You’ve probably heard that it’s best to reduce your intake of “highly processed foods” in order to live your healthiest life.
While this is true, many people are confused as to what makes a food or beverage “highly processed” and why eating too many of these items may cause problems.
This article explains the differences between healthy foods and highly processed foods and why it’s best to consume highly processed foods only occasionally.
What are highly processed foods?
Nearly all foods are processed, at least to some extent. For example, manufacturers process dried beans to make them shelf-stable. This does not make them less healthy.
So, before we get into what makes a food highly processed, it’s important to understand that foods aren’t “unhealthy” just because they’re processed in some way
Here are some common examples of ultra-processed foods:
sugary beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and fruit punch
sweet or savory packaged snacks such as chips and cookies
sweetened breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sweetened oatmeals
baking mixes such as stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes
reconstituted meat products such as hot dogs and fish sticks
frozen meals such as pizza and TV dinners
powdered and packaged instant soups
candies and other confectionery
packaged breads and buns
energy and protein bars and shakes
meal replacement shakes and powders meant for weight loss
boxed pasta products
ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and cocoa mixes
margarine and other ultra-processed spreads such as sweetened cream cheese
Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Many other foods and ingredients are also considered ultra-processed.
What are considered healthy foods?
In general, fresh vegetables, fruits, pasteurized milk, chicken, fish, beans, and eggs are considered unprocessed or minimally processed.
This is because these foods go through no or minimal processing before you buy them or harvest them yourself.
We commonly refer to these foods as “whole foods” because they are in their original, whole form or very close to it.
Here are some examples of healthy, whole foods:
vegetables and fruits, including fresh, frozen, or unsweetened dried produce
grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat
legumes such as beans and lentils
starchy root vegetables such as potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes
meat, poultry, eggs, and fish
fresh or pasteurized milk and plain yogurt
100% fruit or vegetable juice
herbs and spices
tea and coffee
nuts and seeds
Items made from whole foods — such as granola made with oats, dried fruit, and no added sugar, or polenta made with whole cornmeal — are also considered minimally processed and therefore “healthy.”
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