Everyone has heard the phrase “processed foods” by now, but many people don’t really know what life would be like without them. Here’s a hint: Your health, mood, and appearance will improve—dramatically!
Processed foods are chemical-laden, addictive foods usually sold in jars, boxes, and bags, and armies of well-paid food scientists make it their missions to come up with recipes that appeal to your taste buds, even if it means causing havoc to your health. “These foods are so hard to say no to because they are loaded with added sugars and fats, which physically change how they feel inside the mouth,” explains Lauren Minchen MPH, RDN, CDN. “The altered texture and taste actually make the body crave more of it.”
What’s even scarier is that something called “ultra-processed food” exists, which is like the worst of the worst. According to a study published in BMJ Open, these kinds of products make up almost 60 percent of our daily calories and 90 percent of the added sugar we consume. Yikes!
Here’s the final kicker, though: When you put processed foods into your body, not only are you choosing to fuel your body with nasty chemicals, you’re depriving it of the nutrients it needs. Processed foods are often stripped or void of nutrients, so it’s not like you’re eating an apple slice that’s been dipped in gasoline; you’re not even getting the fiber from the apple anymore. From weight loss to migraine relief, you can reap some serious health benefits if you ditch processed foods.
Headaches Won’t Hit You as Much
While you may blame your chatty office or rowdy kiddos for your headaches, poor eating habits may be the real culprits. “Some people who have terrible migraines might be able to improve the severity and frequency by eating less boxed goods,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. “A lot of the processed foods are actually triggers for migraines.” Yikes!
Weight Loss Will Be Much Easier
“There are a lot of extra calories in processed foods that are just wasteful,” says Smith. Every time you break for a snack or sit down to a meal, it’s an opportunity to fuel and nourish your body. Processed foods are often lacking in fiber and nutrients that help fill you up, which can lead to overeating later. Opt for whole foods as often as possible to fuel yourself more efficiently.
You’ll Be Happier with Your Hair
Worried about thinning hair? Dull hair? Loss of hair? Whatever your concern is, food can easily be part of the answer to your luscious locks. When you consistently opt for processed snacks, you rob your body of things like omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for healthy hair and rarely found in packaged, processed products. The healthy fats found in things like walnuts help promote hair strength and sheen.
You’ll Have More Energy
Instead of relying on coffee, natural energy will come easier to you when you swap the processed stuff for whole foods. “The body spends a lot of time trying to figure out what’s what and then breaking down all these foreign
You Won’t Have So Many Mood Swings
If you ever get crabby for no good reason, take a closer look at your diet. All those processed chemicals can affect mood because the ‘foods’ aren’t actually giving your body any adequate nutrition; you’re getting toxic ingredients, instead. MSG can leave you depressed, saturated fats make you foggy, sugar and syrups cause crazy energy crashes; the list goes on and on.
Your Skin Will Improve
An expensive prescription from your dermatologist might do wonders for some people, but the answer to a better complexion may come from a visit with a nutritionist. Numerous studies have come out in the past year pointing to everything from dairy to zinc deficiencies for being the reason some people breakout. “Better skin is one of the major benefits of forgoing processed foods,” says Smith. “A lot of the preservatives and ingredients found in processed foods can often get in the way of clear, healthy skin.”
You Won’t Age So Fast
Okay, you won’t actually be able to stop the clock. But by trading in all the high-fructose corn syrup, additives, artificial colors, and other sketchy ingredients, you’ll at least get out of the fast lane toward feeling and looking older than you are.
Your Nails Will Get Stronger
A nutrient-rich diet not only strengthens your muscles and immunity but also helps fortify your nails. Regularly eating processed foods in place of whole foods can leave your nails feeling and looking brittle. For strong nails, reach for foods high in protein and rich in the vitamin biotin; eggs and almonds are great sources of both.
Your Cravings Will Be Easier to Control
As mentioned earlier, most processed foods have been formulated and designed to taste as appealing as possible and get you addicted to them in the process. High-fructose corn syrup actually activates the part of your brain that gets addicted to things like drugs—and it can be found in tons of things from ketchup to cereal. Plus, some people have cravings because their bodies are literally deficient and need certain nutrients.
You’ll Actually Want to Work Out
When you eat a lot “bad” foods, your body constantly feels either spiked with energy for a very short amount of time (usually only when you’re eating) and then sluggish the rest of the time. Sugary cereals, cheese-dusted crackers, and instant noodles don’t offer your body much fuel to run on and cutting out processed foods can be life-changing because you’ll notice your body feels completely different. When choosing a snack, go for one higher in fiber, healthy fats and protein, and one that doesn’t have a shelf life that’s several months long. After your snack, employ the only ab exercise you’ll ever need to work on flattening your stomach!
Falling and Staying Asleep Will Be Easier
Research presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior found that fatty foods may disrupt the normal functioning of neurochemicals in your brain that are responsible for encouraging regular sleep. And sugar-heavy, trans fat-filled packaged foods can also disrupt sleep. The added sugar in many products can keep you wired by spiking blood sugar and making it difficult to wind down for the night or causing you to wake up.
Some of Your Cellulite Will Fade
Although genes play a huge role, you can reduce the appearance of cellulite by choosing to cut out processed foods since most of them have high counts of sodium and sugar. Deli meats, for example, cause water retention that makes your dimpled skin look even worse and the sugar in soda weakens your skin’s elasticity and collagen, making cellulite easier to see.
You’ll Have Improved Muscle Tone
There’s some truth to the ol’ claim that abs are made in the kitchen. Eating a clean diet that’s rich in whole foods and void of chemicals and additives can help you lose weight and reveal those strong muscles you’ve been sculpting tirelessly at the gym. Furthermore, your body needs protein and healthy fats to help repair and strengthen your muscles in the first place!
Your Hormones Will Have Shot at Being Balanced
From birth control meds to the natural aging process, there are already enough things out there messing with our hormones. When you ditch processed food, it can dramatically help you feel more balanced. While saturated and trans fats should be avoided, regular inclusion of healthy monounsaturated fats can help balance hormones—specifically the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. According to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, consuming too many calories from fat and simple sugars can disrupt the proper functioning of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which can get in the way of your body’s ability to regulate weight and metabolism.
You Won’t Get So Sick So Often
“Eating too many processed foods hurts our ability to fight colds because you’re not getting enough nutrition to fuel the immune system,” says Smith. Most fruits and vegetables are chock-full of immune-boosting vitamins and probiotics, which your body requires to build up its defense system.
Your Blood Sugar Will Stabilize
“Someone with elevated blood sugar might notice that their blood sugar is better when eating fewer processed foods that have lots of sneaky sugars in them,” says Smith. Scaling back on processed foods is one of the first steps people must take when they get concerned about diabetes; find out some tips and tricks with these 15 cooking and eating tips for diabetics!
You Won’t Be So Constipated
According to Smith, another benefit you’ll likely enjoy from ditching processed food is better digestion. “You can experience things like improved digestion and bowel regularity because you’ll naturally start eating more high-fiber foods,” says Smith.
You’ll Become More Savvy About Nutrition
When it comes down to it, it’s really hard to know exactly what we’re putting in our bodies when we’re eating out of bags and boxes. It’s often impossible to even pronounce the names of some ingredients running down the nutrition label! By cutting out processed foods, you’ll develop a better understanding of what exactly (and how much of it) is going into your body.
Your Brain Will Buff Up
“From a nutrition perspective, eating more whole foods that are less processed can help to provide more brain healthy nutrients like B vitamins and healthy fats,” says Smith. The superstars in the brain food world are rich in healthy fats; think walnuts, wild salmon, and avocados.
Your Eyes Will Brighten
Believe or not, but what you put in your mouth can affect whether or not your eyes sparkle. According to the National Eye Institute, the most important foods for supporting eye health are those that are rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and lutein. These peeper-friendly nutrients can be found in whole foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach. So while your eyes might light up at that donut, they’ll actually be dull because of it, too.
You’ll Start to Hate Processed Foods
Look, we all have a fondness for something, whether it’s an Oreo or a Big Mac. But overall, you’ll start to yearn for healthier fare on the regular, once you eat less processed foods. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, you can alter how your brain reacts to high-calorie and low-calories foods simply by changing your eating habits for the better. Once you get into a rhythm of healthy, clean eating, you’ll feel so good you won’t even want to go back to your old ways—and when you do on occasion, you’ll notice the dramatic shift in how your body feels.
PLUS: Quick Tips to Start Cutting Out Processed Foods
You know not to scarf down the Snickers and eat Pop-Tarts every single day, but what else should you do to eat cleaner? Lots. The best way to dive into a processed food detox and fight back against the addiction is to start with easy-to-ditch things that you eat all the time and don’t realize are hurting you. Don’t hone in on eliminating your favorite foods right away, though, notes Minchen; that could set you up for failure.
Begin With Your Breakfast Bowl
Many boxed cereals are loaded with preservatives, artificial coloring and added sugar, salt, and calories, so skip the Cap’n Crunch and Frosted Flakes and opt for an alternative with a short ingredient list. Slow-cooking, whole grain, steel cut oats fit the bill. It’s only minimally processed and a huge step in the right direction. To eliminate all processed foods from your morning meal opt for an omelet topped with avocado and fresh vegetables. Serve with a side of mixed fruit for added fiber and vitamins.
Consider What’s Going In Your Coffee Cup
Although coffee beans have to be somewhat processed to get from the forest to your cup, this morning pick me up maintains most of its nutritional integrity, placing it into the “minimally” processed category. To keep your java as natural as possible consider what else you mix into your brew. Swap flavored creamers (which are on our list of unhealthiest foods on the planet because they are often loaded with colorings, artificial flavors, and corn syrup) for a splash of whole milk or 1% and a shake of cinnamon for flavor. Nix artificial sweeteners altogether.
Get the Yuck Out of Your Yogurt
In its most natural state, plain yogurt is a nutritional champion. It’s loaded with gut-healthy nutrients and has an ingredient list you can actually pronounce. You run into trouble when you eat sweetened varieties with added fruits and flavors. These add-ins are a sure sign the yogurt has been processed. Look for plain varieties made with milk and live active cultures and top with freshly-chopped fruit, honey, and cinnamon for natural flavor and sweetness. Bonus points if you choose Greek yogurt, the cream of the yogurt crop!
Dress Your Salad Smarter
Heading to the salad bar is a good move if you want an unprocessed midday meal. Raw veggies are as natural as it gets, but be wary of salad bar toppings like crunchy noodles, bacon bits, and croutons which are not considered clean eats. Salad dressings are also loaded with scary ingredients that extend the shelf life and make the texture more appealing. In lieu of these processed varieties, Minchen suggests combining lemon or lime juice (squeezed fresh from the fruit) with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add sea salt and pepper as desired for a fuller flavor. Leave your homemade salad dressing at work and dress your salad back at the office.
Build a Better Sandwich
Popular lunch meats like ham, turkey, and roast beef are highly processed and loaded with sodium, chemicals, and nitrates, which can increase heart-disease risk and spike blood pressure. Instead of taking a number at the deli counter, shop for fresh, uncooked, uncured meats and roast them at home over the weekend. Once the meat has cooled, cut it into slices so it’s simple and quick to pile between bread during the week. Speaking of bread, look for organic varieties with whole grains listed as the first ingredient. This is as close to unprocessed as you can get for a traditional lunch sammy.
When hunger strikes, snacking is inevitable, so make sure you have smart picks at hand. Clear the packed cookies, crackers, and snack bars out of the cupboard and make room for unprocessed alternatives like fresh fruits, raw nuts and seeds, veggie slices, hard-boiled eggs, seasoned chickpeas, and kale chips. To make your own crisps at home, break kale into bite-sized pieces and toss with sea salt and two teaspoons of olive oil. Bake at 250 degrees F for 15-20 minutes or until crisp.
Ditch Fake Fruits and Vegetables
While munching on fruits and veggies is typically a no-brainer, there’s a big difference between produce and products. Applesauce, fig cookies, and orange juice are examples of fruits gone wrong and should be cleared from your cabinet. Frozen veggies with added sauces are also no-nos. Instead, stick to whole, fresh produce that isn’t sold in a bag, box or can.
Beware the Freezer Aisle Foods
The middle aisles are difficult enough on your waistline, but the freezer aisle can be just as bad. From frozen enchiladas to frozen cakes, many grocery shoppers load up on pre-made and pre-cooked foods that save them even more time and a boxed food that needs an ingredient or two added. Unfortunately, many of these frozen meals and foods sacrifice your health in exchange for the convenience. If you love frozen foods and meals that you can eat after just a few minutes in the microwave, then it’s time to embrace the meal prep trend. Here’s your ultimate guide to freezing foods to make it extra easy on you!
Add Flavor with More Favorable Fats
While whipping up dinner, stay away from processed oils such as canola, margarine, and Crisco, suggests Minchen. Instead, use unprocessed cooking fats such as olive, coconut and almond oils and organic butter. Whichever option you choose, just remember: Fats should be used in moderation to keep calories in check and weight gain at bay.
Shop Smarter for Your Soy
Vegetarians, vegans and carnivores alike often turn to soy-based products as a meat-free way to add protein and essential vitamins to their diet. Frozen veggie burgers, which typically contain soy ingredients, are popular vegetarian picks, but they are also highly processed. For a more natural soy snack, munch on steamed edamame (soybeans still in their pods) and top with salt. Pop the beans out of their pods and add them to Asian-inspired stir-fries and salads to create a meal.