If there’s one thing just about every eating plan on the planet has in common, it’s to limit consumption of ultra-processed foods in favor of wholesome, real foods. Though manufactured foods may be really convenient, evidence against them is beginning to stack up. For example, a recent study comparing the effects of eating whole or minimally processed foods against heavily processed ones found that when eaters were consuming the highly processed foods, they gained an average of two pounds during the study period. The same people lost an average of two pounds when eating the more wholesome menu (1). It turns out, people eat processed foods more quickly and they eat more food, resulting in weight gain.
When you eat whole foods, your body has to work a little harder—chewing more thoroughly, digesting, and grabbing the energy, vitamins, and minerals it needs. Essentially, when you consume too many overly processed foods, you’re delegating this job to the manufacturing plant.
On top of that, these ultra-processed foods can be potent triggers of inflammation and may induce oxidative damage that accelerates certain diseases, including type two diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. They’ve even been linked with an increased risk of death, meaning that those who consume more of these foods die earlier in life than they might have otherwise. (2)
It’s not necessary to give up convenience just because you’re limiting ultra-processed foods. Some minimally processed foods are still really nutritious and they cut the time you spend in the kitchen, which makes it a whole lot easier to eat better! Here are some of the worst processed foods to avoid and healthier swaps to eat instead!
You probably know that bacon and pepperoni aren’t so great for you (they’re not), but I recently interviewed someone from the American Institute of Cancer Research about white processed meats (like deli chicken and turkey) and no added nitrates/nitrate free processed meats. Unfortunately, we just can’t say if these foods are any safer and the AICR considers chicken and turkey forms of processed meats. That’s true even if you’re buying versions that are made with a natural preservative (such as celery salt); these often claim to be nitrate free or free of added nitrates. But your body may process natural and synthetic preservatives the same way, so processed meats of any type are some of the worst processed foods. It’s better to find alternatives. Here are some ideas for you:
Buy a rotisserie chicken and remove all of the meat. You can use the shredded chicken in sandwiches, salads, tacos, and nourish bowls throughout the week.
Keep canned, wild salmon or tuna on hand for use in sandwiches and salads.
Make bean-based salads (such as a black bean salad or white bean salad) to stuff into wraps, pitas, or spoon on top of salads. Or mash beans to use as sandwich fillings.
Make hard boiled pasture-raised eggs for an easy protein alternative. They’ll keep in the fridge about a week if you leave the peel on.
White bread, I’m looking at you! I’m not saying you can never eat white bread or white pasta or crackers and cereals made from refined grains, but these are some of the worst processed foods because they’ve been stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and are therefore, less healthy than their whole grain counterparts. They’re also less filling, which means you’re likely to eat more than you need. And as I mentioned earlier, they induce inflammation, which can trigger certain diseases and make it harder to manage your weight. Here are a few things you can eat instead:
Whole grain pasta or alternative pastas, like chickpea or lentil pasta. Bean based pastas are gluten free and tend to have more fiber and protein than other varieties, and their texture more closely matches white pasta.
Whole grain or seed crackers. I love these Mary’s Gone Crackers with hummus and snack plates. Or try these Simple Mills Almond Flour Crackers, which have a blend of other alternative flours, such as cassava flour. These crackers match the texture of Saltines.
Whole grain cereals. Trade your low fiber enriched flour cereal for a lower-sugar, higher-fiber whole grain version. Look at labels for cereals that have these criteria: Whole grain as the first ingredient; less than 6 g added sugar (lower is better); more than 3 g fiber.
Single ingredient whole grains. Foods, like oats, brown rice, quinoa, and millet all add texture and flavor to meals—plus a host of nutritional benefits. You can batch cook grains like these to use in meals throughout the week or you can buy brown rice and quinoa in the freezer section to just heat and eat. Try using these types of ingredients in side dishes, plant-based main dishes, and baked goods.
Soda, sweetened tea, lemonade, punch coffee drinks that are close cousins to milkshakes, sports drinks, and sweetened plant-based milks are like amped up versions of other processed foods, meaning that they get digested and absorbed so quickly that your brain can’t even compute the fact that you’ve taken in energy. It’s as if the sugar goes straight to your blood stream and causes an initial rush followed by a plummet. If you make only one processed food swap, this is the one to make. Here are some alternatives to sweetened drinks.
No added sugar plant-based milks. Check labels to ensure that even unflavored versions are unsweetened. This can vary tremendously! I’ve seen some milks with three teaspoons of added sugar whereas others—even vanilla-flavored varieties—have none.
Flavored seltzer. I’ve converted a lot of soda and diet soda drinkers to flavored seltzer, which is bubbly and refreshing with a hint of flavor. There are a number of brands to choose from, but a few of my current faves include Waterloo and Spindrift, which has a splash of real juice. (Sure, you could technically do this at home, but I like the convenience of the can!)
Herbal teas. Hot or chilled, herbal teas deliver sweetness from sweeter spices, such as cinnamon and ginger. Celestial Seasonings has a good lineup to choose from.
One note on this since it’s often a source of confusion: If you’re exercising in the gym for an hour, you probably don’t need a sports drink. That goes for spin class, too. If you’re sweating bullets and working out for more than 60 minutes, or you’re working out for less than an hour but it’s hot and humid out or you’re drenched in sweat, you could benefit from a sports drink. If you fall in this camp, the sugar in an electrolyte replacement drink is ok, and even important; it helps your body get the replenishment it needs faster. (3, 4, 5)
Artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and additives.
Granted, these types of ingredients are deemed safe by the FDA, but I think we can agree that they aren’t healthful. Plus, these types of ingredients tend to be present in overly processed packaged foods rather than more wholesome convenient foods (like canned beans, frozen brown rice, or jarred marinara sauce). Try ditching these ingredients. It won’t kill you if you have a diet soda or another artificial ingredient from time to time, if you’re using items with these ingredients routinely, seek more natural foods, which don’t contain these types of manufactured ingredients.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of nixing some of the worst processed foods, check out my article on the body and mind benefits of clean eating. And if you haven’t already, be sure to grab a copy of my free recipe booklet with 10 ideas for meals and snacks you can make in 10 minutes tops! It’ll help you ditch heavily processed foods without giving up convenience!
Want to geek out on the science? Here are the references.