How to Remove Processed Foods From Your Diet [Clean Eating, Part I]

How to remove processed foods from your diet

Welcome to part one of our three-part series on clean eating. We hope you find the series useful, educational and inspiring!

If you’ve ever thought about removing processed foods from your diet and enjoying the health benefits of pure, whole foods, where do you start? Is it a matter of bypassing the cookie aisle or replacing frozen dinners with fresh, homemade alternatives? 

Let’s take a look at what constitutes processed food and how to replace processed snacks and convenience foods with healthy and delicious alternatives.

What are processed foods?

It’s important to define processed foods, as they cover a broad spectrum. The least processed foods include bagged lettuce—pre-washed, cut up and ready to eat. Alternatively, highly processed foods such as frozen fish sticks are barely recognizable as fish

Ultimately, processed food is any food that has been altered from its original state.

Are processed foods bad for you?

No, not all processed foods are bad. Home-canned and fermented foods are processed and provide many health benefits. The difference lies in how they’re prepared.

At a high level of processing, manufacturers mass-produce food by turning ingredients into products that have a long shelf life and require little home preparation (e.g., heating in the microwave).

For instance, snack bars and breakfast cereals go from wholesome ingredients (e.g., grains and nuts) to blended products, often containing unnecessary sugar, fat, salt and preservatives.

The added ingredients create cravings, resulting in eating more food than the body needs. This can lead to weight gain, as well as chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

What’s the best way to remove processed foods from your diet?

Reducing your processed-food intake doesn’t have to be a drastic change in how you eat. 

Start simply

Think about the foods you eat daily and identify the processed foods that include additives. Do you have cereal for breakfast that contains added sugar? Consider replacing it with a ‘natural’ food: oatmeal with homemade fruit puree or eggs and toast (made from your bakery’s bread or a homemade loaf).

Tip: buying your bread from a local bakery reduces the number of additives—including sugar—typically found in store-bought, pre-sliced bread

Use this guiding question to reduce the processed foods you eat

When switching out processed foods for whole alternatives, ask yourself, How much has this food changed from its original state? 

For instance, could you replace the package of banana bread with whole bananas and nuts (or nut butter)?  How about that can of vegetable soup? With just a few vegetables, homemade chicken stock and seasonings, you can whip up a pot of delicious soup—cooked to your taste and without the additives.

Switch up where you shop

If possible, visit the local farmer’s market. As you stroll around, you can chat with the people who harvest and sell the food.

The vendors will be able to tell you how they grow the foods (e.g., without pesticides for produce or hormones for meat). Generally, they’re passionate about what they sell and will have tips for preparing their meats and produce. 

Stick to the edge of the supermarket

To reduce the temptation or to break the habit of buying packaged and processed foods, shop the perimeter of the supermarket. This is where you’ll find produce, dairy and meats. 

However, be aware that processed foods can make their way in with unprocessed items—like sugary yogurts, marinated meats and bagged salads with prepared dressing (which often includes added sugar and salt). 

Look for foods that are as close to natural as possible.

Tip: Use the food label to help you decide if you really should buy a processed item. Is the list of ingredients a dense paragraph of names you don’t recognize? Focus on labels with ingredients you know!

Eater fewer processed foods to feel great

If you’d like to remove processed foods from your diet, the first step begins with awareness—of identifying what’s in the foods you eat and choosing options that are closer to their natural state.

As you remove the processed foods, make a note of how you feel. Do you feel like you’re digesting your food easier (with less bloating and heartburn)? Are you sleeping better and moving easier? Over time, as you free your system from the added fats, salt and sugar, you may start to notice that you feel great.

Note: Before you make changes to your diet, consult with your healthcare provider.