One of the most tired nutrition recommendations is the call to eliminate or limit processed foods for improved health. Oftentimes, I’m left questioning how helpful this recommendation is and have seen how it can actually create confusion and fear for people trying to eat healthier. Do I have to cut out all processed foods? What does moderation mean? Are certain processed foods better than others? Many questions come up for people when trying to interpret this recommendation, which can lead to increased stress and anxiety around food.
I’m here to tell you that eating processed food is not detrimental to your health, and many processed foods are actually high in nutritional value. There’s a lot of ambiguity around what “processed food” means so let’s start with clearing that up. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food includes any food that’s been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. This means that any time you cook, you are processing food! Oftentimes, processing food helps to make that food more digestible and palatable.
You may be thinking, well what about those foods that have a long list of ingredients and are packed with sugar, salt and fats? Well, those are also processed foods and there are foods that are more processed than others. For example, chopped vegetables, salted nuts, frozen peas, and canned beans are examples of foods that have been processed less than cookies, deli turkey, salad dressing and frozen macaroni and cheese. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should eliminate foods that go through more involved processing. Many of these foods provide valuable nutrients and also taste really good.
Processed foods can also be incredibly helpful if you have limited access to fresh foods in your neighborhood, live in regions where a variety of fresh produce doesn’t grow during cold seasons or if you simply want to save time in the kitchen! Think about how convenient it is to whip out a can of beans or blend up some frozen fruit with yogurt. Processing foods also helps with adding important nutrients into foods that we may be lacking. For example, milks and yogurt may have added calcium, vitamin D and probiotics, cereals may have added fiber, and salt may have added iodine.
If you’re concerned about the nutritional value of foods that are more heavily processed, there are ways to make informed choices when you’re at the supermarket. You can look at ingredient and nutrition labels to get an idea of what’s in the food and what nutritional value it provides. For example, if you have high blood pressure, sodium is something you may be looking out for when shopping for food. Just keep in mind that moralizing processed foods as “good” or “bad” can create unhealthy fear and stress around food. You get to decide what healthy eating looks like for you, and that may mean eating these more processed foods alongside other less processed foods or not eating these more processed foods as often. Food and nutrition looks different for everyone and there’s many factors to consider when deciding what to eat.
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