By: Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC


Processed foods are hard to avoid in today’s world filled with convenience foods and busy lifestyles. From packaged goods to frozen foods, these options appear to be everywhere.

But while these options may be convenient, inexpensive, and delicious, eating too many of them can result in some unsavory health outcomes.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed food includes food that has been modified from the natural state and can include being cooked, canned, frozen, preserved, or fortified. Technically speaking, any food that has been cooked, baked, or cut is considered to be processed.

There are some processed foods that are actually healthy — think frozen produce, canned tuna fish, and unsweetened yogurts. These foods are taken from their natural state and processed in some way.

However, there are other processed foods that are not the best choices when trying to follow a healthy lifestyle.

Heavily processed foods like frozen pizzas, canned soups preserved with salt, and cookies do not offer much in terms of health benefits to your body. Key ingredients to watch out for when avoiding unhealthy processed foods include sugar, salt, preservatives, and hydrogenated oils.

Why We Should Avoid Processed Foods 

In today’s busy world, avoiding processed foods can be nearly impossible, but ultra-processed (or heavily processed) foods should be avoided.

Experts agree that eating too many of these foods is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, among many other health risks.

Conversely, eating less-processed foods like beans, fruits, and vegetables is linked to risk reduction of certain outcomes, including type 2 diabetes.

5 Hacks to Avoid Processed Foods 

If you are used to eating ultra-processed foods, opting for living a processed food-free lifestyle can be challenging. But with these tips, avoiding processed foods can be both simple and delicious at the same time.

#1 Embrace Meal Planning

Ultra-processed foods tend to be a solution for busy folks who need a quick meal. However, if you meal plan successfully, you can avoid the dinnertime rush and have a balanced and healthy meal planned for you when you are ready to chow down. Not only will this help you avoid ordering that pepperoni pizza because you are famished and have nothing to cook, but it may also save you some money in the long run.

Meal planning can also help you strategize your weeks and make sure that you have minimally processed foods on the menu.

RELATED: Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning

#2 Have Unprocessed Food Like Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts Well-Stocked in Your Kitchen

Being armed with healthy and unprocessed food will help you make good choices at snack time. Instead of grabbing a bag of chips, opting for a fresh pear or handful of almonds will provide you with more nutrients and no salt. Stocking up on these healthy foods will make sure that you are never left without healthy options at your fingertips.

#3 Take Time to Make a Grocery List — and Stick With it

When grocery shopping, it may be tempting to snag a bag of freshly baked cookies or other treats. But if you commit to only buying food that is on your grocery list, you will have an easier time not impulse buying goodies that don’t offer much in the nutrition department.  Load your grocery cart with fresh produce, nuts, grains, and legumes to fuel your body in a healthy way.

#4 Always Have Convenient Snacks When You Are On-The-Go

When hunger strikes, it is tempting to run into a gas station and grab a candy bar or a coffee shop and snag a fresh scone. But if you have healthy snacks in your bag or in your car, you can resist temptation and enjoy a healthy snack that isn’t loaded with unhealthy ingredients.

Some great grab-and-go options that travel well include dried (no sugar added) fruit, roasted nuts, and sliced carrot sticks.

#5 Become a Food Label Detective 

When trying to avoid ultra-processed foods, there are certain “watch out” items you can look for on food labels. Trans-fats, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavorings, salt, and sugar are items that scream processedand should be avoided as much as possible. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients, the better.

Processed Food Healthy Swaps 

Limiting ultra-processed foods can be simple with a little know-how. Healthy swaps can make the transition to eating less processed foods much easier and can result in some healthy outcomes.

Some processed healthy food swaps you can try on for size include:

Salad Dressing Swaps: Choose oil and vinegar as a salad dressing instead of bottled dressings.

Sandwich Swaps: Enjoy a sandwich made of fresh meats like sliced turkey instead of deli meats.

Snack Swaps: Snack on sweet and chewy raisins instead of candy when the sweet tooth strikes. When you are craving something crunchy, opt for roasted nuts instead of snacks like cheese puffs. Use vegetable slices instead of processed crackers and enjoy with hummus, salsa, and other dips.

Healthy Eating Does Not Mean Deprivation

While it may seem challenging to give up processed foods, there are plenty of delicious healthy food swaps that actually taste good and that healthy eating doesn’t mean deprivation. We can still enjoy that favorite dessert, but with some healthy swaps. Just know that limiting processed foods is worth it in the long run and can ultimately result in a healthier version of yourself.

Ready to see just how easy meal planning can be? Consider joining FitOn PRO for access to personalized meal plans and exclusive recipes to reach your fitness goals faster without counting calories and with foods you’ll love to eat.


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