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If you’ve ever gotten into dieting or nutrition, you’ve probably heard this adage: whole foods are good, processed foods are bad. This is generally true, but what’s the difference between whole and processed foods? And what types of processed foods should you avoid?
What is Processed Food?
“Processed food” is a very general term. All it means is that a food has been changed in some way to make it suitable for eating. When you freeze food to keep it fresh, that makes it processed. When you heat food up in the oven or microwave, that makes it processed. In fact, unless you’re eating, say, apples plucked straight from an apple tree, almost everything you eat is processed.
This means that “processed food” isn’t inherently good or bad. If we wanted to ban all processed foods, we’d have to ban cooking! The key difference is in how the food is processed before you buy it. Many foods are mixed with preservatives to keep them fresh on store shelves, or unhealthy amounts of fat, salt, and sugar are added for flavor or texturing. Some foods, such as chips and candy bars, are so heavily processed that they have no or negative nutritional value.
Processed Foods to Avoid
Here are some processed foods to avoid, along with healthy alternatives:
- Cereal bars and granola bars: Check the labels – most of these so-called “health foods” have as much fat and sugar as cookies and sodas. Instead, try Nakd Bars, which have whole ingredients, or some dried fruit for a morning snack.
- Flavored nuts: Nuts are great – peanuts and cashews make for a wonderfully healthy snack. The bad news is that any type of flavored nut has added salt and sugar by definition: think salted peanuts or honey-roasted cashews. To keep them healthy, ditch the flavors and go back to basic nuts.
- Frozen and microwaveable meals: It doesn’t matter what food a frozen or microwaveable meal contains – it will always have added preservatives. Ever wonder why these prepackaged meals are so much less filling than food you get at a restaurant or make yourself? That’s because to keep the food fresh, it’s stripped of most of its nutritional content. Instead, cook meals yourself from fresh, whole ingredients. It takes longer, but your stomach will thank you.
- Instant noodles: Instant noodles may be everywhere, but that doesn’t make them good for you. They have sky-high levels of salt and sodium and offer little to no nutritional value. If you want a quick noodle snack on the go, it’s best to make your own: toss some cooked whole-wheat noodles and diced veggies in a cup, microwave, and voila!
- Chips: Doritos, Ruffles, mass-market tortilla chips: they may be made out of potatoes, but they’re so heavily processed that they offer nothing of value to your body. Instead, try carrot, cucumber, or celery sticks dipped in peanut butter or hummus.
Processed foods aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s important to be aware of how they’re processed. When given the choice between prepackaged meals and meals that you can make yourself out of fresh ingredients, the latter option is almost always more filling and better for you.