We often hear that processed foods are a problem for the modern western diet. Fortunately, there are ways you can address these problems. Here are some of the fundamental issues with processed foods, and what you can do about them.
What Are Processed Foods?
A bag of frozen vegetables, while “processed” in the sense of having been packaged into a convenient form, is not what we mean by processed foods. Processed foods are those that have been pre-cooked or have had spices and other ingredients added to them, often including preservatives, dyes, or other chemicals. Ground beef has been processed – it has been ground up and then packaged. But for our purposes, we don’t consider it a processed food if it contains only ground meat. However, pre-packaged hamburger patties can be, if they include additives.
Pre-cooked meals that only require heating are processed, clearly. These often are cooked using vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. While we require omega-6 fats, they need to be in the right balance with omega-3 fats; otherwise they may contribute to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. Often pre-cooked meals are high in sodium because this can enhance the flavor. Sodium is such a common addition in the form of salt that there is an entire market built around the words “low sodium”. Other flavor-“enhancers” such as MSG can contribute directly to weight gain or other health issues.
One positive with processed foods is, you can see the calorie count and the fat content at a glance. It’s harder to determine the calorie count of foods that haven’t been processed. For example, a single quarter-cup serving of raw mixed nuts can deliver about 170 calories. This can be more than you expect, even though nuts are healthy for you and supply plenty of vital nutrients.
Choosing Processed Food
You have no control over the contents of processed food, but you have absolute control over which ones go into your shopping cart. A particular food contains the sugar, calories, and fat levels listed on the package. So this is where you need to begin. Learn to recognize the amounts of various vitamins and minerals you need. Research the calories you need in a day. There are healthy processed foods, so research the processed foods you are considering buying. Be suspicious of anything on the label that doesn’t sound like food to you.
The packaging itself can be an issue. The plastics and can or glass jar linings in some food packaging can contain toxic chemicals such as the hormone-disruptor BPA (bisphenol A).
Don’t base your decision to buy on the text the manufacturer put on the package. “Now with 20 percent less fat” may not mean the manufacturer has cut the fat content; it may mean the manufacturer is now making that product with 20 percent less of everything, to save money! Also, phrases like “heart healthy” or “nature-made” may be pure marketing slogans. Read the packaging and nutrition label carefully, focusing on the ingredients and the vitamin and calorie count.
Preparing Your Own “Processed Foods”
Processed foods are convenient, which is why they are so popular. If you want to break free from processed foods without losing their convenience, here are some tips:
Prepare several meals at once. Pre-cooked chicken dinners are convenient, and you can do the same thing in your own kitchen. Cook a package of organic drumsticks and prepare mashed potatoes in bulk. This way, when you need a quick meal, you can assemble it and heat it in the oven with ease.
When you buy groceries, budget time to prepare your meals. For example, you can prepare multiple small containers of ready-to-go meals that include raw vegetables. Make a point of not simply putting your groceries away but preparing them for the coming week.
Buy healthy ingredients. To prepare your own ready-to-go meals, use a cooking oil such as avocado oil rather than a common vegetable oil such as canola.
Involve your family. Preparing food as a group can be fun, and takes less time than it would if you alone prepare food. So get everyone involved and make it a regular event. You’ll save time, and everyone in your family will be healthier.