Health

I quit processed foods for a month. It was time consuming and expensive, but it forced me into some healthier habits.

Summary List PlacementScientists have been slamming processed foods for years, because they're linked to some horrible health outcomes, including cancer, weight gain, heart disease, and early death. Scientists still aren't exactly sure what it is exactly about the mechanics of ultra processed foods that are so bad for us, but these items are not only looked down upon because they're cheap, sugary and easy to eat. It seems that really is something inherently worse about how the foods are designed and produced that makes us eat more of them, and get sicker, than we would if eating fresh produce. So, for one month...

me with a (very processed) flavored coffee, compared side by side with my unprocessed dinner of beef and salad.

Summary List Placement

Scientists have been slamming processed foods for years, because they’re linked to some horrible health outcomes, including cancer, weight gain, heart disease, and early death.

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what it is exactly about the mechanics of ultra processed foods that are so bad for us, but these items are not only looked down upon because they’re cheap, sugary and easy to eat.

It seems that really is something inherently worse about how the foods are designed and produced that makes us eat more of them, and get sicker, than we would if eating fresh produce.

So, for one month during the pandemic, I decided to cut out all processed foods from my diet, and just see what happened.

I was pretty much always home anyway, so I figured I’d try to cook more fresh foods while I was locked in and see how the changes impacted my weight, and my mental health. 

Before beginning my experiment, I kept track of my usual mood and calorie intake with smartphone apps, to develop a baseline.

I planned to use a food tracking app during my unprocessed foods experiment, to keep tabs on my nutrient intake.

I don’t typically use an app to track my food so, knowing that doing so might influence what I ate, I spent two weeks establishing my normal calorie intake and recording how I felt.

 

I learned that I eat about 2,000 calories a day, and my mood is generally upbeat.

I used Moody to report how I felt three times a day, and logged what I was eating and how much I exercised with MyFitnessPal. 

Now, it was time for the monthlong experiment to begin. Sometimes, it’s obvious that a food is processed. But sometimes deciding on what constitutes a ‘processed’ food can be tricky business.

Any food that is mass produced in a factory and laced with added colors, preservatives, or additives to preserve the taste or texture is a processed food (I’m looking at you, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas). 

But, when it comes to other kitchen staples, the rules aren’t so clear.

If you think about it too hard, you’ll realize that everything you put in your mouth has been processed in one way or another to get to you, even if that process was just you, picking it off of a tree. 

For this experiment, I cut out what nutrition experts call “ultra-processed” foods.

The NOVA food-rating system nutrition scientists use separates foods into four categories, from least processed to most. For the most part, I only ate within the first two groups during this experiment.

It was not cheap. This table of food cost me about $110. 

I stuck to foods ranked in Group 1 and Group 2, meaning they were barely processed at all.

Generally speaking, I was allowed to eat unprocessed foods like plants, animal meat, eggs and milk, fungi and algae, as well as some minimally processed staples, including butter, sugar, oil, and salt.

According to the NOVA classification system, Group 1 “unprocessed or minimally processed” foods include edible parts of plants and animals. It’s fine to freeze, boil, ferment, dry, crush, pasteurize or refrigerate any of those ingredients so they don’t spoil too quickly.

For example, coffee beans can be roasted (thank God), grains may get crushed into flour, and milk can be fermented to make yogurt. 

Group 2 foods are cooking ingredients derived from Group 1 foods, like vegetable oils, butter, sugar, honey, and salt. I included those in my diet, too.

I tried to limit the amount of Group 3 “processed” foods I ate, but I didn’t cut them out entirely.

Group 3 is considered “processed” because the foods in it mix Group 2 items in with Group 1 items to make them taste better and last longer. I did allow myself some cheese, beer, wine and fresh baked bread from this group.

Group 4 NOVA foods, the so-called “ultra-processed” items, are where researchers identify most of the troubling health trends. I stayed away from these foods completely all month.

Ultra-processed foods are typically made in a factory and have many ingredients to help keep them shelf-stable.

So, flavored yogurts, chocolate, hard alcohol, energy bars, most sauces, and really, to be honest, almost anything you might find in the grocery store that’s not in the produce aisles was banned. 

A few things I had hanging around the kitchen had to get tossed: a box of Triscuits, some tomato sauce in the fridge, a prepackaged muffin, and some tortilla chips. Goodbye! 

I had to banish my usual peanut butter. It may say it has “no preservatives” on the label, but I’d still consider it ultra-processed.

A lot of peanut butter includes hydrogenated vegetable oil “to prevent separation.” That’s a red flag that the food is being manufactured to last a long time on the shelf. Ultra-processed!

Because peanut butter was a breakfast staple of mine (and, in essence it is just crushed nuts) I replaced my Skippy with a more expensive brand of fancy peanut butter that did not include any anti-separation ingredients.

When I unsealed the lid, I could definitely tell there were no extra ingredients included here to prevent separation. 

Other breakfast changes were in store too. My processed, sweetened, single-serving oatmeal packets had to get turned in for the old fashioned kind of whole oats.

Instant oats have been processed into chopped up bits so they cook faster, and have a softer texture. They also can include colorants and preservatives, which were both off limits for me, and they tend to have many, many ingredients listed on the back of the packet (whereas oats are just one). 

When I ended up wanting oatmeal for breakfast during the unprocessed month, I went for the whole oat kind. As a result, I didn’t add any sugar (just a spoonful of honey and some milk) which definitely made those breakfasts healthier than they would’ve been if I had just gone for what was convenient. 

Once I started eating an unprocessed diet I realized that the classification is not necessarily about nutrition per se, and more about picking out where your food comes from — making sure there are no hidden ingredients inside.

Most of the things I ate had to be made in my own kitchen, using just a few simple ingredients.

I baked oatmeal cookies during the experiment, which are arguably not the healthiest snack, but they were decidedly unprocessed. 

When in doubt about whether something was approved on the diet, I tried to adhere to a basic rule of thumb: could I make this in my kitchen at home, using only unprocessed ingredients?

I made my own veggie treats (like these zucchini oatmeal cookies) instead of eating any candy.

As a result of the restrictions, I ended up eating more fresh foods by default. A good thing, as plants are great for your body in so many ways.

Part of the problem with processed foods isn’t so much what they are as what they’re not.

They’re not nutrient-dense, like fresh produce.  

Generally speaking, plants are a great diet staple because they’re high in fiber and contain disease-fighting phytochemicals that can reduce inflammation. They are also loaded with vitamins and minerals that can help ward off diseases. 

“Good nutrition leads to better immune systems,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said during a COVID-19 press conference in 2020

 

Dinner was usually some version of greens or other veggies with a protein.

Once I started cooking, I started to notice how similar so many of the best diets are in practice.

Whether people swear by the Mediterranean diet, high-fat keto, or some other passing fad, if they’re doing it well, they’re eating a lot of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, plus maybe some beans and a little meat.

“Your unrefined carbs, your fruits, your vegetables, your whole grains, beans, lentils, things like that. These are some of the most healthful foods on the planet,” Dr. Shivam Joshi, who teaches medicine at NYU, previously told Insider, summing it up.

When you eliminate space in your diet that was taken up by processed foods, there’s a whole lot more room for the good stuff to flow in.

Raspberries and chia seeds are both great sources of fiber, as are oats.

 

I ended up using the slow cooker more than usual. Eating fresh every day was a chore, and some food ended up spoiling during my experiment before I could deal with it.

It was nice to be able to control how much sugar and salt went into every meal, but having so much fresh food on hand at times felt like a second job.

Meal planning was essential, and I didn’t always manage to do it perfectly. I had to throw out some chicken breasts that went bad, for example.

Eggs became a household staple, both scrambled and hard boiled.

Often, I’d have them for lunch. Otherwise, I’d whip up a salad, smoothie, or leftover dinner fixings from the night before mid-day. 

Fortunately, I was working from home during the pandemic and able to spend a few minutes cooking around noontime. It would have been a lot harder if I was in an office trying to prepare such fresh meals. 

The diet made it near impossible to eat out. If I got hungry while I was out and about, I usually just went home. I did splurge one night on some braised greens, cheese, and homemade bread from a local joint. None of it was ultra-processed (I think).

Every takeout menu item had to be examined for hidden ingredients, and I wasn’t up to the task. I pretty much avoided ordering takeout food or going to restaurants for the whole month, because it was just too hard to figure out whether things were being prepared fresh or not.

“Does the cheese on this pizza have emulsifiers in it?”

That just not a level of granular detail I really want to get into with a stranger.

 

When on a road trip, I stopped at a gas station and found a box of pineapple. Hooray!

It was several dollars more expensive than the 99 cent peanut butter crackers or sugary iced coffee I might’ve purchased otherwise, but it was yummy. It’s also loaded with vitamin C and manganese, and can even aid digestion. Score. 

 

I will admit I also caved a few times on the diet.

For a friend’s birthday, I had a slice of a cookie cake. It tasted so sweet my tongue tingled. I didn’t really enjoy it because I just hadn’t had anything that sugary all month. It was jarring and unpleasantly sweet. 

By the last supper (fennel salad) it felt quite normal to eat in this way, but preparing fresh food every day still took a lot of time, and on busy days I got really frustrated with the plan.

Most of the time I had fun with the diet, but after some long days I would have given anything to just pop a frozen pizza in the oven. 

 

It’s a great idea in theory, but many Americans don’t have the time.

Ultimately, eating a more unprocessed diet for a month was a nice reminder of some essential nutrition principles.

But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has the time, budget, or access to fresh foods that makes this kind of eating plan sustainable. 

“Ultra-processed food has a lot of advantages in terms of its convenience. It’s cheap. It sticks around for a while,” food researcher Kevin Hall from the National Institutes of Health told me previously.

“You don’t have to have all the fresh ingredients on hand, which might spoil. You don’t have to have all the equipment to prepare these meals from scratch.”

Even he’s a busy dad who feeds his kids chicken nuggets sometimes.

“One has to be cognizant of the fact that people are living their day-to-day lives,” Hall said.

The month of unprocessed eating served as a nice re-set from some of the junk food habits I picked up during the beginning of the pandemic. But as far as my mood goes, I found it fluctuates more in relation to exercise and stress than my diet.

At the end of the month, I weighed four pounds less than I did when this experiment began (though my weight tends to fluctuate by two or three pounds anyway). I’ve maintained that lower weight on my regular diet now, too.

I wonder how much of the difference might’ve come down to just keeping track of what I ate throughout the day, and eliminating sugary snacks.

Eating really sugary foods after the experiment gave me terrible stomach aches. That was a nice reminder to continue avoiding them. It’s not like they’re doing me any favors, anyway. 

I almost didn’t feel like quitting this diet! But I don’t want to have to calculate every little food move I make every day. A lot of the cooking habits and food eliminations I picked up here are worth keeping, though.

I really missed mayonnaise, soy sauce, hot sauce, mustard, and just any other number of multi-ingredient flavor enhancers. 

 

I am so excited to have my condiments back. And to be able to eat with friends.

It’d be really socially isolating to sustain this diet long-term. But eating fresh for a month was a great re-set. 

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