Why Processed Foods Aren't As Bad As You Think

Recently, a young woman came to see me for a nutrition consultation. I always start meetings with new clients by asking them about the biggest challenges in their relationship with food, and this client told me hers was binge eating.

She never really feels full or satisfied on her “clean” diet, she continued, but she is often mad at herself for eating so much as a single packaged protein bar in a day. “By dinnertime, I’m bloated, but still so hungry I can’t stop myself from eating, like, five protein bars.”

I went on to explain to her that her problem wasn’t necessarily binge-eating, but that her “clean” diet was likely out of balance — hence the cravings. And also? You really don’t have to feel bad about those protein bars!

Sadly, I’ve had some version of this conversation with more clients than I can count. While there are many problems with the pressure to “eat clean,” one of the biggest issues is this irrational fear it creates about what you’re supposed to leave out of a clean diet: processed foods. Aside from the fact that this is literally causing some people to go hungry, the emphasis on avoiding processed foods is just another way we categorize foods as “good” or “bad” — a tactic nearly every nutrition expert will tell you can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s also a losing tactic, since modern life is simply not conducive to this way of eating for most of us.

All of this is a huge problem not only because it creates needless food anxiety, but also because it causes a huge missed opportunity to truly improve our health: Instead of demonizing all processed foods, we’d be much better off learning how to spot a decent processed food.

Ahead, I’ll cover the truth you need to know about processed foods: why they aren't scary, and how to have a healthy relationship with them.

What Does “Processed” Even Mean?

In the words of food historian Rachel Laudan, “Cooking, which is one part of processing, went hand-in-hand with becoming human. Human food is processed food.” The first step to overcoming your fear of processed foods is to consider that most foods are processed — and they’re safer, tastier, and healthier because of it.

Before refrigeration, processes like salting, drying, smoking, and fermenting were used to preserve food and keep it safe. Pasteurization was developed in the 19th century to help kill dangerous bacteria in milk (and is still recommended for all dairy products by the FDA and leading food scientists, despite vocal opposition from raw milk advocates). Processing also makes otherwise inedible foods palatable and nutritious; whole grains, for example, would not even be digestible without milling and cooking.

These days, there is a continuum of processing, of course. At one end are “minimally processed” foods, including fresh, dried, or frozen foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, milk, and more, which are processed to some extent as soon as they are harvested, packaged, and shipped to your local market. Then there’s what are known as “processed culinary ingredients,” which include oils, salt, table sugar, and other ingredients you’d find in a home kitchen.

The next level up is sometimes referred to simply as “processed foods,” which are manufactured by combining processed culinary ingredients with unprocessed or minimally processed foods — yogurt, canned food, and a simple loaf of bread or wheel of cheese all fall into this category.

And then there are highly processed or “ultra-processed” foods, which involve a combination of multiple ingredients, including additives like flavoring, coloring, emulsifiers, and sweeteners other than simple table sugar. Soft drinks, desserts, breakfast cereals, and some breads fall into this group. This category often causes the most panic, but the reality is that more- or less-nutritious options can be found in all categories of processed foods, and even ultra-processed foods don’t need to be avoided completely.

For example, a loaf of 100% whole-wheat bread might be a healthier choice than white bread, but both are equally processed. And while no one would say your diet should be entirely made up of frozen pizzas (an ultra-processed food), eating them occasionally is a perfectly sensible choice — especially if it’s in keeping with your desires and your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

At the end of the day, going hungry or beating yourself up over your choices actually poses a greater risk to your health and well-being than any one specific type of food.

They’re Fine In Moderation — Like All Foods

The true foundations of healthy eating are variety, moderation, and balance — ideas that aren’t as sexy as celeb-endorsed juice cleanses, but that are all the more sound because they’ve been around for ages. A moderate, balanced approach to food is backed up by millennia of human experience and decades’ worth of scientific research. Processed foods are no different than any other food in this regard.

Even Michael Pollan, who is often seen as the godfather of the anti-processed-food movement, endorses moderation. He recently explained his approach to food on The Sporkful podcast: “I’m not a fanatic… I think we all need to cultivate a more relaxed attitude about what we’re eating. And I think that there is this fetishizing that’s going on right now — you can take these concerns really too far and make yourself crazy.”

This is not to say that the concern over processed foods is entirely misplaced. For example, research has indeed shown that almost 90% of the added sugars in the American diet come from highly processed foods — and that eating too much added sugar is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Processed foods are also known to be a significant source of other “problematic” nutrients, like sodium or fat.

But as with a lot of nutrition advice, when you examine what the research really shows, you discover some interesting nuances. There is actually a lot of disagreement about the recommended limit on added sugar, but across multiple studies, the people with the lowest median intake of added sugar (and the lowest risk for heart disease) still consumed up to 50 grams of added sugar per day. That’s about the amount in two giant chocolate-chip cookies, or two to three regular-size candy bars, or one 16-oz soda.

It’s also about the amount in a number of processed staples that many people eat every day. You could eat a single-serve container of sweetened yogurt and a serving of sweetened granola with breakfast, two slices of bread (which usually contains a small amount of added sugar) on your sandwich at lunch, a handful of honey-roasted nuts at snack time, and a regular-size candy bar after dinner — and you’d still be consuming a “safe” amount of added sugar.

The bottom line is that trying to avoid processing completelely gets you nowhere — it’s extremely difficult to do, and there’s no real evidence that you need to anyway.

Processed Foods Are Here To Stay

While “only eat food your grandmother would recognize” is a catchy idea, the reality of modern life is that we need processed foods — including fast and frozen varieties. These foods help you get eating done when you don’t have time, energy, or access to whole foods, and we need to not berate ourselves for choosing the most workable option when necessary.

Instead, stick with the sane, balanced approach: Aim to eat plenty of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. But there are perfectly nutritious, more-processed versions of these things, such as frozen fruits and vegetables (which are picked at the peak of freshness and actually even more nutritious than fresh fruit that's had to travel a long distance to your store or has been sitting in the produce aisle for a while) and low-sodium canned beans (which are so much easier than dealing with dried beans that you’ll end up eating these healthful legumes more often).

When it comes to highly processed foods like sandwiches, fast-food entrees, and frozen meals, whenever possible, look for those that contain full servings of vegetables, include healthy whole grains, and are relatively low in sodium. (A good guideline for sodium is aiming for less than 800 mg per meal or less than 2,300 mg per day — although your body doesn’t punch a clock, so there’s no need to panic if you go over at one meal or on one day.) Following these sane guidelines — and giving yourself a pass when even these aren’t possible — can help you achieve that nutrition trifecta of variety, moderation, and balance.

The overall message is to avoid thinking about your diet choices as “good” or “bad,” but rather to see them as the complex and nuanced decisions they really are. Thinking in black-and-white terms about food only sets you up for psychological distress — and often out-of-control eating when you finally do eat the “off-limits” food. Do yourself a favor and start living in the gray.

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