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What the Heck is Processed Food, And How Can I Avoid It?

Mama_instant_noodle_blockProcessed food is killing you.

“I have no clue how I keep gaining weight… I eat so healthy” one of my friends said to me.

“Look, today I had a salad with chicken, with dinner I had some whole wheat pasta, and tonight I’m going to head over to Chili’s for some Mexican. You said Mexican is healthy right? Brown rice, black beans, good meats, all that stuff?”

“Yeah, but not how you’re eating it,” I said.

“Huh? Isn’t a vegetable a vegetable anywhere you get it? Isn’t a piece of chicken still chicken anywhere you get it?”

Not exactly.

The problem with my friend was that although he was eating healthy on paper – he was eating heavily processed foods at the restaurants he went to.

So he was getting 10x the amount of sodium he should be eating.

And he was eating twice the calories he naturally would have been eating.

And he was consuming way more sugar than you’d ordinarily find in those foods.

And worse – he wasn’t feeling as full as he should’ve been, and as a result, he was about 50 pounds overweight.

But that’s the problem – on paper it looked great, but if he never told me he was going out to eat these foods, I never would’ve figured it out.

If you really have no idea where you should start in order to take care of your health, removing processed food should be the #1 thing.

I’m about to show you what it is, why you should remove it, and how exactly you should do that.

What is Processed Food?

We hear it every day – avoid processed food and junk, so what the heck actually is processed food?

The short answer: virtually anything you find in a box.

Also known as convenience food, it’s just the stuff you typically think of on the shelves of stores.

  • Breakfast cereals – frosted flakes, cocoa puffs, etc.
  • Cakes, desserts, pastries – Oreos, cookies, doughnuts
  • Conventional breads – with added sugar, salt and a lot more

The big picture: Most of the stuff you find in boxes at the market or on the shelves of a convenience store.

You already know that candy and sweets are bad for you – but processed foods (that appear to be healthy) are often deceptively bad for you too.

Here’s an example:

Here’s a home made wings recipe:

processed foodIn 10 wings.

Total Calories: 750

Sodium: 2000mg

Other? No trans fats, added sugar or other additives.

This recipe is pretty high in sodium (if you ate 10 wings, that’s your daily sodium limit), but overall not bad.

Now here are the nutrition facts for Buffalo Wild Wings (A popular USA chain):

processed foodIn boneless wings and traditional wings:

Total Calories: 1480

Sodium: 7940

Other? Pretty scary.

Take a look at some other things on the menu, too:

WIld Wings Nutrition

Look at some of the sodium numbers here, and calories.

In their ribs, there are 2,380 calories… in one meal! That’s an entire 180 pound person’s DAILY recommended food intake.

Here’s my point: If you eat processed food, you are:

  1. Eating WAY more calories, without feeling the corresponding level of fullness and satiety
  2. Consuming hidden extra salt
  3. Consuming hidden extra sugar
  4. Consuming other potential additives that are carcinogenic (or have unknown health consequences)

You get the point.

Too much salt. (It’s almost IMPOSSIBLE to consume too much salt if you add the salt to food yourself).

It leads to over eating – because the fiber, bran, and physical material has been removed (processed) which makes it taste better, and more palatable, so you can slide down calories easier.

It’s less nutrient dense – like eating white flour vs whole wheat flour.

It often has trans fats, which have far-reaching negative health consequences.

… And lots more.

So How Do I Avoid Processed Foods!?

Alrighty… knowing that this kind of stuff is bad for you is the least important part.

The most important part is getting yourself to stop eating it.

Before I show you how I teach my students and clients to avoid this kinda junk, here’s one note:

“The war on obesity is won in the kitchen.”

- Dr. Mark Hyman

Bottom line: If you go out to eat food, you have no idea what you’re getting. Even in a high class restaurant, food is sometimes processed by adding butter, sugar, and salt to increase the taste and flavor of food.

So this goes without saying: be wary if you frequently go out to eat. If you aren’t willing to give up eating out 2x a day, then make better choices.

But for those of you that cook, here’s how I think of it:

  • The highest level (ideal): 90% of your meals are foods not found in boxes with an ingredient list. For example, for dinner eat meats, seafood, plants, nuts, fruits, other vegetables, and then fats like olive oil, avocado, and low GI carbs like brown rice. The only thing that technically was packaged here was the brown rice, and the ingredients are generally 1-3 things.
  • The medium level (realistic): 50% of your meals are “real food” (here’s my definition of real food), for example you have some chicken with pasta or potatoes (real food), and then a side of something that came in a box: a pre-made mix, hamburger helper, mac and cheese, etc. Personally, I avoid any and all pre-made mixes – if I buy something in a container, it’s generally a marinade, canned beans or veggies, or spices.
  • The low level (avoid): 10% of your meals are “real food” and 90% is processed and packaged. This is what I categorize as the typical American diet. Breakfast might be a sandwich you find at Starbucks when you get your coffee (processed, added sugar, fat, salt and calories), lunch is at a local restaurant with more processed food, and dinner is some kind of TV dinner or pre-packaged pizza or meal mix. The 10% of real food is probably from the occasional salad or piece of fruit.

So at the highest level – avoid boxed things most of the time.

At the next highest level (what I classify as realistic) – focus on real foods, even if they come in packages (generally if there are more than 3-5 ingredients on a can – e.g. water, salt, and corn) you don’t want it.

The biggest win you can make nutritionally often is AVOIDING boxed things as much as possible.

Here is something I call the “supermarket” skim technique, something we talk about extensively in Dream Body: The Anti-Diet.

When you walk into a market, the real food is always at the entrance. Produce, veggies, fruits, and so on. You can find those on the outside edges of the market.

Next you often find the animal protein – fish, animals, seafood, bacon, dairy, all that kind of stuff.

Last, you find things like soy milk, orange juice, yogurt and eggs.

But in the center of the market is where you always find the most heavily processed stuff – foods that have a “shelf life” almost always have some method of preservation in order to prevent them from going bad.

The supermarket skim technique is simple: when you go into the market, you just skim the edges, and avoid going into the center aisles. You walk in, get your fresh veggies and produce, then you skim over to the seafood and protein isles, and then skim over to your eggs and dairy if you eat those, and then skim back around to the checkout counter (or quickly go through the aisles after).

This is a foolproof way to make sure you’re avoiding the boxed, processed stuff, and avoid the health complications that come with eating them.

– Alex

Leave a comment below: what’s one tiny change you can make this week to remove processed food?


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2 comments… add one

  1. Funny you write about this today, because our kids are taking more interest in food and nutrition (7&9), other than my wife and I discussing things with them and offering options with fresh food.

    Also funny is that Food Network show “Chopped” has them REALLY interested, which is cool.

    I also do the grocery store “skim” and avoid the middle aisles when possible. I never had given that action a name. Good informative, valuable post. Thank you.

    1. Cheers Rick! And you’ve got some awesome kids then, if they are already interested in Nutrition ;).


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