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fresh-food-vs-processed-foodSwitching to Whole Foods

We've been hearing a lot about the evils of processed food lately. Trans fats, salt, sugar and chemicals are supposedly lurking in all of our favorite treats, just waiting to attack our bodies and clog our arteries. When most people think of processed food, they imagine Twinkies or a bag of Doritos, but just what qualifies as "processed" may surprise you. We'll break down fresh food vs. processed food and identify which processed foods are safe to eat.

What Is Processed Food?

Technically, processed food is anything that has been altered from its natural state. Do you typically slice up an apple before you eat it? Then you are eating processed food. Of course, this very literal interpretation doesn't really apply to the issue of processed food and health. If that were the case, we'd still be buying live chickens, milking our own cows and using nothing but honey as a sweetener. Scratch that last one. Honey is processed by bees . . .

Clearly, it's important to use common sense when deciding what is processed food. Typically, what health experts are referring to when they talk about processed food is items like baked goods, snack foods, cured meats and candies—essentially, food that is made up of multiple ingredients and purchased ready to eat. Not all processed food is unhealthy, and it would probably be impossible for most people to eliminate processed foods from their diets entirely. The important thing is understanding which processed foods are healthy, which are all right in moderation, and which to avoid entirely. 

Safe Processed Foods

The best possible food you can eat is whole foods. This includes things like fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans), whole grains, nuts, eggs, milk and whole cuts of meat and poultry. These foods are often found around the perimeter of a grocery store.  A good rule of thumb is to fill 75-80% of your cart from these areas (produce, meat and dairy).

When you do need to venture into the aisles, you'll want to look for healthy processed food. The best way to find it is to examine the ingredient list: the shorter the list, the better. The ingredients should all be things you recognize (and can pronounce).

Good-For-You Processed Foods

  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole grain cereal with no added sugar
  • Low-fat cheese and yogurt
  • Nut butters without added sugar or salt
  • Salsa without preservatives
  • Canned fruit packed in juice
  • Unsweetened applesauce
  • Raisins and other unsweetened dried fruits

In general, remember to buy fresh foods as often as possible. Make your own meals at home whenever you can, and avoid pre-packaged, pre-cook foods whenever possible. Extend this even to things you normally wouldn't think about. For example, instead of buying spaghetti sauce in a jar, use a can of crushed tomatoes and add a little garlic, olive oil and basil. Simple changes like this can really increase your odds of eating a healthy diet free of harmful processed foods.

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