Welcome back to More Than Healthy and our Full Year of Resolutions. Today in Tip #19 we discuss the health benefits of reducing processed foods in your diet. This is a tip that has the potential to dramatically improve your health.
If you’ve followed most of our health tips so far this year you probably already understand why it’s so important to reduce processed foods. The biggest reason these foods are harmful is because they are made with artificial sweeteners, bad oils, fillers, and preservatives. Perhaps a little of this wouldn’t be so bad, but we are a pre-packaged and processed society. It is everywhere!
Because we eat so much of these food products, we are paying the price with our health. Ideally we should remove all processed foods from our diets, but that’s simply not realistic. Our goal is to help you reduce the amount of processed foods you eat, or to encourage you to make healthier choices in the processed foods you consume.
Processed foods really are that bad for you
Processed foods take a severe toll on our health. These unhealthy foods contribute to conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and cancer, and they’re even linked to mental illness. The Journal of American Medical Association has gone so far as to say that today, eating processed foods and fast foods may kill more people prematurely than cigarette smoking.
Processed foods = empty calories
One significant side effect of these foods is weight gain. It’s now reported that 71% of Americans are overweight or obese, up from 66% just 5 years ago. That means a staggering 100 million people in America are obese.
Americans consume more calories than any other population. But the bigger problem is that we consume many foods which have minimal or no nutritional value, like unhealthy processed foods.
Research shows that excess calories shorten our lifespan. If you consume just 50 extra calories a day over a 10-year period, you will gain around 50 pounds of extra body weight. That excess weight increases the risk of many chronic illnesses and cancers, and it also means dying years earlier than you would have without those extra calories.
Read the labels
The most important thing we can do when identifying which processed foods we want to avoid is to read the labels. There are some ‘top offenders’ when it comes to unhealthy processed foods. First, look at what sweeteners are used. In a previous tip, we discussed healthy and unhealthy sweeteners.
In addition to sweeteners, you’ll want to see what kinds of oils, preservatives, and fillers are listed. Here are some of the top offenders when it comes to processed foods, and why they are so bad for you.
The worst offenders in processed foods
High fructose corn syrup
HFCS is an artificial sweetener processed from corn kernels. It is a cheap alternative to cane and beet sugars and is used in many packaged foods. It’s considered to be one of the major drivers of our current obesity epidemic, as it loads an unnaturally high amount of fructose into the body.
Foods that contain HFCS are high in calories, but they also have lots of unhealthy oils, preservatives, and artificial colorings and flavors. HFCS is linked to weight gain (including visceral fat accumulation), chronic inflammation and related conditions, and many other health concerns.
Some of the processed foods that are high in high fructose corn syrup include:
- Packaged sweets (like Oreos, Hostess cupcakes)
- Juice drinks (like Hawaiian Punch, Minute Maid)
- Fast food (and not just the dipping sauces, even the chicken nuggets are high in HFCS)
- Sauces and other condiments (like Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce, Heinz ketchup)
- Ice cream and popsicles
- Breakfast foods (and not just the Pop Tarts, foods like Jimmy Dean Sausage, Egg, & Cheese Frozen Croissants and similar frozen savory items as well)
- Jams and fruit preserves
- Bread and crackers (like Ritz, Wonderbread)
- Pancake syrup and dessert syrup
- Applesauce (popular brands like Mott’s)
If you’re unsure whether a product contains HFCS, be sure to check the ingredients label. Also, look out for other unhealthy sources of added sugar like cane sugar and corn syrup solids.
Carrageenan is a preservative used to thicken and emulsify foods and beverages. It is extracted from red edible seaweed, so some foods containing it are labeled as “natural.” However, this label is very misleading, and carrageenan is particularly harmful to our gut health.
Research links this emulsifier to serious digestive disorders like IBS and colitis. It potentially contributes to inflammation and toxicity in the gastrointestinal system. As we know, the health of our gut microbiome affects our entire body. At More Than Healthy, we are vigilant about protecting and healing our gut, so avoiding carrageenan is important.
Foods that contain carrageenan include:
- Chocolate milk
- Cottage cheese
- Cream, ice cream, and creamers
- Almond milk
- Dairy alternatives, such as vegan cheese or nondairy desserts
- Coconut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, and soy milk
- Deli meats
Surprisingly enough, wallpaper glue and salad dressing have something in common. That something is xanthan gum, a food additive you likely consume several times a week.
Xanthan gum is created by fermenting sugar with Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria found in cruciferous vegetables that can cause diseases like black rot. This very common additive is used in everything from packaged snacks to paint.
The science on xanthan gum is inconclusive. Some studies label it as a safe additive, while others call it a dangerous carcinogen. But one thing we know is that it can be disruptive to the digestive process. It’s a soluble fiber, and the body can’t break it down. Instead, it turns jelly-like and slows down the whole digestive system. Large amounts act as a diuretic and can cause problems with your bowels.
Xanthan gum is often used in gluten-free cooking as it helps the texture of GF baked goods.
Some common foods that contain xanthan gum include:
- Salad dressings
- Bakery products
- Fruit juices
- Ice creams
- Sauces and gravies
- Gluten-free products
- Low-fat foods
Dextrose is a sweetener derived from corn. However, just because it comes from a natural ingredient, doesn’t mean it is healthy. It is chemically identical to blood sugar. That means that when we eat it, it raises blood sugar levels very quickly. It has zero nutritional value, so it’s the perfect example of empty calories.
Dextrose is not just a sweetener. It’s actually listed on the ingredient list of McDonald’s french fries. At certain times of the year, the potatoes used for fries have low levels of natural sugars, which affect their color and how they cook. Dextrose helps give fries their golden color and to cook evenly.
Some common foods that contain dextrose include:
- Pre-packaged pastries and buns
- Sports and energy drinks
- Food coloring
- Seasoning mixes
- Dehydrated soups
- Canned peas
- Meat products like bologna and bacon
Tapioca maltodextrin is a highly-processed thickening agent used to change the consistency and texture of packaged foods. It’s used in everything from meat substitutes to salad dressings.
This additive is high in starch and nutrient-poor. It too causes spikes in blood sugar levels. Evidence also suggests that maltodextrin can affect the balance of gut bacteria, again affecting the health of your gut microbiome.
We eat maltodextrin every day without realizing it. Common foods with tapioca maltodextrin include:
- Pasta, cooked cereals, and rice
- Meat substitutes
- Baked goods
- Salad dressings
- Frozen meals
- Sugars and sweets
- Energy and sports drinks
We’ll talk much more about healthy oils in a future post, but for this week’s tip, let’s discuss some oils to avoid. When it comes to unhealthy oils, the most important thing to stay away from is processed hydrogenated oils. Industrial seed and vegetable oils are all highly processed. These oils are way too rich in Omega-6 fatty acids.
We need a few Omega-6 oils, but a typical Western diet contains as much as 20 times more Omega-6 than we need. Research suggests that too much Omega-6 may contribute to chronic inflammation. And we know that chronic inflammation is an underlying factor in many of the illnesses that plague us today, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Because of this, it’s recommended that you not only avoid cooking with these oils, but you should probably avoid them altogether. Gluten-free foods frequently have these unhealthy oils listed on the label, so you really have to watch for them.
Highly processed oils to avoid include:
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Canola oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Grapeseed oil
Oils we approve at More Than Healthy include extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, MCT oil, and coconut oil.
Healthier processed foods substitutes
Now that we’ve discussed some of the worst processed foods and why they’re so bad for us, let’s talk about some healthier processed food suggestions. The truth is, it’s hard to avoid all processed foods. And sometimes there’s just not time to make something from scratch.
So we’ve come up with some fairly healthy suggestions for you. We hope it will help you to reduce unhealthy processed foods from your diet. Here are some of our favorite go-to’s when it comes to healthier processed food substitutions:
Salad dressing, sauces, and condiments
David loves my homemade dressings, but it’s not always possible to have them around, especially when he’s traveling. A great backup is Primal Kitchen dressings. We like these products and trust the ingredients they use. They don’t use sugar or unhealthy sugar substitutes, or any bad oils. There is also a good selection of dressings to choose from.
They also have a good condiment line. I can make homemade mayonnaise, ketchup, and barbecue sauce, but when that’s not available, we use Primal Kitchen. They made their mayonnaise with avocado oil and use stevia as the sweetener for ketchup and sauces.
Because David can’t tolerate grains, I would make homemade cassava flour chips. Making these chips is a process, though, and I was always on the lookout for a premade chip he could eat. That’s when we discovered Siete chips. They’re made with cassava flour and avocado oil, and as long as he doesn’t overdo it, David can tolerate these chips well.
One of David’s favorite snacks is chips and guacamole. He loves my homemade guacamole dip, but when I’m not around, he can grab a pre-packaged Wholly Guacamole dip. They’re non-GMO and preservative-free and make for a pretty healthy munchy snack.
We’ve also discovered plantain chips, which are just organic plantains, coconut oil, and Himalayan sea salt, all ingredients that David can tolerate.
Who doesn’t love delicious pancakes, waffles, and crepes? Those are some of our family favorites. I can make all of these so that they’re gluten, dairy, and sugar-free, but sometimes I just need a shortcut. When I do, I love Birch Benders Paleo Pancake Mix. It’s mainly made with cassava and coconut flour. There is a little almond flour and eggs in it, but as long as David doesn’t go crazy, he can have this once a week for brunch.
All you have to do is add water (and some avocado oil for waffles), and you have a great pancake or waffle. They’re non-GMO, grain-free, gluten-free, and sugar-free. We highly recommend this as a good substitute for more processed pancake batter mixes.
I can have nuts for snacks and love nut butters on celery. When picking a nut butter, make sure that nuts are the only ingredient listed on the label. Look for organic nut butters. If you can tolerate peanut butter (many people cannot), Adam’s is a brand that is usually easy to find. Organic almond butters are also one of my favorites.
When it comes to pre-packaged energy bars, I can tolerate more than David can. I like Kion Bars and the Fast Bars for their clean ingredient list. I mainly use them when I’m competing in a sports event like pickleball and only have time for a quick snack.
We have yet to find a packaged bar that David can have. The only nut he can currently tolerate is cashews. I’ve come up with recipes for Cashew Date Energy Bars and Cashew Apricot Energy Bars that he likes. Then we just pack them up and take them in a cooler. They’re not as convenient as pre-packaged, but it works.
Other healthy and quick pick-me-up snacks include my Carrot Cake Muffins or Cassava Flour Banana Bread, which both make a great snack in between games. If you’ve found a favorite snack or sports bar that works well for you, especially if it doesn’t contain nuts, we’d love to hear about it!
Reduce processed foods for optimal health
Do you use any healthier substitutes for processed foods? Let us know which foods you like. We’ll look at the list of ingredients and let you know what we think of them. If we can find even small ways to reduce processed foods from our everyday diets, our health will be impacted.
Leave us any comments or suggestions below or contact us on our website at www.morethanhealthy.com. If you’d like to join us for our free monthly coaching calls, text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list.
Thanks for joining us in our journey to optimal health. We’ll see you next week!