Highly processed foods add calories to your diet with little nutritional payoff. Here’s how to identify and avoid the worst of them!
From magazines and TV shows to your primary care doctor, everyone seems to be talking about the dangers of processed foods. That’s because these foods, which make up a big percentage of the American diet, have been linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity. In fact people who eat a lot of processed foods eat about 500 more calories each day than those who don’t.
So what exactly is processed food, and how can you limit the amount of it on your plate?
Processed foods have been changed from their original state. Turning raw apples into applesauce is an example of processing food.
Processing is a broad term. It can include everything from washing, cleaning, and chopping to cooking, pasteurizing, canning, freezing, and dehydrating. Processed foods may also have things added to them, such as nutrients, flavors, stabilizers, and preservatives, along with sugar, fat, and salt.
However, not all processed foods are bad for you! For instance, lettuce that has been washed and bagged and fruits that have been chopped and frozen are processed. But they still retain most of their nutritional value and add to the healthiness of your diet.
Commercial breads and cereals are often fortified with vitamins and minerals that might be missing from your diet. Your milk might contain vitamin D, which is good for your bones and other aspects of your health.
How processed is your food?
It can be helpful to think of foods by the degree of processing they undergo. There are four main categories.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
These foods may have been preserved or processed in some way, such as by cutting, refrigerating, or pasteurizing. Generally, there is nothing added to them. Examples include:
- Whole fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains (oats, bulgur)
- Coffee and tea
Processed culinary ingredients
These foods are often used to prepare a meal rather than eaten on their own. They usually contain no additives. Examples include:
- Oils from plants
- Syrup from maple trees
Moderately processed foods
These foods have undergone more processing, including the addition of fat, sugar, or salt. These foods tend to have two or three ingredients. Examples include:
- Canned fish
- Some cheeses
- Freshly prepared bread
- Some canned fruits, vegetables, and beans
Highly or ultra-processed foods
This category is where processed food gets its bad name. Ultra-processed foods typically have multiple ingredients and have been through multiple processing steps. They lack fiber, are stripped of nutrients, and contain fat, salt, and hidden sugars - like high fructose corn syrup - that are harmful to your health.
Highly processed foods include preservatives, dyes, and other additives that extend their shelf life – or make them so tasty you crave more.
"They are designed to be tasty, plus they are cheap, convenient, and easy to make," Kevin Hall, Ph.D., a senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, told Consumer Reports.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Packaged snack foods, cookies, and cakes
- Packaged rolls
- Ice cream
- Sweetened breakfast cereal
- Sugary drinks
- Hot dogs
- Deli meat
- Frozen meals
Avoiding processed foods can be hard — and many of them are not bad for you. A good rule of thumb is to try to eat fewer highly processed foods and more unprocessed or minimally processed ones for optimal health and well-being.
How can you tell a highly processed food from a minimally processed one? One indication is the number of ingredients it has. The fewer ingredients on a food label, the better. If you see one with 10 or even 20 ingredients, it’s going to be a lot more processed than one with five or fewer.
The biggest offenders
Everyone splurges on a sweet or salty treat like potato chips every now and then. When you get the urge, go for it — but sparingly!
In general, you’ll do better if you steer clear of the least nutritious and most harmful processed foods. The following food items are particularly suspect:
Soda, juice, and sports drinks are laden with added sugars and artificial colors and flavoring. They have little nutritional value.
Hot dogs and deli meats
These are made from waste meat products, which are ground and blended with additives.
Instant and canned soups
They usually have unhealthy levels of sodium. Any vegetables have been so overcooked that they are no longer nutritious.
These noodles are fried into the shape of a block in a factory and contain artificial colors, flavorings, and loads of salt.
Intensely flavored snack foods like chips and crackers usually are made of refined grains with no fiber and contain artificial colorings and flavors, along with lots of fat, sugar, and/or salt. They’re also engineered to make you want to eat more. You’re better off popping popcorn at home!
The optimal diet
A less processed diet contains mostly whole foods like these:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Meat like chicken or beef
- Seafood like salmon and halibut
- Legumes like chickpeas and black beans
- Eggs and dairy products
If you’re used to relying on fast or processed foods, it can be tough to switch to a less processed diet. It’s less convenient than most processed foods and will likely require more time to prepare and cook meals.
The key to making the switch is to take it slow. Start with just one meal a week and gradually add more whole food to your diet. Little changes can add up over time to create a big boost in your health and vitality!
How Medicare can help
Even after you make big changes to your diet, you might still need medical help to lower your cholesterol or high blood pressure. Both Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage cover doctor visits to help manage these conditions. Medicare Advantage plans often go a step further, by covering visits with a nutritionist and exercise classes that can improve your cardiovascular health. Compare plans available in your area with our easy-to-use Find a Plan tool.
- ClearMatch Medicare: Find a Medicare Plan
- Harvard School of Public Health: “Processed Foods and Health”
- Consumer Reports: “Processed Foods Are Bad for Weight Loss, Study Shows”