Cutting Back on Processed Foods

I am currently reading a new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. I first heard about the book from a friend of mine on Facebook who posted a link to a New York Times article, then later heard an NPR interview with the author. The book is fascinating so far, and put together with the book Fat Chance, which as I’ve mentioned before talks about the amount of sugar in our foods and what that does to us, it has gotten me thinking about processed foods, the fact that they don’t give our bodies anything they actually need that we can’t get through real food, and how they can actually do some really awful things to our bodies. So I’ve been continuing to look at ways I can remove them from my diet. I’ve also been thinking back on what I’ve already done, to come up with tips that others might be able to use to start removing processed foods from their own life.

First, I want to start by saying that I am not planning on taking an all or nothing approach. Some processed foods, by which I mean food that comes in a can or a box, may be perfectly fine. There are some I plan on keeping, like Trader Joe’s Salsa Verde. It’s just too good to give up, and the ingredient list doesn’t seem too bad to me. And while I don’t eat much mayonaise, when I do have some it is usually Best Foods brand. I am not going to start making my own mayo, and if you read the ingredients on most mayo, they don’t seem too bad. I do however make my own ranch dressing for my daughter, because the list of ingredients on those are terrifying. Canned tomatoes and beans are so incredibly convenient, and again, don’t seem too bad as long as you are aware of the sodium content.

This leads to my number one tip for removing processed food from your life, and it not only pertains to processed foods, but any type of food I eat these days. Be more conscious of what you are eating. Before you put any food in your mouth, just take a moment to think about what that food will be doing for, or to, your body. So, if you are about to eat an apple, think about that great fiber, and all the vitamins you are giving to your body, the energy it will give you. In contrast, before you eat that oreo, think about the sugar that will spike your insulin, the saturated fat that will clog your arteries. If you still want to eat the oreo after thinking about that, go ahead. At least it might help you only eat 1, instead of 2 or 3. This method is what I use when I get cravings. I think about the harm the food might do to my body, and I have a little conversation with myself (you know, in my head, cause otherwise that’d seem a bit crazy) about how enjoying the food for just a few minutes in my mouth isn’t worth all of that. I think about what it is I want that food for, do I want to taste something sweet? If so, I’ll grab a piece of fruit instead. Do I want something crispy, crunchy? Maybe a carrot will satisfy. If nothing else will do but the thing I am craving, then I make sure to only have a very small portion.

Which leads to my next tip, find ways to substitute vegetables and fruit for some of those processed foods. Yesterday, my husband had tuna fish salad on crackers. It looked really good to me, but I wanted to find a way to have it without the crackers. I had some red butter lettuce from my farm share, and I sliced up a tomato. I mixed up my tuna salad with some Greek yogurt (though next time I will probably add a little mayo), and a bit of salt and pepper. Then, I took a lettuce leaf, put in a bit of tuna and a slice or 2 of tomato, and wrapped it all up. It was delicious, and while not the same as the crackers and tuna, still satisfied the crunchy, salty flavors I was wanting. Always now when I make tomato based sauces–which we usually have at least once a week in the wintertime–I make a spaghetti squash for my husband and I instead of pasta. My kids still want pasta, so I’ve been getting the whole wheat versions for them, which thankfully they like just fine.

Something else I suggest is to rethink the meals you eat, and make the vegetables the main attraction. It used to be I would concentrate on the meat or starch of the meal, and the vegetables would be an afterthought. Now the vegetables make up 50% (not of calories, but of volume) of each of my meals, so I put a lot of thought into what vegetable I will be cooking. I try to pick things in season when possible, but we can only eat so much broccoli and brussels sprouts, so I’ve occasionally bought things imported like green beans and peppers. And I always make a lot of the vegetable, if I don’t eat it all I can use the leftovers for breakfast or lunch the next day. Also, there are lots of ways you can still have a starch with your meal, but have it be plant based instead of processed. Some things we’ve had recently along with spaghetti squash are other varieties of winter squash, sweet potatoes (my favorite), and regular potatoes. There are also a wide variety of whole grains that are becoming popular, like quinoa and farro, which I am about to embark on experimenting with. Only recently, I’ve changed my breakfasts to concentrate more on vegetables; most days I am now having an egg scramble–made with 1 whole egg and a serving of egg whites–with either leftover veggies, or pre-sliced mushrooms and spinach. I have some veggie tomato sauce, which I froze in small portions. I heat some of that up with a little hot sauce and pour it on top of my scramble. Definitely not a typical breakfast, but it is delicious and full of protein.

Now for my final tip, don’t be afraid to season your food! One of the things that processed food companies use to make their products more appealing is lots and lots of salt. Obviously, I’m not saying to use that much salt, and if you have high blood pressure you have to be careful with salt in general. However–and bear in mind I’m not a doctor or anything–I’ve read that most of us don’t have to worry too much about our salt intake, especially if you aren’t eating much processed foods. I keep a container of kosher salt by my stove, and it goes into almost everything I cook. I also use lots of other herbs, and tons of garlic, but salt brings out the flavors in foods like nothing else. I still use a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee, and honey in my tea. I try to limit how much sugars (regular sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc.) I add to other foods, but I don’t plan on trying to cut them out altogether. Find ways to season your foods so they taste really good to you, and maybe you won’t crave those processed foods as much.

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