Unprocessed foods are in their natural and unaltered state, without any added ingredients. This makes them ideal for those who wish to eat clean and reap the benefits, such as maintaining a healthy weight. Processed foods, on the other hand, are often loaded with chemicals.
Unprocessed Foods vs. Processed Foods
Foods like apples or carrots are considered unprocessed because they are in their natural state. They are fresh out of the ground and just the way nature intended. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods include anything that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in any way from its natural state.
This means that anytime you cook, bake or prepare the food in any way, you're processing it. It would be difficult to stick to a diet that consists purely of unprocessed foods as let's face it, you may get tired of eating cold vegetables. Not to worry.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating minimally processed foods in addition to nonprocessed foods. Note that minimally processed foods don't have added ingredients. They are just altered in other ways, such as through cooking, freezing or removing inedible or unwanted parts.
Some examples of minimally processed foods include frozen fruit and vegetables, bagged and pre-washed spinach, cooked salmon or roasted nuts.
Dangers of Highly Processed Foods
It is important to avoid heavily processed foods, such as pre-made meals (frozen pizza, microwavable dinners) or ready-to-eat foods like deli meat, potato chips, fried chicken or store-bought cakes and doughnuts. These products contain additives and preservatives and are often high in sugar and trans fats.
In fact, a May 2019 study in the BMJ assessed the effects of ultra-processed foods on cardiovascular health. Researchers have found that people on a diet high in processed foods had a 12 percent greater risk of developing overall cardiovascular disease and a 13 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease. By contrast, those who had a diet consisting mostly of unprocessed foods were at a much lower risk of cardiac events.
In addition to the weight gain from eating processed foods, this type of diet has many other health risks. A February 2018 study in the BMJ found that eating a diet consisting of heavily processed foods may increase the odds of developing cancer, including breast cancer, by 10 percent.
List of Unprocessed Foods
Stock up your diet with lots of whole foods in their natural state, as well as minimally processed healthy foods. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends the following minimally processed or unprocessed foods, according to the NOVA classification, a system that describes the degree to which food is processed.
Fruits and vegetables are a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Organic and seasonal produce is ideal, but frozen fruits and vegetables are also an option. These foods are rich in nutrients that may help protect against heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Whole grain or 100 percent whole-wheat bread gives your body the fiber it needs, although many store-bought versions are processed. Read the label to ensure it only contains simple natural ingredients. Your best bet is to make whole-grain bread at home.
Pasta, couscous and polenta made with flours are a good source of protein. Remember to check the label to ensure there are no added ingredients. Legumes, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, provide protein and fiber to add to your clean eating diet.
Get your daily calcium and vitamin D from milk, cheese, unsweetened yogurt and eggs. Wild-caught, organic seafood is another unprocessed food to include in your diet as it's rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Chicken, beef and pork are great sources of protein and iron. Avoid deli meats, hot dogs and bacon, which are highly processed.
Eat small amounts of dried fruits, nuts and seeds (sunflower or pumpkin, for example) as a snack. For beverages, water is best. You can also look for juices without added sugars or sweeteners, as well as unsweetened tea, coffee, milk or red wine.
In general, avoid fast food and prepackaged foods and meals. Cooking at home gives you full control over the ingredients used. Always read the labels when buying foods at the store and choose those with ingredients you can easily recognize.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Processed Food: What's OK and What to Avoid"
- BMJ: "Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer Risk"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Processed Foods and Health"
- BMJ: "Ultra-Processed Food Intake and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Prospective Cohort Study"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Vegetables and Fruits"