Whole Food vs. Processed Food

What’s the difference between whole food vs. processed food? Learn more about both, and how to opt for healthier choices for your family.

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Just take a look at your cupboard. Processed foods are more pervasive than you think. Even that box of organic mac and cheese sitting in the cupboard is processed. Or the vegetable oil you’re using instead of butter is processed.

So what can you do? Let me guide you through whole food vs. processed food, and show you how to make healthier choices for your family. 

What is Processed Food? 

“Processed food” includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food.

Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to make their flavor more appealing and to extend their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes.

Buying processed foods can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar, salt and fat as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating.

These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.

What Does Processed Food Do to Your Body?

Heavily processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. Consuming lots of these foods has long been linked to an increased risk of a wide variety of health problems that can lead to heart disease or an early grave, such as obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, cancer and depression.

What Are Whole Foods? 

Whole foods are those that are as close to their natural state, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains (like rice or oats), nuts, seeds, and legumes. These foods are rich in nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as well as macronutrients like carbs, protein, and fat. 

While some whole grains like rice, nuts, and seeds may be minimally processed (outer shell removed, roasted, etc.), they are generally considered as whole foods as long as they are free from additives, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors.

For instance, organic white rice is considered a whole food, while boxed rice with added flavors and seasonings would be considered processed. 

While it may not be possible to give up processed food completely, here are some tips to avoid it. 

How to Avoid Processed Food

1. Stop buying processed foods.

I know it seems so simple, but really when you don’t have processed foods in your home you’ll be less likely to eat it. Resist the urge to hide processed food. The kids will find it. Instead, go through your pantry and refrigerator together and talk about why you’re going to stop buying processed food. Explain the ingredients that are in processed foods and how they’re not good for your body.

2. Replace processed foods and staples with real-food alternatives.

Find processed foods in your home and try to find healthy alternatives. So opt for butter, ghee, avocado oil and olive oil instead of margarine or canola and vegetable oils. Go for full-fat raw milk (or low pasteurized – avoid ultra pasteurized), cheese and yogurt instead of skim milk or low-fat cheese and yogurt.

3. Start with one meal a day.

It can be overwhelming to think about a radical change to a processed-free life, so make it easy and start with one meal a day. I think breakfast is incredibly easy. You can make pastured scrambled eggs cooked in ghee or butter. Or try organic, full-fat yogurt with a little raw honey and fresh organic berries. 

4. Make your own food.

Take a good look at your refrigerator and pantry. Do you see a lot of boxes or cans? That might be a sign to do a food overhaul. Consider what you have that you can make on your own. Foods like canned fruit, jarred applesauce, bread, cookies, tomato sauce, ketchup, etc. can all be made in your own kitchen with real-food ingredients.

5. Opt for farm-fresh foods.

It’s deceiving to see a carton of eggs with a photo of a farmer on it and chickens roaming free. But the reality is that in most cases this is far from the truth. The bulk of meat and poultry are given hormones, grains (rather than grass) and live in cramped quarters without sunshine.

What you can do instead is buy grass-fed meats, free range/farm chicken and pastured eggs. Get it fresh from your local farmer so you know where your food comes from. Farm-fresh food tastes better and is better for you – such as higher in omega-3 fatty acids, higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Take the whole family to the farmer’s market together and pick out fresh eggs, vegetables and fruit. Let your kids see where food comes from and talk to the farmers about their food operation. It’s a great way to show kids first-hand how important it is to know where their food is from.

6. Buy organic when you can.

Check out the EWG’s clean fifteen and dirty dozen lists for recommendations on which fruit and vegetables you should be buying organic. I typically recommend any fruit or vegetable that’s eaten in whole – like apples with the peel, celery, leafy green vegetables, etc. should be organic.

Produce with a peel like bananas or avocados could be conventional but really opt for organic or at least pesticide-free as much as possible. Again, opt for the farmer’s market when buying produce.

7. Read food labels.

GMOs, pesticides, hormones and other food additives are more pervasive than you think. These hidden chemicals lurk in foods beyond fruit and vegetables. Consider that a bag of tortilla chips without any other added ingredients (just corn, oil and salt) probably has GMO corn it it. “Healthy” granola-like cereals on the grocery store shelves are probably made with GMO grains or treated with pesticides.

Rather than buy foods like tortilla chips and granola cereal, make your own instead using organic ingredients.

8. Get back to basics.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to make complicated, 5-course meals. Cooking shows on the Food Network are entertaining and certainly can bring out your inner Bobby Flay, but remember all of these chefs have a team of people helping them (and certainly don’t have a toddler hanging on to their legs during meal prep). Focus on giving your family whole, real food.

9. Do it as a family.

Don’t go it alone. Get the kids and the whole family involved. Explain why it’s important to give up processed foods. Talk to kids about chemicals in foods and what it does to their bodies. Take your family grocery shopping and explain the rules – shop the perimeter of the store because that’s where all the real food is. Grow your own food or take them to farmer’s markets to see what real, farm-fresh food looks like.

Invite the kids in the kitchen to look for ingredients, plan meals together, and cook together. The more the kids know what’s in their food and learn how food is made, the more involved they’ll be likely to get on board.

10. Let go of the parenting guilt.

The biggest setback I hear about trying to get the family to go processed free is parent guilt, or the fear of the kids missing out on pizza, cookies, birthday cake, etc. You can still eat snacks, sweet treats, and other favorite dishes. Just enlist help from the kids and find recipes together. You might even come up with new family favorites.

And enjoying the occasional processed treat wont derail your efforts. In fact, it shows the kids the goal is progress, not perfection.

Tips to Choose Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods

  • Resist the urge to hide processed food. The kids will find it
  • Opt for butter, ghee, avocado oil and olive oil instead of margarine or canola and vegetable oils.
  • Make it easy and start with one, process food free, meal a day.
  • Don’t go it alone. Get the kids and the whole family involved.

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