How many times have you heard advice about avoiding processed foods? If you want to lose weight or just eat a healthy diet, that does make sense for the most part. However, there are important differences among processed foods that are rarely discussed.
Some processed foods are actually good for you and others may be more fattening than you think. Find out how to make smart choices before you toss another packaged food item into your grocery cart.
- Recognize processed food. Any food that undergoes changes during preparation is considered processed. That can include steps like freezing or cooking that have relatively minor impact or drastic changes that add large amounts of sugar and salt and create empty calories.
- Avoid ultra-processed food. When nutritionists talk about avoiding processed food, they’re mostly talking about ultra-processed foods. These items contain more lab products than natural ingredients, and about 70% of the packaged food in most supermarkets fall into this category.
- Watch your weight. Over-processed foods may be a major factor in rising rates of overweight and obesity. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that participants who ate these foods gained more weight than those who ate natural foods even when they consumed the same number of calories.
- Compare brands. One apple is about the same as another when it comes to nutrients. However, packaged foods vary widely. For example, some breakfast cereals may be mostly white sugar and white flour while others are unsweetened whole grains.
- Read labels. How can you tell the difference? Check the labels on the back for the list of ingredients and nutritional information, including added sugar and salt. The front of the package is mostly advertising and may be misleading.
- Hunt for hearts. You can also look for packages with a red and white Heart-Check Mark. That means they’ve been certified by the American Heart Association as suitable for healthy eating.
- Buy beans. Canned beans are a fast alternative to dried. Just rinse off the salty liquid and toss them in salads or soups.
- Go fish. Increase your fish intake with inexpensive canned tuna and salmon. Enjoy them in sandwiches and casseroles.
- Eat yogurt. Avoid excess sugar by buying plain yogurt. Add your own flavor with fresh fruit, cinnamon, or even a little coffee. You can also lighten up some recipes by substituting yogurt for ingredients like sour cream.
- Add nuts. Some nut butters can be just as wholesome as the ones you make at home. Check the labels to avoid added sugar and unhealthy fats.
- Flip burgers. On the other hand, whole soy foods have more flavor and nutrients than the textured vegetable protein in commercial veggie burgers. Browse online for easy recipes using tofu and tempeh or other ingredients like beans and lentils.
- Sow your oats. If you think the breakfast cereals at your local organic market cost too much, pick up a container of plain oats. They’re extremely versatile. Use them for baked goods as well as binding burgers and thickening soups and stews.
- Switch breads. Studies show that most breads are ultra-processed with high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. If you don’t have time to bake your own, look for products made from sprouted whole grains, sourdough, or 100% whole wheat.
- Check the freezer. Frozen and canned vegetables and fruits can be nutritious. Check the ingredients and keep in mind that their texture will be different from fresh.
Healthy eating can be affordable and convenient. Avoid ultra-processed foods but take advantage of packaged items that can help you to prepare nutritious meals and snacks for you and your family.