Approximately 70 percent of the calories in a typical American diet come from processed foods, according to an interview published on the PBS website in April 2013. This means switching to a diet with no processed foods, sometimes called clean eating, would be a big change for most Americans. Doing so, however, may make it easier to follow the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends limiting sodium, added sugars and saturated and trans fats.
What Counts as Processed
Food that has had anything done to it is processed. This means frozen fruits, bagged salad greens, chopped apples and ground beef are all technically processed foods, not just foods like crackers, chips, frozen dinners and cookies. When experts talk about avoiding processed foods, however, they are often talking about avoiding the more highly processed foods and still including minimally processed foods that don't contain any additives or ingredients you wouldn't have in your own kitchen.
Reasons to Limit Processed Foods
Processed foods tend to contain added sugars and sodium, both of which most Americans often get too much of in their diets. Adults should get no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day and should limit added sugars to no more than 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men. Highly processed foods, including crackers, baked goods, coffee creamers, snack foods, frozen pizza and refrigerated dough products, also sometimes contain trans fats, which are the most unhealthy type of fat. Any food that contains partially hydrogenated oil contains trans fats, even if the label says 0 grams trans fat.
What to Eat
Eat mainly whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products, seafood, skinless chicken and lean meat. Frozen and canned goods without added preservatives, colors, flavors, sugar or sodium are also usually allowed, as are prepped foods such as chopped vegetables and unsalted roasted nuts. Basically, if you could theoretically make the food in your own kitchen using the ingredients listed on the label, diets that involve avoiding processed foods will often still allow it. Crackers made with just whole wheat, soybean oil and salt would pass this test, but not crackers that also contain ingredients such as TBHQ, sodium stearoyl lactylate, soy lecithin and high-fructose corn syrup.
Making It Easier
Avoiding processed foods means you'll be cooking from scratch a lot. Planning your meals and cooking batches ahead of time can make this easier for those with a busy schedule. As you eat more unprocessed foods, concentrate on the flavors and eat without distractions, and you may find yourself enjoying your food more than you used to with a highly processed diet. Stay away from processed foods for a while and your palate will gradually change so you don't crave foods that are very sweet or very salty any more.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Surprise! This Is Processed Too!
- PBS: Is Processed Food a Pandora’s Box for the American Diet?
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Lowering Salt in Your Diet
- FamilyDoctor.org: Added Sugar: What You Need to Know
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: FDA Targets Trans Fat in Processed Foods
- U.S. News & World Report: Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods in 7 Steps
- USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Dietary Guidelines for Americans