Q: You've talked about avoiding processed foods, particularly nonorganic ones. What does all of this really mean? What should I be looking out for when I go food shopping?
A: Processed foods are a major contributor to weight gain, and they can harm your health in many ways, which is why it is imperative that you know how to spot them and avoid them.
Processed food is anything that has been altered from its natural state. It can be fruit that has been canned and blasted with chemical preservatives to make it last longer; it can be dehydrated fruits or vegetables, canned soda, or oils that have been chemically altered (hydrogenated) to increase their shelf life and enhance their flavor. It's also those pesky refined grains. Regardless of how they are used, most of the time these processed foods have been stripped of a large part of their true nutritional content. Some processed foods, however — like frozen or prechopped veggies — can be a godsend, saving us time when cooking. They may not be as ideal as food bought in season from a local farmers' market, but I'm a realist, and whole processed foods help us walk the right path to healthier lives.
The bad processed foods are those that are made with refined grains, vegetable oils, and added sugar. The thing about processed foods is that they can be harmful in many different ways. For example, you might think you're eating healthy by having a salad with bottled fat-free ranch dressing, and you'd never even think about the fact that the dressing contains chemical flavor enhancers, such as MSG. Nonorganic processed meats often contain sodium nitrate and nitrite, which may contribute to colon cancer and metabolic syndrome. But you probably don't think about that as you patiently wait for your number to be called at the deli counter. Are you starting to see the big picture?
The reality is, it's a lot easier to talk about avoiding processed foods than to actually avoid them! Look at it positively: Eating more whole foods means eating the things we were meant to eat in the first place — things that have a real life and have a "mother." We should be eating fresh fruits, vegetables, organic lean meats, organic dairy, and whole grains. All that other stuff is full of empty calories that will do nothing but hinder our ability to reach a state of maximum health and wellness.
If you shop at an all-organic market or food co-op, you're already taking a step in the right direction; however, you still need to look out for processed foods. Check the labels on all the foods you buy. If you see any ingredients that look questionable, don't buy the food! If you see an unpronounceable list of ingredients that look like gibberish, put the item back on the shelf! Go with foods that are truly natural and contain minimal ingredients. More specifically, don't buy anything containing:
- Anything not 100 percent whole wheat
- Trans fats or hydrogenated oils
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- A chemical
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- Sodium nitrate or nitrite
- Sodium benzoate
- Potassium benzoate