I know one woman - I'll call her Linda, though that's not her real name - who's fond of posting photos of her meals - and her grocery shopping goods - on social media. She considers herself a coupon queen, and is devoted to staying home to raise her children; her bargain hunting is all about making it possible to live on her husband's salary alone. However, Linda also often complains about her health. Although she's only in her mid 30s, her body often aches. She's usually exhausted. She has heart palpitations and other life-altering health issues. Tell her she eats processed food and she scoffs. To her, processed food is something from a fast food chain, or "junk food," like chips and candy.
Jane (again, not her real name) suffers from hidradentis supparativa (HS), a condition that causes many painful boils in the most private areas of her body. Doctors don't understand this condition very well, but it's been proven that HS can go into remission if patients eat a whole food, autoimmune diet. In an online group for those who suffer from HS, Jane got excited when someone popped into the group trying to sell food that could "help cure" HS. The food was in boxes and plastic bags.
James (also not his real name) considers himself a healthy eater. If someone offers him a doughnut for breakfast, he makes a big deal of saying "no thank you." He'd rather eat organic cereal, thank you.
All of these people are real. And all of them have no clue what processed food is.
|Is cereal really healthy?|
Processed food is anything that has been manipulated from it's natural state. It's the opposite of whole foods like apples, wheat berries, or whole squash. For example, if you buy pre-sliced apples, chopped squash, or wheat flour - these are all processed food. But what most experts mean when they talk about processed food is food that has been changed chemically, or has chemicals added to it.
Much of the food in the average American grocery store is this type of processed food. The organic cereal James loves, for example, is chemically processed with many additives and preservatives. The food that Jane thinks will cure her HS is also processed: Boxed meals that only require the addition of water, canned soups with preservatives and other chemicals, and meal replacement bars. And the food Linda buys so inexpensively for her family? Mostly boxed meals, laden not just with GMO ingredients, but with many chemicals used to artificially flavor, color, and preserve the food.
Frozen vs. Canned
|Frozen salmon label.|
I was on Pinterest the other day, and saw a pin claiming that frozen foods were healthier than canned because they don't have added ingredients. But the fact is, many frozen foods do have added ingredients. For example, I cannot buy frozen fish locally, because the only brands available to me have added chemicals designed to make the fish look fresher and last longer.
Canned foods are about the same. Sometimes I can find them without added ingredients, but mostly I can't. (Another good reason to can your own food.) Salt is the most commonly added ingredient, and experts used to think that if you ate little to no processed food, this wouldn't be a health problem...but now we know processed salt (anything other than sea salt) is directly linked to autoimmune disorders.
But don't think that just because you're in the refrigerated section or the produce aisle you won't encounter processed foods. Sadly, this just isn't true.
|Macaroni and cheese label.|
To really know whether or not you're eating processed food, you must read every single label. Every. Single. One. If you start doing this, you'll discover a shocking number of foods that many people think are healthy are actually highly processed.
Usually, anything with an ingredient list is processed. The longer the ingredient list, the most processed the food typically is.
I do still buy some processed foods for my family (like catchup and milk) - but I choose carefully. Here are the ingredients I refuse to compromise on:
1. High fructose corn syrup. This is used as a cheap sweetener in most processed foods. However, it's made from GMO corn, and is linked to obesity and whole body inflammation, the precursor to all disease.
2. Bad-for-you fats. Last year, I was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The cause? My
|Diet bar label.|
3. GMO ingredients. Currently this includes any corn or soy product - both extremely common in processed foods. For more about GMO ingredients and the problem with GMO food, click here.
4. Artificial colors. My daughter is sensitive to them, as many children are, but they aren't good for anyone. They are artificial. That means they aren't real food.
5. Artificial flavorings. Again, this is fake food, laden with innumerable chemicals.
6. Sweeteners other than real honey or cane sugar. Agave is highly processed and high in fructose, corn syrup is GMO and linked to health problems, and artificial sweeteners...well, they're fake food, linked to many health problems. Yes, cane sugar is processed, but my family isn't ready to completely give up sugar (though we don't eat much of it), and at least cane sugar isn't GMO.
|Hamburger meal label.|
8. Processed salt. I've completely switched to no-ingredients-added sea salt, now that other salts are linked to autoimmune disorders.
9. Anything with a long ingredient list or ingredients I don't recognize as real food.
Getting Started with Whole Foods
If you've been eating processed food all your life, chances are the idea of ditching them is overwhelming. My suggestion is to start little by little. Read every food label and stop buying the worst offenders. Slowly learn to make your own foods from scratch. (It doesn't take as much time as you think!) Don't expect to feel better suddenly. It will take time for your body to detox. Eat foods that help your liver function better (dandelion root tea or coffee; dark, leafy greens like dandelions, collards, and kale; radishes; onions; and artichokes). Consider omitting wheat products, linked to "leaky gut." Add some fermented things to your repertoire of foods. In time, you will feel better.