Eating apples is good for us. We’ve heard the common refrain for years. An apple a day….you know the rest.

In fact, if you take a whole apple and eat it, you’ve ingested a highly nutritious fruit full of healthy fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Moreover, regularly eating apples has been linked with decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. (1) So far, the old adage appears sound.

Now imagine you take that same apple, cut it up, dip it in a preserving solution containing citric acid and calcium salts and then package it for sale. In particular, an apple processed in this way can remain edible for up to 21 days. But, does it sound appealing?

And more important, is that apple still as good for you? Read on to learn how to de-process your diet for maximum health.

How Did Our Diet Become So Processed?

De-process Your Diet

The term processed food refers to any food that has been altered from its original state. For example, a whole apple is unprocessed, while an apple that is sliced, preserved, and packaged is processed.

However, the terms for processed foods become confusing very quickly as the level of processing a food undergoes varies widely. Food may be only moderately processed, as in the case of dried fruits and extra virgin olive oil. Or, food may be ultra-processed, which is defined as:

“…formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’).” (2)

The processing of food is a natural part of most human diets. We chop, mix, grind, freeze and cook food to make it edible and enjoyable. However, the distinction between how humans have always processed food and the growth of industrially processed foods is stark.

The History of Industrially Processed Foods

In the past, a significant amount of human time and energy was required to procure and prepare food. There was simply no other option. Until the modern era, no one else did the cooking for you unless you were wealthy enough to hire the job out.

Back in the early 1900s, a majority of Americans were farmers who produced their own food and raised their own livestock. (3) Their diets were naturally diverse and locally sourced, leading to a higher percentage of plant foods and a low intake of processed foods.

Beginning with the first world war in the early 1900s, the military investigated how to provide enough food for a large, traveling army. As a result, canning methods improved, and many types of processed and preserved foods were born. (4)

Moreover, advances in technology have steadily made it easier to process, preserve and package food for easy consumption. And the move of women from the home into the workforce accelerated the demand for quick meals and convenience food.

Also, the advent of fast-food restaurants, high fructose corn syrup, and trans fats contributed to the boom of processed foods in the US. Today, ultra-processed foods make up almost 60% of the standard American diet. (5)

Not All Processed Foods Are the Same

De-process Your Diet

As mentioned above, the level of processing that industrially prepared foods undergo varies. However, not all processed foods cause the same amount of concern.

Extra virgin olive oil, frozen vegetables, and fruit juices that contain 100% fruit are examples of processed foods that aren’t really a worry. While fresh vegetables and whole fruits might be preferable, using the processed option isn’t your worst choice.

In general, it is ultra-processed foods that raise red flags when it comes to health. These foods contain ingredients that have never been part of food preparation at any point in history and are not available in a home kitchen today. In fact, they are industrial processing ingredients, and their impact on health is concerning.

While the FDA must approve all ingredients that end up in food products, there is still reason for caution. A good example is the use of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats. Both of these compounds are known to increase the risk of cancer, yet they are FDA-approved.

So, any food item that contains a list of ingredients you don’t recognize or that you wouldn’t cook with at home falls into the category of ultra-processed food. In fact, these are the types of processed foods it is wise to avoid.

The Health Impacts of Ultra-processed Food

Understanding how ultra-processed food impacts our health is a challenging task. Indeed, it is always tricky for researchers to separate one piece of a whole diet and infer the specific impact on the body. Only time will tell the full effect of industrial processing on the health of our population.

However, one clear side effect of ultra-processed food is the significant contribution it makes to overall sugar consumption. While making up 60% of our diet, these types of foods are responsible for 90% of the added sugar we eat. (6)

Also, consumption of too many added sugars is linked to a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. (7)

Ultra-processed foods are also known to be moderately addictive. This is by design. In fact, the sugar, salt, and fat content are higher in ultra-processed food, and artificial flavors are added to boost the taste sensation. As a result, people who eat diets high in ultra-processed foods consume about 500 extra calories per day. (8) The extra calories contribute to weight gain and obesity.

Eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods is also linked to an increased risk of mortality. Furthermore, four servings a day of processed food was associated with a 62% increase in mortality. (9) Every serving above four added an additional 18% risk.

Ultra-processed foods were not created with health in mind. And their consumption has negative health consequences.

Is it Possible to Avoid Processed Food Entirely?

De-process Your Diet

This is a tough question to answer. In an ideal world, local, minimally processed food would make up the bulk of our diet. In fact, this type of diet would provide maximum nutritional benefits with the lowest cost to the environment and our health.

The reality is that our food system is designed around the use of processed foods. A local, minimally processed diet is simply not accessible to everyone. Factors that contribute to our reliance on processed foods include:

  • Time scarcity. The structure of our culture is such that most of us no longer have the time margin to invest in cooking.
  • Lack of cooking skills. As our culture has shifted towards processed foods, many essential food preparation skills are no longer passed down.
  • Agricultural land use. Our farming system is intricately intertwined with industrial processing. A change to predominately unprocessed or minimally processed food would require a dramatic shift in how farmland is used.
  • Cost. Ultra-processed foods are cheap. Unfortunately, this puts a healthier diet out of the reach of many.

Currently, our ultra-processed diet serves several critical functions in our culture. So, it is impossible to ignore our reliance on convenience foods. And, it is not only our food choices that need to change, it is our food culture.

How to De-Process Your Diet

While removing all processed foods from your diet may not be feasible, it is possible to move away from ultra-processed foods. The convenience they provide comes at a high cost to health, and there are less processed options available.

Ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sugary beverages such as soda, juice drinks, sports, and energy drinks.
  • Packaged desserts and sweets.
  • Processed meats such as lunch meat, hot dogs, and sausages. 
  • Most packaged chips, crackers, and cookies.
  • Frozen convenience meals.
  • Packaged bread and buns.
  • Most granola bars and protein bars.

You’ve likely heard the saying, “don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food?”. Well, there is a lot of truth to that. Many of the foods we take for granted are full of ingredients we can’t identify.

Steps to De-Process Your Diet

De-process Your Diet

If many of the foods you currently eat fall in the ultra-processed food category, then it’s time to make a change. However, you don’t have to flip a switch and never buy another packaged food item. (Though if that is possible for you, by all means, go right ahead.)

Making small changes over time to reshape the make-up of your diet will get you where you need to go in the end. Take it slow, give yourself grace, and focus on progress, not perfection.

Step 1: Begin Reading Labels

Awareness is the first step towards change. Reading food labels is eye-opening, and at times alarming. If you don’t already, get in the habit of looking at the label for the foods you commonly buy. 

There is no need to look at the nutrient content to see calories or protein. Simply look at the ingredient list. How long is it? Do you recognize all the ingredients? Are there any you can’t pronounce or have to look at closely to decipher? 

As a good rule of thumb, a long ingredient list that is difficult to read signals an ultra-processed food.

Step 2: Look For Processed Foods With Fewer Ingredients (That You Recognize!)

De-process Your Diet

As our awareness of the downsides of ultra-processed foods has increased, some food companies are responding with healthier choices.

As you read labels, look for companies and food products that contain fewer ingredients. Ideally, you should be able to pronounce and identify what each ingredient is.

Now, here is where many people begin to struggle. If you have spent years eating ultra-processed foods, your taste buds are trained to enjoy the intense flavors. As a result, switching to less processed options may initially seem bland.

Over time, most people who move away from an ultra-processed diet will testify that their taste preferences adapted. Ultra-processed foods will even become unpalatable after a while. So stick with it and give yourself time to adjust.

Step 3: Shop the Periphery of the Store

Most unprocessed or minimally processed foods are found at the outer edges of the grocery store. Ultra-processed foods are generally located in the aisles. The more you can stick to the periphery of the store; the less processed your grocery haul will be.

Step 4: Choose Processed Food Strategically

Processed foods can be super useful when used strategically. If you are short on time but still want to eat a healthy diet, you may need to take advantage of quick options like bagged salads, frozen vegetables, canned beans, and premade hummus. It’s okay! 

But, make your choices with intention and with an eye to find the least processed option available to you.

Step 5: Schedule Time to Prepare Food at Home

De-process Your Diet

The number one reason most people choose ultra-processed food is that they don’t have time to make anything else. For some people, this may legitimately be true.

However, for some of us, the issue isn’t time scarcity, it’s time allocation.

  • Could you set aside an hour on the weekends to prep some food for the week ahead? 
  • Could you listen to a podcast or watch a show in your kitchen while preparing a meal or making lunch to take to work? 
  • Can you get your family involved so that your time cooking is also time together?

If you get creative, you may find just enough margin in your life to replace some of the ultra-processed food you currently eat with less processed options. It takes the willingness to look at how you allocate your time and choose to prioritize feeding yourself better food.

Find the Joy of Real Food

Shopping for and eating a less processed diet is rewarding. You will likely feel better as you eat less of the ultra-processed stuff. Plus, you will know your choices advance your wellness goals.

Eating real food is a pleasure and a joy. While you may never walk away from processed foods entirely, every step towards a healthier diet is a step towards complete wellness. It’s a delicious journey.