Processed foods to avoid and healthy alternatives

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  • Minimally processed foods, like baby carrots or honey, are still healthy for you. 
  • Ultra-processed foods like cookies or hot dogs increase your risk of obesity and heart disease.
  • To avoid processed foods, eat more fruits and vegetables, buy local, and avoid added sugars.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Processed foods are often high in calories, carbohydrates, and sugar, but have minimal nutrition.  And while eating some processed food isn’t the worst thing you can do, the problem is that most of us eat more than just some.

In fact, an estimated  60% of people in the US eat a diet consisting largely of highly-processed foods. And that does not bode well for American’s waistlines and overall health.

We spoke to dietitians about what makes a food “processed”, whether you should avoid them entirely, and how to incorporate healthy alternatives into your diet.

What is processed food? 

Processed foods are foods that have undergone changes from their natural state. They are often not considered as healthy as their non-processed counterparts because they tend to contain added salts, sugars, or fats for flavor or to extend shelf life.

“Almost every food we consume is processed to some degree,” says Scott Keatley, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at Keatley MNT. However, the more processed a food is, the more unhealthy it will be. 

There are three different categories of processed foods, says Illa Jones, RDN, a dietitian and founder of The Millennial Nutritionist

Minimally processed, which are pre-prepped, but you should still be able to tell what the natural state of the food is just by looking at it. Examples include: 

  • Fruit cups
  • Baby carrots
  • Honey
  • Boneless-meats
  • Dried berries

Mid-level processed, which has added ingredients to enhance a food’s texture or flavor. These include:  

Highly processed, which is when a food is completely altered from the whole food version by adding or removing certain nutrients and ingredients. These include: 

  • Twinkies
  • Hot dogs
  • Protein powder
  • Packaged cookies 

Minimally processed foods are usually healthy because the naturally-occurring vitamins and nutrients tend to stay in the foods, even after being processed. 

Instead, watch out for highly processed products, says Keatley. These tend to be less filling and nutritious, and more calorie-dense, which could cause weight gain or obesity.  

How to avoid processed food 

Not all processed foods are unhealthy, and some may even benefit your health like honey or whole grain bread. However, some people may want to limit processed foods to reduce their sugar, salt, caloric, or fat intake.

Here are some tips to help you avoid ultra-processed foods. 

  • Avoid certain ingredients and nutrients: A few ingredients you may want to avoid if you are aiming to minimize highly-processed foods include sodium and trans-fat. You may also want to stick to foods that have short ingredient lists. Oftentimes, the more processed food is, the longer the ingredients list.
  • Avoid fast food: Most fast food is ultra-processed, low in nutrients, and high in sodium and calories. Eating too much fast food can also put you at risk for certain health conditions like heart disease, hypertension, or obesity.
  • Avoid pre-packaged items: Pre-packaged foods lack fiber and contain added salt, sugar, or fat, says Keatley. “This extends the shelf life of these [products] and can make them more satisfying, but really cuts out some important nutrients,” he says. 
  • Avoid added sugars: Added sugars are those added during processing, like corn syrup, corn sugar, sucrose, or glucose. They are different from naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and dairy products which are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes.  

Insider’s takeaway 

Highly processed foods tend to be high in sugars, salt, and fats. However, not all processed foods are bad for you, rather, it’s just those considered ultra-processed like sugary sodas or instant dinners.

Some ways to limit your processed food intake is to avoid packaged foods with long ingredient lists and opt for fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, or dairy products. Jones suggests seeking the help of a registered dietitian if you are concerned about your diet. 

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