Processed foods

Eating whole, organic foods—preferably that are local and seasonal—can seem like a difficult task. You’ve heard all of the tips, from shopping the perimeter of the grocery store to only purchasing items from farmers markets. It’s great advice, but sometimes it’s easier knowing what to avoid rather than what to seek out.

If you’re more interested in the worst foods to avoid rather than the healthiest foods to put in your basket, it’s a good idea to know who the most terrible contenders are. After all, “healthy” foods can vary greatly from person to person. Maybe you’re vegan, on a diet that will keep your mind healthy, dairy-free, on a ketogenic diet, or re-training your palate to be satisfied with less sugar. Those are all admirable diets and goals, but they also come with very different best-of lists.

Here are the top foods you should avoid due to being very processed:

Junk food

Hot dogs

Any processed meat increases odds of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and colon cancer. However, hot dogs, pepperoni, sausage, and bacon are the worst of the worst. If you’re a meat eater, minimize red meat overall and try to find a local farm where you know the animals are healthy and happy.

Pastries

Not only are these treats calorie bombs with no health benefits, they’re most likely to have trans fats. Add in the white flour and refined sugar, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. However, this doesn’t mean you have to avoid pastries and other desserts entirely. If you want a sweet treat, make it at home so you know exactly what’s in it. Decreasing the amount of processed sugar or making substitutes such as a “naked” cake (which minimizes frosting) can be a great help.

Chicken nuggets

Along with hot dogs, chicken nuggets are some of the most industrialized foods we know. They might look healthy-ish at first blush, and they do have protein, but most actually have more carbs than protein. They’re usually deep fried in oil with trans fats, which leads to cell membrane deformities and ultimately type-2 diabetes. Worse yet, many chicken nuggets contain MSG. If you’re craving this popular kid’s meal, baking chunks of chicken in a batter you make at home is a healthier option.

Many store-bought crackers

Most crackers are loaded with salt and simple carbs. However, the biggest issue is the trans fats in many of the cheap options. Trans fats are in a lot of processed and packaged foods because it does a great job of extending the shelf life and bettering the texture. Look at the labels and see if trans fats are listed—but don’t go by that number alone. It’s legal for a company to say “zero trans fat” if a serving is less than 0.05 grams, so many food makers achieve that number so they can boast being trans-fat-free. Only the ingredient list will be honest, so keep an eye out for “hydrogenated.”

Soda

There’s no nutritional benefit to soda or diet soda. However, it’s not only the sugar that’s a danger. Most sugars have high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is worse than sugar—it’s known for harming the liver and making blood glucose levels skyrocket. It also contains an acid which makes the pH balance in our bodies out of whack. Plus, cancer cells do well in acidic environments. Such environments also weaken the immune system and make a person more susceptible to illness.

Granola bars

Granola first became popular as a healthy, vegetarian snack but it’s morphed into something that often better resembled a candy bar. Marketers capitalize on the idea that granola is healthy (and it can be if you make it at home). However, most granola bars contain high fructose corn syrup. It’s nearly impossible to find a packaged granola bar that doesn’t! Bars might feature the fact that they include healthy sweeteners like honey, and that may technically be true, except that it’s often just added on top of HFCS for packaging.

Many condiments

From salad dressings to fancy condiments, you’ll often find HFCS in these too. It’s a cheap avenue for food makers to ensure their products taste good and are addictive. It’s not uncommon to find MSG and trans fats in condiments. What makes condiments especially dangerous is that people don’t really consider them when they use them. It’s added on, often liberally, and can destroy a healthy meal such as a veggie salad. Fortunately, it’s easy to make your own dressings so you know exactly what’s in it. Olive oil and a squeeze of lemon can be a delicious and satisfying option.

When it comes to processed foods, some are worse than others. Your best defense is knowing how to read labels and doing so with every purchase.

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