If you’ve ever felt guilty for ripping open a bag of chips or peeling back the plastic layer of a Lunchables, you’re probably thinking about cutting back on processed foods. What is a processed food? According to Lauren Minchen, MPH, RDN, CDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, processed food is anything edible that “no longer looks how it once did in nature, or something that never existed in nature.”
Click here for the If You Really Took All the Processed Foods Out of Your Diet, What Could You Eat? slideshow.
Lisa Leake made a career out of cutting out processed foods. Her family’s efforts to eat only “real” food for 100 days spawned the blog 100 Days of Real Food and subsequent cookbooks, lunch plans, endorsement deals. She created a contract, or pledge, that readers print out and sign, dedicating themselves to 100 days of clean eating, which means only real and whole foods. “You see, every time we food shop or eat a meal, we are voting for either processed food-like substances or real food,” she writes. “If all of us make the right choices together then we can make a big impact, which will help change our country’s food system for the better.”
So, what exactly are you cutting out? On the easy end, if you can’t pronounce it, stay away from it. If it has numerous random ingredients, it’s not a whole food and probably contains preservatives or other ingredients you can’t pronounce. This is where frozen fruits and veggies might get a pass — if they’ve been frozen to preserve their freshness, and nothing has been added (like salt or sugar), then they’re OK to eat. Also off the table? Items that are deep-fried or cooked in anything processed. Refined grains, like white flour or white rice, should also be eliminated. If you are eating bread, you’ve got to select a brand that is made with whole wheat and no additives. Any more than that and you are dabbling into processed territory. You may want to opt for bread from a local bakery for real food results. Swap out refined sweeteners like sugar or manufactured sweeteners — like corn syrup or Splenda — in favor of honey and pure maple syrup.
Of course, you shouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, do it all in one day. Experts suggest cutting out the easy things first — think boxed cereals, artificial creamers, and artificially sweetened yogurts. Simple swaps to things like steel-cut oatmeal flavored with whole fruit, organic milk, and cinnamon or organic yogurt made with live active cultures are quick fixes that won’t have you craving out-of-the box items. Swap oils like Crisco and canola out for extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil when cooking, too. Then, move onto things like sandwich bread, meat, grains, and snacks.
Now that these are all on the “no” list, what is on the “eat me” list, you ask? Here are some menu ideas for you.
Chances are you’ll find your whole beans in a bag. This is one of the few cases when a bag is OK. How else would you carry your unprocessed, raw, uncooked beans home? Black, lima, kidney, and garbanzo beans are all protein- and fiber-rich. Add them to homemade soups or salads for a protein boost.
Dairy includes milk, yogurt, eggs, and cheese. Their inclusion in a healthy diet may be a source of debate among some clean-food bloggers. If you are opting for an unprocessed diet rather than a raw diet, choose the right type of dairy. Organic, white, and full-fat varieties are allowed on a non-processed diet. If you are talking cheese, choose the block form, meaning not shredded, grated, bagged, or in strips.