diet to improve your health? Want to get rid of added sugar and junk food in your diet?
This post provides the facts about what is a processed food, as well as ingredients to avoid in processed foods and how to make your own healthier versions of processed foods.
were playing the game "Two Truths and a Lie," you may think I'm lying when I say I eat cake, pizza, and ice cream. Truth is, I do eat these foods! I mean, check out this cake at my
recent engagement party.The difference is I don't eat them every day,
and I balance out these indulgences with plenty of nutritious foods. And that means eating a good amount of processed foods.
Yup, you heard me right. Maybe I'm about to blow your mind, but I'm a dietitian telling you I not only eat cake, I also eat processed foods. But hold on a minute.
Processed foods aren't the horrible-for-you foods you necessarily think they are. Sure, the category includes baked goods with trans fats (please skip!), but it also includes
frozen veggies and canned beans.
Plus, many processed foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals that are nutrients of concern for Americans, such as iron and vitamin D. Minimally processed foods can make healthy eating easier, budget friendly, and help reduce food waste.
Finally, while you don't want ultra-processed foods (not sure what an ultra-processed food is? scroll down!) to be the bulk of your diet, including a few of them can help maintain your sanity while embarking on a healthy eating plan.
Just be sure you're making them a normal part of eating instead of planning a cheat day on a diet...and then another and another. So if you're thinking you might want to cut out processed foods, I hope this blog post changes your mind!
What are Processed Foods?
Simply put, processed foods are food items that have been altered in any way. Even fruits and vegetables can be processed. An apple that's been sliced and packaged is processed, and so is a bakery item that combines a dozen ingredients.
Obviously, there's a big range of processed foods out there, and whether you should be cutting out a processed food depends on what that food is. Examples of processed foods include salad dressings, wheat and white bread, brown rice, and even olive oil.
Some processed foods contain ingredients like artificial colors and flavors. While your taste buds may like these, I recommend reading a food's ingredient list to avoid them.
If you're wondering if cutting out processed foods can help with weight loss and also lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases, the answer is yes. You can definitely get health benefits by doing so. But again, it depends on what you are cutting out of your diet exactly.
Added Sugar in Processed Foods
There's a big difference between the amount of sugar and the amount of added sugar on a product's nutrition label. Have you heard someone say fruit has too much sugar? This is one of the most common questions about nutrition I get as a dietitian.
It's easy to get confused by which sugars you should limit. Thankfully, a new labeling requirement will help you decipher the difference between natural sugar and added sugar (and will help you feel better about whipping up this all-fruit chocolate banana nice cream or a berry almond cocoa smoothie!)
Get the details about the nutrition label change in my interview with Eat This, Not That and how to cut down on processed foods that contain added sugar.
Healthier Alternatives to Ultra-Processed Foods
Cutting out sugar and processed foods to improve your health? Hold on just a second. I actually recommend certain processed foods as part of a nutritious daily diet. And certain processed foods can help you save money on groceries!
Know the difference between minimally processed and ultra-processed foods, what to look for when you buy them, and healthier versions of your favorite treats.
Bottom line: When it comes to eating healthy you should definitely eat real food! Find out more about the benefits of an unprocessed food diet and why you should be reducing the amount of certain processed foods in your diet but not completely cutting out the category from your diet.
Amy's Recipe to Try
Make this: Cheesy Mushroom & Onion Pizza!
Not only are some processed foods nutritious, they can also make eating healthy easier. For example, whip up a protein-rich cherry French toast for breakfast, then top a packaged pizza crust with veggies for dinner.
You can have a healthy meal in no time flat and avoid the drive thru. Get more ideas for making healthy food prep easy.
This blog post was updated in June 2020.
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What do you think about processed foods? Are there any foods you want to cut out? What ingredients do you avoid in food to be healthier and lose weight? What food rules do you live by?