10 Easy Ways to Cut Processed Foods from Your Diet

“Our diets,” says Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, “have changed more in the past 100 years than they have in the last 10,000.”

Today, about 70 percent of the calories Americans consume come from highly processed foods — foods that have been changed from their original state with the addition of preservatives and additives, or the removal of certain elements.  This merger of technology and food production has made it possible to extend the shelf life of food, reduce cooking time and create flavors we have come to crave.

More food, cheaper food is not necessarily better food

The down side of this? Our bodies have not evolved to handle these new, engineered food products. Warner believes this is why America, despite its wealth, is 37th in life expectancy globally, and obesity, heart disease and type II diabetes have become epidemic in the country. Most Americans no longer get their food directly from the farm. Instead, they purchase manufactured food, and food manufacturers seek to maximize profits, using processes that diminish nutritional value and add excessive amounts of sugar and fats to the American diet.

What are they doing to our muffins?

This change in the American food supply has been decades in the making. Early in the 20th Century, W.K. Kellogg discovered that removing the corn germ from Corn Flakes extended the cereal’s shelf life. Unfortunately, corn germ is where most of corn’s nutrition is found. Real blueberries have a limited shelf life. Replacing this antioxidant-rich berry with fake blueberries, ones made with sugar, cornstarch, artificial coloring and flavorings, extends the life of a “blueberry” muffin by several weeks. Snack foods are designed to stimulate our taste buds (so we will buy more), and this is accomplished by adding unhealthy levels of sugar and fat.

Cleaning up your diet

It may not be practical for you to eliminate all processed foods from your diet, but by actively seeking whole foods to replace highly processed foods, you can go a long way towards better health. Note that the term processed food means different things to different people. In very general terms, processing is any change made to food. When you slice an apple, you are processing it. There is nothing unhealthy about slicing an apple. Warner uses this definition: “Processed food is something that you could not make at home, in your own home kitchen, with those same ingredients.” Keep this in mind when hitting the supermarket.

 How to find real food in a sea of imitations

  1. Shop farmers markets — step back a century and get your food the way your ancestors did by buying directly from the farmer.
  2. Buy most of your food from the exterior aisles in the grocery store — most grocery stores line their exterior walls with refrigerators. This is where you will find fresh produce, meat and dairy. The middle aisles are often dedicated to snack foods and sugary beverages. Be careful shopping there.
  3. Choose food that is closest to its natural state — an apple is better than an apple toaster pastry; a fresh orange is better than reconstituted orange juice.
  4. Read ingredient labels — As a general rule of thumb, the fewer ingredients, the healthier the food. If you can’t identify (or pronounce) an ingredient, you may want to put that product back on the shelf.
  5. Preplan meals — make it a habit to plan your menus for the week ahead of time and make sure the ingredients are on hand in your kitchen. This will help prevent last minute shopping for convenience items and fast-food purchases.
  6. Make your own soups — you can avoid excessive salt and artificial ingredients by making homemade soup. Most of the time involved in soup making is the simmering. This can be done in a slow cooker while you are at work. Make a large pot and freeze meal sized portions for future use.
  7. Skipped processed meats — evidence is mounting that salted, cured, fermented and smoked meats are linked to cancer. Seek out fresh meat that is raised without growth hormones or antibiotics for a healthier choice. Meat approved by the USDA as organic will meet this criteria.
  8. Buy plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit — if yogurt is one of your go-to foods, buy tubs of plain yogurt and add fresh fruit and berries from the produce aisle.
  9. Go for whole grains — white bread, white rice and white pasta mean the most nutritious part of the grain has been stripped away. Go for whole-wheat products and brown rice for better nutrition.
  10. Keep a supply of healthy snacks on hand — puffed corn coated in a brilliantly orange “cheese” powder is not a healthy snack choice. Instead, try almonds and pecans, homemade chips made from apples, bananas and pineapples. Make your own popcorn from popcorn kernels; avoid microwave packets that are drenched in quasi-butter. If you really want a puffy cheese snack, try this: thinly slice any variety of cheese. Spread slices on a parchment-covered sheet pan and bake in a 350-degree oven until the cheese begins to brown on the edges. Remove from oven and let cool. The cheese will puff as it bakes and crisp as it cools.