It seems that all the healthy eating guidelines, whether from Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman or my doctor, include the admonition to “avoid processed foods.” I started thinking about this recently. What would it entail to avoid processed foods? What kind of impact might this diet change have on health, weight or the pocketbook?
First, what are “processed foods,” exactly? Generally, we think of processed foods as stuff like frozen meals, hamburger helper, chips, cookies and crackers from the grocery. But a processed food is any food that has been altered from its natural state. Frozen and canned foods are processed, as is pasta, bread, cheese, yogurt, juice and milk. Olive oil, soy sauce, mustard and vinegar can be considered processed foods. So can bacon, sausage and smoked salmon. Even flour and sugar are processed foods.
Obviously, not all processed foods should be put on the “bad” list, and I don’t think that’s what the people giving this advice intend for us to do. It’s not practical to eat a diet consisting entirely of whole foods, especially in seasons when fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t as abundant. In fact, I admire human ingenuity when it comes to food processing, which has enabled us to preserve our foods long after they would have otherwise gone bad through techniques such as curing, pickling, drying, canning and freezing.
I think “packaged foods” is a better way to think of the kinds of processed foods that should be avoided. These are foods that come in a package with brand names, health claims and unpronounceable ingredients on the sides. So I am challenging myself to reduce, as much as I can, packaged foods in my grocery shopping.
For me, a packaged food is anything that comes pre-packaged in the grocery store. Part of this challenge is to get myself to make more things at home that I would normally buy. So here are my rules for this challenge:
- If I can buy it in bulk (grains, beans, nuts) or I can put it in a package myself (locally baked bread) or the store packages it for me (meats, cheeses, dried fruits), then I consider it “unpackaged.”
- If the packaged item is a staple ingredient/food that I can’t easily make at home, I will continue to buy it. This includes condiments like soy sauce and mustard (but not mayonnaise or bottled sauces), pasta, yogurt, cheese, wine, tea and coffee.
- I will make an exception for vegetables that have short growing seasons whose packaged versions are superior for most of the year. These include canned tomatoes and frozen peas, soybeans and corn.
Those are all of the rules. I see this challenge as a way to get myself and my family to eat healthier, but also to stretch myself more in the kitchen. Instead of buying bread, stock, mayonnaise and crackers, I will need to make them myself when I want them.
For any of my family members who might be reading this, I am not planning to enforce this challenge on you. You will still be able to have your white bread and cheesy bunnies, at least until you decide to join in the challenge with me.
If you decide to take on a similar challenge, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to follow your progress.
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