Alternatives for processed food

Processed food can be delicious, but when eaten in more-than-moderate amounts, they can also have some negative effects on your health. By decreasing your intake of processed food, you can lower your risk of high blood pressure, insulin resistance, bad cholesterol, and some chronic diseases.

If only cutting out processed food from our diets was so simple! In this day and age, processed food is all around us, and it can be really difficult to avoid. Fortunately, there are some tasty alternatives that can help reduce your intake of not-so-healthy snacks and meals.

What exactly is processed food?

Processed foods are foods that have been changed from their original state to lengthen their shelf life, enhance their flavor, or make eating them more convenient. Some ways that foods are processed include heating, milling, pressure treating, or treating foods with additives. Some commonly-consumed processed foods are microwave-ready meals, chips, soda, canned soups and sauces, and boxed cooking mixes.

What processed foods are okay to eat?

Not all processed foods are equally unhealthy. Canned vegetables and beans that don’t have any extra sodium or additives aren’t much different than their original form, and fortified milk and whole grain wheat products are pretty healthy as well.

How can you tell which processed foods are healthy, and which are not?

When determining which processed foods to buy, it’s mostly important to be aware of the ingredients in the products that you’re buying. Processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat and other additives should definitely be avoided whenever possible, because these can have a less-than-desirable effect on your health.

Smart alternatives for processed foods

If the idea of cutting out all processed food seems daunting, try some of the following ways to reduce the amount of processed food in your diet.

  • Make your own pasta sauce, salad dressing, and ketchup. You can actually find simple recipes for these different condiments online. In a lot of cases, the homemade versions of these taste even better than their store-bought alternatives and contain a lot less salt and sugar. 
  • Buy whole cuts of meat. The processed varieties like bacon strips, hot dogs, and pre-sliced lunch meats contain much higher levels of sugar, salt, and preservatives than what you’d find in whole cuts. 
  • Replace artificial sweeteners with honey or agave nectar. Artificial sweeteners save on calories, but their effects on the human body are still controversial. As long as you don’t have health problems related to your blood sugar, you may want to try to use honey or agave nectar instead. 
  • Swap white flour products for whole grain products. Many people who make this shift actually find that they prefer the rich taste of whole grain products, so this one’s definitely worth a try! White flour is highly processed and has lost nearly all of its original nutrients. Whole grain products, on the other hand, deliver a variety of vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid ready-to-eat cereals for breakfast. Many breakfast cereals aren’t fortified with vitamins or minerals and contain unhealthy amounts of sugar and refined grains. Either opt for fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals or try eating more whole foods for breakfast – like fruits, eggs, or whole grain toast with avocado.

Finding healthier alternatives to processed foods can decrease the risk of certain health complications, and you might find that you like the alternatives even better than the processed food itself. Making the switch may take a little extra time and energy, but in the long run, the benefits will far outweigh the risks.

  • “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
  • Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LN. “Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid.” EatRight. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Nov 2016. Web.
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