Avoid processed foods. It’s one of the most unchallenged dietary recommendations for anyone trying to lose weight or gain health.
The advice is not without good reason, of course. Numerous highly palatable, packaged foods line our supermarket and pantry shelves and now account for over 60 percent of calories eaten in the United States.
Most of those calories come in the form of refined sugars and solid fats (not to mention copious quantities of salt). At the same time, these foods are negligent in nutrient density having little protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals – that serve to satisfy, yet fail on flavor.
Sometimes these kinds of foods come in layered varieties in what a few establishments dare to refer to as “meals” – pizza, potato chips, dips, hamburgers, french fries, and cookies, to be washed down with sodas.
There’s the formula for a weight epidemic. It could be said that these products are designed for weight gain, having been created to be craved, eaten often, and potentially overeaten because, just as they’re advertised, “you can’t eat just one.”
These are the reasons why “processed” has become the dirty word that it is today. But it wasn’t always a dirty word, and some processed foods can be particularly helpful for gaining nutrition.
Over the history of food processing, it’s been associated with delivering greater nutrition to all, according to Wayne Bidlack, Ph.D., a professor at California State Polytechnic University.
In some cases processing (such as when exposed to high temperatures) can decrease or damage some nutrients that are heat sensitive. However, processing can often enhance nutrient availability such as when lycopene from tomatoes is made more available in the form of tomato sauce, or when phytate (an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals) is removed from grains improving availability of iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
“People have to be nutritionally wise in their selection of processed foods,” Bidlack said. “We can change our diet and influence nutrition patterns by influencing food processing methods. The food industry only sells products people want to buy.”
Convenient & Nutritious
So instead of focusing on whether the product is “processed,” look for products designed to nourish and satisfy, with quality protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as other health-promoting compounds from fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Convenience is a “huge factor” because most people who attempt diets, including those that limit all processed foods, fail, according to Zhaoping Li, MD, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and medicine from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Dr. Li adds that too often people aren’t able to estimate caloric content, balance protein, carbohydrate and fat consumption and often fall short on vitamin and mineral intake, which may impact their health.
In short, one cannot lump all “processed foods” as being the same. Well-studied, nutritionally designed foods can even serve as equally delicious substitutes for obesity-designed regulars at the supermarket.
Clean Out Your Kitchen!
If you are trying to revamp your food choices, a good place to start is in your kitchen. Removing nutritionally lacking foods and replacing them with nutritious, low-cost options can be beneficial. Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t mean you have to spend your whole paycheck. Here are a few simple suggestions that won’t break the bank:
Black beans or garbanzo beans are very low cost (30 cents per half cup), and a good source of fiber. Plus, they can be added to many healthy dishes, such as hummus or salads.
2) Whole Grains
Brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, or quinoa are also good sources of fiber, and quinoa is a superb source of protein, especially if you follow a plant-based or meat-free diet.
Minced garlic, chopped carrots, and kale are just some examples of healthy, non-processed additions to your meal. Veggies are also a great source of vitamins, too, something most processed foods are lacking.
4) Meal Replacement Shakes
Many meal replacement shakes are less than $3 per meal, are easy to prepare, have balanced nutrients, and are a great source of protein.