My good friend sent me your blog and I have been reading it ever since. I wanted to ask you a question about processed foods. I have been improving my diet slowly over the past few months and find that I am stuck. I have been reading about processed foods and that in order to be healthy we need to avoid them. I am trying very hard but it is very hard since I love a lot of processed foods like cheese. Am I going about this all wrong? Maybe I don’t know what processed foods are. HELP!
Jennifer T, Boston, MA
Thank you so much for writing me this great question. This comes up all of the time. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple to answer as it may seem. Let me start off by saying I am not sure if we can totally avoid processed foods or if that is even necessary. What we want to do is reduce the amount of highly processed foods in our diets and eat as many whole foods as we can.
I also don’t think you are doing anything wrong. I would just suggest trying to avoid using absolutes, like “avoid”. It may be better to use the word, “limit” instead. There are very few things in this world that we are tempted to do that we need to totally “avoid”.
Now onto processed foods…The topic about processed foods comes up a lot in the media and they have caused quite a stir around them. Please understand that many articles and stories are written with a dramatic tone because that is what draws your attention to them. This is certainly the case when it comes to nutrition and diet. I also think most believe, if you tell people to avoid a behavior they will still engage but hopefully less. I find this sort of thinking has been detrimental to our health and waistline. People can’t live up to these absolutes, they feel like they “should” be able to live up to them, and then feel like a failure when they can’t, leading them to give up all together. Ugh, that is just terrible and not the point at all. This is why I think our society is having such an issue today. But that is another story all together.
We don’t need to live in absolutes. This is where the idea of moderation comes in.
Processing doesn’t only occur in factories. Anything we do to food that alters it in any way is a form of processing. The further away a food is from its original form or the way it is found in nature, the more processing it has gone through. Cooking is a form of processing. Whether a chef at a restaurant cooks your food or you cook a homemade meal at home, your food is undergoing processing. And I don’t know about you but I am not going to stop cooking my food. So in essence, the practice of processing our food isn’t necessarily harmful we just want to limit the amount of processing that our food goes through.
If you are trying to eat foods that aren’t processed I am sure you are reading labels. It is also important to note that not everything listed on the label or that is a preservative is unhealthy. For instance, ascorbic acid is a preservative that is in many foods. Ascorbic acid is a form of vitamin C that is used to preserve our food and keep it fresher longer. It isn’t harmful to us and it actually enhances the vitamin C content of the foods we eat. Preservatives like this prevent us from having to go to the supermarket multiple times of the week. I am sure many people see it on a food label and think it is some sort of “chemical” that needs to be avoided.
However, foods that are “designed” like, croissants, Twinkies and sausages, as delicious as they may be, aren’t found anywhere in nature, are considered highly processed, and are the very foods that need to be limited. These foods have a lot of added fats, sugars, and additives that are harmful to our health and waistlines.
Other foods like cheese are also considered processed. Some cheeses are more processed than others. And Jennifer trust me, like you, I love cheese and eat it too. I choose to eat cheese and other foods that are processed within the context of a diet that relies more on whole foods (like fruits and vegetables) and foods that are minimally processed (whole grains and proteins). Foods like cheese aren’t the mainstay of my diet (although the idea of it with wine would be AWE-some…LOL). I incorporate cheese into my diet by using it sparingly sprinkled in a homemade dish like Bolognese sauce on top of spaghetti squash, in a homemade whole grain dish or in a salad. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t call these healthy dishes.
In a nutshell, when it comes to processed foods the goal is to limit. Forget about eliminating. I suggest look at the meal as a whole or even your day as a whole. Try not to hyper-focus on the individual components. Don’t get me wrong, as a registered dietitian and nutritionist, I appreciate that you are striving towards a healthier diet but having a healthy mind is just as important. There is no sense in beating yourself up and injuring your psychological health as your improve your physical health.
Jennifer, I hope that was helpful. I could go on and on this subject. I probably will in a later post. So please keep reading. But before I let you go, I want to add one more thing. Keeping a food journal and highlighting all of the positive changes you have made may help. You will see how far you have come and all of the positive things you are doing to improve your health.
Lots of love and laughter,