Highly Processed Foods – Buyer Beware


Ryan Day Coaching

Happy Sunday!

Three things in nutrition will get most people 90% of the way to their health goals:

  1. Adequate protein
  2. Adequate fiber
  3. Eating primarily whole, natural foods.  

Regarding #3 – The opposite of whole foods are highly processed foods, and that’s what we’re here to discuss.  For better or worse, highly processed foods have become staples in 99% of our diets.

They’re tantalizing, readily available, and, well, incredibly tempting. Unfortunately, they also pose some dangers to our well-being and are silently hijacking our health.

Before we get too far, let’s level-set and define “highly processed foods”.  

The way I like to think about it – these are the foods you find in the middle aisles at the grocery store.  They’re those foods that are in pretty packages, bags, and boxes that include a laundry list of ingredients, most of which you can’t even pronounce.

That’s not to say that all foods on these middle aisles are “bad”, but more often than not, the foods in packages or boxes have been significantly altered from their original form by adding a bunch of crap that’s probably not the best thing for our health.  

Generally speaking, highly processed foods are not our allies in the journey to better health, and eating a diet primarily containing these things poses some risk.

Risks of Overindulging

Nutrient Void: These foods rarely contain the essential nutrients our bodies need for optimal function.  However, they’re really good at providing empty calories that leave us wanting more.

Sugar and Salt Overload: I am not a salt hater.  In fact, most health-conscious people tend to under-consume salt.  But, processed foods can be LOADED with hidden sugars and excessive salt, which likely contribute to weight gain and hypertension in individuals who aren’t as health-minded or active.

Artificial Additives: Many processed items contain an assortment of artificial additives, some which may have dubious health effects. A colorful snack shouldn’t mean trading your health for a burst of hue.

Risk of Overeating: This is the biggest risk for most people, and IMHO, the reason we have an obesity crisis in the US.  Processed foods are literally engineered to be addictive.  MILLIONS of dollars are spent on researching how to leave just the right amount of dust on your hands when eating Cheetos or how to make gummy bears just the right amount of chewy.  This unfortunately leads to overconsumption without genuine satisfaction. It’s like an unsolvable puzzle, leaving you wanting more.

Health Consequences: Maybe a derivative of overeating, but a diet heavily reliant on processed foods is linked to an increased risk of various health woes, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. It’s a path many would prefer to avoid, and if you’re reading this newsletter, I’m guessing that’s you.

It sucks that highly processed foods are 80% of what you’ll find in a grocery store, which makes avoiding them even more difficult.  BUT, it can be done!

Reducing Your Intake

Shop Smart

Remember earlier when we said that the middle aisles of the grocery store include the highly processed foods?  Well, that means the perimeter of the grocery store will generally have the foods that are not highly processed.  Think about it.  This is where you’ll find fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, etc. These are the ones we want!!  

Read Labels

Decode those ingredient lists. Longer and more complex ingredients often signal a highly processed product.  Generally speaking, try to follow these two rules when buying packaged foods: (1) You should be able to pronounce all the ingredients, and (2) The ingredient list shouldn’t contain more than five things.  Bam.

Cook at Home

Take the reins in the kitchen! Homemade meals are going to win every time over takeout because they allow you to control ingredients, flavors, and nutrition.  Don’t know healthy recipes?  Boy do I have news for you.  There’s this really cool, new website called Google that lets you type in “healthy recipes” and it just automatically spits out a million results.  Amazing the technological advances we’re making as a society.

Smart Snacking

We talked about this some last week, but be smart with your snacks.  Elevate your snacking game with wholesome options like nuts, yogurt, or fresh fruit. These healthier options aren’t only nutritious, but they’re filling.  Example: I tried to eat an apple and an orange the other day for a snack (100 calories combined) and was struggling to finish them both.

Limit Sugary Drinks

This one is sneaky.  Highly processed beverages like coke and gatorade (yep, this stuff is NOT good for you) are often sugar-laden and have more calories than you probably need.  Instead, go for water, herbal teas, black coffee, or unsweetened beverages.  

I know this one is a sore spot for a lot of people.  If you’re somebody who craves the sugary drinks, I tend to recommend Mio or zero-sugar versions of drinks to get your fix.  There’s a lot of conflicting research on the effects of diet sodas, and as it stands today, there’s no conclusive evidence one way or the other. That said, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Diet Coke probably isn’t the best thing to be putting in our bodies, right?

Plan Ahead

This one takes some discipline for about two hours a week, but boy does it make the rest of your life easier.  Preparing meals in advance will significantly minimize the chances that you reach for processed foods when you’re super busy or can’t decide what to eat.  Knowing that you have prepared food waiting for you in the fridge is the easiest way to make sure you don’t go for fast food or frozen dinners full of low-quality ingredients.

Look.  Healthy eating is as difficult or easy as you want to make it.  Opt for mainly single-ingredient foods, avoid the middle aisles of the grocery store, and prepare in advance.  This will seriously get you SO far if you commit to it.  

And remember – health is a means to an end.  Eating healthy 100% of the time is prison, and I don’t recommend that for anybody.  The reason this stuff is important is that by making healthy choices 80-90% of the time, you’re creating a resilient body through good habits.  

This allows you to indulge in these processed foods every once in a while and not feel like crap or regret doing it.