woman reading label of processed food in grocery storeWe’ve all heard that we should avoid “processed” foods for health and weight management. But  why? What’s the evidence for making that change? And more to the point – what are processed foods and how do I avoid them?

Recent research answers the why question. The study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, compared two groups. Researchers offered two groups of people predesigned meals for two weeks. The meals contained similar amounts of calories, fat, sugar, fiber, carbohydrates, and protein, but there was one key difference. One group had meals high in processed foods while the other group had meals of unprocessed foods. Each group was able to eat as much as they wanted during these meals for two weeks. After the two week period, the groups switched and had access to the alternative diet.

The results showed that when people consumed a diet high in processed foods, they consumed more calories – roughly 500 calories more per day. That translated to nearly two pounds of weight gained during the processed food diet, and a similar weight loss during the unprocessed diet.

This short-term study didn’t get into the longer term effects of a diet high in processed foods, but the implications for weight management are significant.

What is “processed” food?

Processed is one of those words that can mean different things to different people. In reality, a food changed from the way it is found in nature is processed. So when you slice a tomato or bake a chicken breast, you are processing them. But when we talk about health, “processed” means that the food is changed from its natural state in a substantial way. In the study mentioned above, they defined it as “formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes.”

For those of us who get our food from the grocery store instead of from medical researchers, we need to figure out how to identify these “industrial” foods.

You can start by looking at the packaging. Foods that are not processed are generally sold in the produce, meat and dairy sections of your grocery store, and resemble the way they look in nature. Processed foods are usually in packages in the center aisles. If you buy packaged food, look at the label and avoid long lists of ingredients. If there are five or fewer ingredients and the first ingredient is the food you are looking for, it’s not a bad choice for your pantry. In addition, ingredients that are difficult to pronounce are often those industrial additives the study mentions.

Take pasta sauce as an example. If the first ingredient on the label is tomatoes and the other ingredients are mainly seasonings, then that’s a better choice than one with tomato juice as the first ingredient followed closely by sugar and other complicated-sounding chemicals.

Making the Change

Sweeping changes are often difficult to make and maintain. If your diet consists of lots of processed foods, you might make changes in a more gradual way to build healthier habits that you are more likely to maintain. There are medical conditions that require a stricter approach, so do have that conversation with your doctor. He or she can offer helpful resources if you need more immediate comprehensive changes.

If your doctor is comfortable with a slower overhaul of your habits, consider these changes to start eliminating those processed foods:

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Pick one or two areas and try some substitutions to see what works for you. Once you establish that habit, take another look at your diet and see where you can make the next healthy change.

If you have questions about how to start making these changes, we would love to help you. Please contact one of our offices to schedule your appointment.