In today’s fast-paced, over-scheduled world, finding the time to cook three healthy meals a day is challenging. We’ve all stopped at the fast-food drive-thru, ordered takeout or popped a frozen pizza into the oven. But are we doing damage to our waistlines and good health every time we choose the convenience of processed foods over a home-cooked meal?

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The Processed Foods Spectrum

Processed food is anything altered from its original form. It includes products that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition through fortifying, preserving or preparing. But not all processed foods are created equal. They can fall anywhere on the spectrum of the following five categories:

  1. Minimally processed foods – Bagged spinach, cut vegetables, fresh blueberries, roasted nuts, and whole-grain or wheat breads, which are simply prepped for convenience.
  2. Foods processed at their peak – Canned vegetables, frozen fruits, tuna and salmon, which have locked in their nutritional quality and freshness.
  3. Foods with ingredients added – Jarred spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes, which often have sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives added for flavor, longer shelf life or to keep prices low.
  4. Ready-to-eat foods – Crackers, chips, cookies and deli meat, which are heavily processed.
  5. Frozen or premade meals – Frozen pizza, microwaveable meals and canned soup, which are the most heavily processed food items. They have had much of their natural nutritional value stripped away and often contain unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium and fat.

Of the categories above, as you might expect, minimally processed foods are your best choice. They have a place in healthy diets. Also, some foods like milks, breakfast cereals and juices are considered processed but may be fortified with vitamins or fiber, making them acceptable in healthy diets. But as you climb up the spectrum toward highly processed foods, the verdict becomes increasingly clear – less is better.

Recognizing Over-Processed Foods

In order to avoid over-processed foods, you need to be able to recognize them. It’s not always easy. You’ll want to start looking at ingredients lists. Even though a product may say it’s “natural” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you.

Read the Nutrition Facts label to know what’s in your food. Look for hidden sugar, fat and salt, especially those ingredients not intrinsic to the food but rather added in processing.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10% of total calories from added sugars, which often go by names you might not recognize, such as “maltose,” “brown sugar,” “corn syrup,” “honey” and “fruit juice concentrate.”

Dietary Guidelines also recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. So look for low- or reduced-sodium foods. Otherwise, you could be exceeding the recommended salt intake even though you rarely reach for the salt shaker.

If you’re in search of a healthier lifestyle and a smaller waistline, cutting over-processed foods from your diet is a great place to start. And it’s not as hard as you might think.

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