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Processed Food: How And Why Should I Cut Back?

Processed Food: How And Why Should I Cut Back?

By Liz Blike, RD

Apr 26, 2019

Updated Oct 25, 2023

5 min read

Why and how to eat less processed foods_2

You probably know processed foods are loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and chemicals. They contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, certain types of cancer, and heart disease.

But processed foods taste good. They’re convenient. They’re everywhere. They’re a staple for many people.

So how can you reduce your intake of processed food? Here are few ideas on how to cut back and give your diet a healthy reboot.

Start small

Your taste buds will need time to adjust when you cut back on processed items and start eating real, whole foods.

Start small. Stop buying pre-made freezer meals from the grocery store. After a few weeks you may be ready to give up something else. Over time your taste buds will acclimate, and you’ll be able to fully enjoy whole foods and their flavors without pining away for their processed counterparts.

Plan ahead

Processed foods are convenience foods. Most of us eat processed foods when we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to make a real meal. Avoid reaching for more processed fare by meal prepping and planning ahead. Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables ahead of time. Bring snacks with you so you won’t be tempted by the vending machine. Having a plan and being prepared will help you cut out the foods that aren’t so great for you.

Learn to love cooking

Unless you’re a fan of salads, it can be difficult to cut back on processed foods without cooking. So make a goal to embrace your love of cooking. Find recipes that make you excited to cook. Take a cooking class. Recruit a friend to cook with you (or teach you how if they’re a great cook). As you learn to love cooking, you’ll also be better prepared to make your own versions of beloved foods.

Cook smarter

When you start to do a lot of your own cooking, try things that help you save time in the kitchen. Batch your cooking. If you know you’ll need shredded chicken for more than one meal during the week, cook enough for both meals and refrigerate or freeze a portion for later. Cook large portions of rice or beans to use in multiple meals. Batching your cooking helps you cook smarter while still eating healthy.

Use substitutions

Look for ways to substitute some of the processed items in your refrigerator and pantry. For example, use less salt by substituting garlic, spices, or herbs. Choose whole grains over processed grains like brown rice instead of white rice or whole wheat bread instead of white bread. Instead of eating processed meats like bacon, sausage, or lunch meats, try buying a rotisserie chicken that can be shredded for many different meals.

Don't give up eating out

Just because you’re trying to cut out processed foods doesn’t mean you need to give up restaurants entirely. You just need to think about your restaurant meals a little more. Salads with dressing on the side give you more control about what’s going into your food. Skip fried and breaded foods and opt for things like grilled chicken instead. Best case scenario, look up the menu online before you go. That way you won’t be walking into the situation blind and you can have a good idea of what you’d like to eat before you open a menu.

Eat less

It’s hard to give up processed foods entirely. If you’ve got that one food you just can’t give up, focus on eating less of it. Half your portion of pizza from your favorite pizza place instead of totally cutting it out. Yes, you’re still eating process foods, but less of them.

Don't be fooled by advertising

Remember to be a savvy shopper and read food labels. Some products labeled as “healthy” may not actually have any health benefits at all. Watch out for things like artificial colors or flavors, additives, or artificial sweeteners.

Cutting processed foods from your diet is a great way to improve your health in the long run. It can be difficult to cut out the convenience processed foods give you, but when you plan ahead and learn to love cooking, you’ll have success!