How to remove processed foods from your everyday diet

Have you ever wondered why the tomato pasta sauce that you made on the weekend needs to be frozen within a few days to remain fresh, and yet that jar of pasta of sauce you bought from the supermarket has a use-by date of November next year? There’s a reason why pre-packaged food remains edible for months. They’re packed with synthetic, man-made ingredients that prolong a product’s shelf life. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it?

shopping bags with produce Get rid of the factory foods

Essentially, processed foods are foods that have been altered from their natural state. They often contain very little nutritional value and are generally high in fat and sugar.

Author Michael Pollan, who has penned several books on the subject of healthy eating, says our convenience-seeking lifestyle has driven us towards consuming “edible food-like substances” rather than actual food.

No longer the products of nature but instead the result of “food science”, Pollan says the western diet is full of pre-packaged, processed foods that are devoid of nutrients, and that contribute to a range of chronic long-term health issues including cancer, heart disease and obesity.

Pollan has sage advice for anyone wanting to get rid of processed foods from their everyday diet: “Don’t purchase or eat items that your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise.”

His personal mantra is to “eat food, not too much — mostly plants,” and it’s a wonderful aspiration to work towards. But cutting out processed foods from your diet entirely is a big ask, as most of us rely on at least some pre-packaged help to get dinner on the table each evening. Here are some tips to make it work:

1Allow time to prepare meals from scratch

It takes a little extra time to skip the processed option, so try and avoid the temptation to cut corners by allowing more time to make dinner each night. In order to remove processed foods from your everyday diet, you’ll need to make meals from scratch, which means that instead of throwing a jar of pasta sauce in a pan, you’ll need to sauté eight tomatoes for an hour — or, rather than heating a package of pre-peeled, pre-cut, partly pre-cooked potatoes in the oven, you’ll have to peel and cut the spuds yourself, before you boil and roast or bake them.

2Plan ahead

Look up simple recipes and plan meals a week in advance, and then go grocery shopping to buy the fresh ingredients you’ll need. You may even want to dedicate some time on a Sunday afternoon towards cutting, preparing and storing meat and vegetables for the week ahead.

3Read the ingredient labels

Processed foods steal valuable nutrition from your diet by feeding your body empty calories, but they’re often marketed to look like they’re healthy, so when you go to the grocery store, pack your reading glasses. If you’re unsure about the health value of a particular item, read the list of ingredients: if it’s as long as a newspaper article, or there are ingredients listed that you can’t pronounce or don’t recognise, then it’s probably not going to add to your nutritional intake.

4Avoid trans fats wherever possible

Trans fats are commonly found in commercially fried food and packaged foods, especially baked goods. But you won’t see the phrase “trans fat” in the list of ingredients: it’s usually hiding under the term “hydrogenated fat”. Dr. Michael Aziz, author of The Perfect 10 Diet, doesn’t mince words when he tells his patients that trans fats will kill them.

“Trans fats are really like plastic, and when we eat them they incorporate in our cells and the cells cannot communicate or talk to one another,” he says. “In turn hormones are disturbed, weight gain follows and even more troubling, the risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke and infertility goes up.”

5Slow and steady wins the race

Removing processed foods from your everyday diet really boils down to sourcing and using fresh fruit and vegetables and good cuts of meat. But it’s not always as easy as it sounds, and you won’t be able to transform your diet overnight: the key to success is baby steps! With enough small, simple changes to your diet, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying much healthier fare.

More healthy eating tips