Here's a List of Processed Foods & Which Ones You Should Avoid
You might have seen this CNN article recently, about how ultra-processed foods accelerate your risk of an early death. Or this recent statement by the American Association of Pediatrics, urging the reform of diet recommendations for children, based on long term health concerns of food additives and refined ingredients within packaged foods.
This might seem scary enough for people to avoid processed foods but many aren’t phased by it (I’ve heard this from patients, friends and family). They feel that they’re going to die anyways, they might as well enjoy life (which would include processed and convenient food) before then. They also might not feel like the benefits outweigh the annoyance or discomfort of changing their diet. These headlines aren’t impactful enough for these people and they don’t actually capture the true threat of processed foods being a large part of our diets.
Processed foods affect much more than an early death. They influence our overall health, vitality and quality of life, well before you near the end. They may take years off of your life, but they also prevent you from enjoying the years you still have left to live. I see it every. single. day. in practice. I also have the benefit to see how people’s lives dramatically improve when they eat less processed foods and adopt a cleaner, unprocessed food, diet.
It doesn’t have to be junk or fast food to be processed and pose health and well-being consequences. The flavored yogurt, turkey sandwich, granola bar, peanut butter and organic veggie chips you might be eating throughout the day, all contribute to chronic symptoms, discomfort, pain, weight gain, belly fat and also possibly, an early death.
If you’re looking to lose weight and/or improve your health, the first step is to clean up your diet, shifting from processed to unprocessed foods, before making more specific changes (like gluten free, keto, dairy free, vegan, low calorie, low carb…).
It doesn’t have to feel miserable phasing these foods out of your routine. Once you associate them with feeling unwell, and choose real foods that you love, it gets so much easier. Need inspiration for simple, flavorful real-food eating, this guide will help!
conditions processed foods cause/contribute to:
Blood sugar imbalance (both low and high), diabetes
Inflammation (and inflammatory conditions) (anywhere, including the digestive system, heart and blood vessels, brain and nerves, skin, bones, lymph nodes, sinuses)
Weight gain & difficulty losing weight
Symptoms Processed Foods Cause/contribute to:
Haggard, dull, dehydrated complexion
Faster, exaggerated aging
Acne and breakouts
Rashes (psoriasis, eczema)
Brain and nerves:
Moodiness (anxiety, depression)
Lack of focus, overactivity
Pain, numbness, tingling, sensations
Dementia and memory issues
Bloating (some ‘look pregnant’ after eating)
Heart and vessels
Heart disease (heart attack, TIA, stroke)
Less exercise tolerance
High blood pressure
Repeated sinus issues
Get sick more often
Fatigue, no energy
Worsened pain (back pain, joint pain)
Joint pain and Arthritis
Blood Sugar Imbalance:
More appetite (hungry all the time)
Less self control around food
Fat gain/difficult fat loss
Extra belly fat
More period pain
Less lean muscle mass/more body fat
Extra belly fat
Some health consequences of a processed food diet can be silent until they’re a big enough issue to cause symptoms. For example, high blood pressure and diabetes can build quietly before you realize something is wrong.
What makes a food processed?
The line is blurred between ultra-processed (referenced in the CNN article) and processed. I’d assume ultra-processed means the percentage of actual, real food is small, like with fast food, but there is no standardized way to determine this. It’s impossible to know the ratio of real food ingredients to synthetic and filler ingredients in packaged or ‘out’ foods. The bottom line is that processed food is generally considered unhealthy (there are some exceptions!), whether it is ultra-processed or not.
Though, not all packaged and pre-made foods are processed. It’s important to distinguish between clean packaged and pre-made foods and processed foods. This can be confusing for a couple reasons. Many food labels on processed foods are misleading, so you might assume it’s healthy and clean, when it’s not. Also, healthy foods like oatmeal, yogurt and flavored vegetables can be processed and rendered unhealthy, even though the unprocessed version of these foods are healthy.
Unprocessed and unrefined foods are clean, real, whole ingredients and include packaged or pre-made foods that are made with them.
Why Are Processed Foods Bad
Processed foods are not healthy. With that said, you can likely get away with eating them infrequently, if your overall diet is healthy and clean. Though, they should always be avoided.
Aside from the (many) health concerns listed above, they take up space in your diet where you could be eating nutrient dense and anti-inflammatory foods. These nutrients, and in the amounts needed, come best from real food, and help your body heal, function and feel healthy and well. Without real-food nutrients, you’ll likely experience health consequences.
Processed foods cause irritation and inflammation within your body. Processed foods and ingredients come in direct contact with your digestive system, which causes obvious related symptoms like an upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas (and can also lead to food sensitivities). From the digestive system, food gets absorbed into the blood, where it reaches every cell, in any region in your body. Exactly how and where processed foods affect you depend on the frequency and portion sizes you eat, your genetics and other lifestyle/environmental factors. The effects of eating processed foods are cumulative, where the more you eat and the more often, the more risk and damage.
List of processed ingredients and foods:
Fried foods (restaurants and frozen) (due to the breading and the oils used)
Fast food (even salads!)
White, bleached and enriched flours
Frozen meals and snacks
Flavored oatmeal packets
Sauces and dips
Vegetable oils (not including fresh and cold pressed oils)
Boxed and frozen mac and cheese
Flavored rices and grains
Sweets (candy, baked goods, boxed dessert/cake mixes and chocolate)
Sausage, bacon and cured meats*
Deli, lunch meat*
Spice and dip packets
Sweet beverages (soda, Crystal Light, fruit juice)
Microwave, (and most bagged), popcorn
Nut butter* (peanut and almond butter)
Canned and jarred vegetables
These foods are primarily in the center aisles of the food store. This is why many nutrition experts say to shop the perimeter of the foods store! This makes it a bit easier to avoid these foods.
How To Know A Food Item Is Processed
Its Ingredient List
You can directly see the ingredients in a packaged food. If the list includes items that you don’t recognize, contains added sugar or sweeteners or that you can’t pronounce, it’s likely processed.
The less real, high quality ingredients that are in a food item (and the more filler), the cheaper it will typically be. In general, people tend to choose and value foods that are cheaper, though you get what you pay for. Price is a good gauge if you’re out and can’t see the ingredient lists for what you’re eating. If you get large portions, for a cheap price or good deal, then it’s likely low quality and processed (more additives and filler ingredients).
People often complain that healthy food is expensive. You can make it more approachable by sticking to true portion sizes, reducing foods waste, only buying what you need for the week (no extras), and not buying packaged foods or going out to eat in addition to clean ingredients.
Misleading Food Labels
You can’t always trust phrases on food packaging, since these are often marketing strategies. Foods made with real food ingredients or that are ‘clean’ wouldn’t have the labels below. The purpose of these phrases on food labels is to make consumers feel like a certain processed food is actually healthy when it (typically) isn’t.
Made with real sugar
No salt added
Even organic foods can be processed. Organic chips and cookies are still processed foods!
Minimally Processed Foods:
There are some foods, that are pre-made and packaged, that are made with real food ingredients. You have to read its ingredient list to ensure you’re buying a clean product. The ingredients listed should be what it would take to make that food from scratch.
Peanut butter is a good example. Most brands add oils (like palm oil), sugar and other ingredients. But you only need peanuts and salt to make peanut butter, so look for brands that do this (Smucker’s Naturals!). Sausage is another example; it should be the meat and spices only, with no nitrates or preservatives. The list below includes foods that can be clean, but can also be processed (most are on the processed list too because they can go either way).
Peanut butter (natural)
Deli, lunch meat (actual meats, like real roasted turkey breast, no nitrates)
Sausage, bacon and cured meats
Vinegars (balsamic, apple cider)
Rice and grains
There is so much confusion and deception within our food system. When you care about your health and/or the food that you put into your body, it’s so important to know what’s inside your food and understand how it might affect your body, health and life. As you’ve seen in this article, processed foods aren’t only junk foods.
The pre-made and packaged foods you grab at the food store and what you order from popular restaurants and takeout spots, are often all sources of processed food.
The first step to improving your health, relationship with food and weight loss is to avoid processed foods and form a new routine and lifestyle that revolves around clean, real and unprocessed foods. You can still eat satisfying and indulgent foods, and eat out, just ensure the foods you choose are made with real ingredients and aren’t fried (most of the time). You can still eat burgers, bread, potato wedges, cheese, pizza and sausage, just made with better, real, ingredients.
It’s important to go easy on yourself too. Our world relies heavily on processed foods, so you’ll likely never follow a clean diet perfectly, but the more the better. You’ll likely find that more clean you eat, the worse you feel when you eat processed foods.
To replace processed foods in your diet, the trick is to make unprocessed and real food taste great, be satisfying and also easy. If you want to eat clean and healthy but feel like you never know what to make or that it’s a challenge in everyday life, this guide will help you get started.