The Process of Un-processing Our Food

As a follow-up to last week’s post, let’s review the main points: The food scene in America is changing, and much of it has to do with the fact that the majority of what we eat is not real food, but rather highly processed food products put out by the multi-billion-dollar food industry.  When we focus on eating whole foods and products made with whole food ingredients, it benefits our health.  Additionally, to support a healthy relationship with food, there is no need to demonize or rule-out any food in the diet (even the highly processed ones).  Doing so often leads to an unhealthy, guilt-ridden, avoid-and-binge cycle with food.  Instead, learning about, understanding, and taking the time to enjoy and appreciate food for the way it fuels the body and connects people can lead to an incredible transformation of food freedom and improved health through moderation.  Changing the way we eat is as much a journey of the mind and way of thinking as it is of physical behaviors.  After all, every change starts with the decision to do so, followed by acquiring the motivation, knowledge, and skills to make it happen.  (It also helps to know you can still eat the doughnuts and french fries when you want.)  The key is in remembering that our daily and weekly habits are what determine our health trajectory, and every small change towards the “ideal” results in health improvement.

If you’re ready to start making some changes, listed here are 7 ways to start replacing processed foods with more natural, whole foods.  Pick one or two ideas that sound realistic to you and start there.

  1. Swap heavily processed food items for more natural options

Try This…

Instead of That…

Natural Peanut Butter

(the only ingredients should be nuts and salt)

Most brand-name Peanut Butters

(you’ll find sugar and added oil in the ingredients)

Lightly sweetened or Unsweetened Cereals

(look for options with 6 grams of sugar or less)

Sweetened and artificially colored cereals

(examples: many cereals marketed to children)

Whole Grain Crackers

(example: Triscuits have only 3-5 ingredients)

Refined white flour crackers

(example: Ritz and Club crackers)

Real Maple Syrup

(it’s still sugar, so watch your portion)

Artificially flavored pancake syrup

(the main ingredient is often high fructose corn syrup)

Natural Cheese Options – cheddar, swiss, etc.

(buy in blocks & slice for snacking or sandwiches)

Processed Cheese Items

(examples: American cheese, shelf-stable cheese)

Natural food that is nutritious and filling – fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains with minimal added fat and sugar Highly processed “diet” foods
  1. Take time for food prep. There is no getting around this – if we want to eat healthier and feel better, we must make time for it.  Pick a day or two of the week that you typically have extra time (or can make time), and prepare some of your foods for the week.  Chop veggies for the next few nights’ dinners or snacks (or spend a little more and buy the pre-chopped varieties), portion and pack your snacks so they’re ready to grab on busy days, prepare a casserole or other dish that can be refrigerated until you’re ready to bake it on a tiring weekday, prepare a bunch of breakfast burritos and freeze them individually for later use, freeze leftover homemade pancakes and pop them in the toaster for a quick breakfast, bake a pan of homemade granola bars for snacks to last a couple weeks, or make a big pot of soup for many lunches and dinners.  Use leftovers for lunch the next day so you get two meals out of the effort for one.  And try to make food prep fun: involve the family, turn on music, listen to a podcast, pretend you’re the host of a cooking show, or watch a favorite movie in the background.

  1. Spice up plain and unflavored foods at home.  Buying unflavored varieties of food can cut out a lot of added sugar, fat, and salt.  This can be done for many food items including oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, popcorn, frozen veggies, canned fruits and veggies, and more.  Add a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter to oatmeal, then top with fresh or frozen fruit and a sprinkle of cinnamon for some sweetness.  Use fruit or just a sprinkle of sugar at home on plain cereals.  Add 2 teaspoons of honey to plain yogurt and top with your favorite fruit and ¼ cup granola.  Try grating some parmesan cheese on plain popcorn, or season it with parsley, lemon pepper, red pepper flakes, or cinnamon for a few different varieties.  Buy frozen veggies without any added sauces, canned veggies with no added salt, and canned fruit packed in its own juice or water for less sugar.  Use various spices to flavor the veggies.

  1. Use snacks as an opportunity to get some quality nutrition. Snacks can be a great way to get extra nutrition throughout the day, if we choose balanced options.  Try to include at least 2 food groups at each snack, and work to make 1 of those foods a fruit or vegetable.  Many snacks can be prepped at home from simple ingredients: a cheese stick and fruit, carrots and hummus, edamame and grapes, popcorn and sliced bell pepper, an apple and almonds, celery and peanut butter, yogurt and berries, peanut butter and graham cracker sandwiches with a clementine, cottage cheese and peaches, trail mix (dried fruit, nuts, dark chocolate), crackers topped with spreadable cheese and cucumber slices, veggie chips and cherry tomatoes, corn chips and veggie salsa, a hard-boiled egg and a pear, and many more.

  1. Choose your condiments carefully. Many condiments are loaded with sugar and fat. Check the ingredients list and try to find those made with the most natural ingredients possible.  Palm kernel oil and coconut oil are saturated fats, which increase risk for heart disease; so it’s best to find products made with other types of oil.  To decrease sugar, be aware that sugar takes many forms, including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, molasses, dextrose, brown sugar, fructose, invert sugar, and more.  Sometimes a single food item may include multiple types of sugar in the ingredients list.  Best food choices for a regular basis will include minimal forms of sugar and find sugar lower on the ingredients list (ingredients are listed by volume used, the most to the least).  Jam or jelly, for example, would ideally include the fruit, sugar, pectin, and lemon juice or citric acid.  Many of the large companies make jam and jelly products with primarily high-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate, not real fruit.

  1. Swap refined, white food products for whole grain options. Pretty much everything you can find as a refined food product can also be found in a whole grain version (with the exception of cake, pastries, and many desserts). Try these substitutions, and remember any change is a good change.  Maybe you’re unwilling to give up white rice, but you don’t mind eating whole grain bread and pasta.  Great!  Start there.  You can also do a 50/50 mix of white and whole grain.

Processed Version

Whole Grain Options

white rice or “enriched” rice brown or wild rice
white pasta whole wheat pasta
white bread, buns, or bagels whole grain wheat bread, buns, or bagels
white or corn tortillas whole grain wheat flour or corn tortillas
many ready-to-eat cereals oatmeal, whole grain ready-to-eat cereals
Ritz, Club, Wheat Thins, and many crackers Triscuits or other whole grain crackers
Goldfish crackers, pretzels, many “snacks” popcorn
all-purpose wheat flour whole grain wheat flour
corn bread mix whole grain corn meal
Try other whole grain options: quinoa, barley, couscous, amaranth, millet, farro, and more…
  1. Spend more time shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. You’ll notice the center of the grocery store is where the aisles and packaged food items are primarily located.  These items are more shelf-stable – meaning they don’t require refrigeration – because many of them are heavily processed. (Please remember that many nutritious foods are found in the aisles, too.  We just need to read the labels!)  The border of the store is where the fresher food items are located.  Fill your cart with more fruits and veggies (fresh, frozen, and canned are all good options), low-fat and unflavored milk and yogurt products, and lean and unprocessed protein options (fish, seafood, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat cheese, hummus, tofu).  Dive into the aisles for staple foods like whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, and rice; nuts, beans, and other legumes; spices, oil, and cooking essentials; and some healthy snack options like whole grain crackers, low-fat popcorn, or dark-chocolate for a sweet treat.

Learning to change the way we eat can often be confusing and overwhelming.  Be patient with yourself and remember to set small and realistic goals.  Every little step is progress!  If you have questions or this is a topic you’d like to explore more, please talk with your healthcare provider about scheduling an appointment with the Registered Dietitian at Family Physicians of Greeley.

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