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Clean Up Your Act: Why and How to Cut Processed Foods

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

If you’re filling up on processed food, then you might be feeling a little empty--and that’s no reference to your belly.  

It’s not breaking news to anyone that how you fuel up your body has a direct impact on your mental and physical output (read: nodding off after a heavy pasta lunch or feeling like a slug when you hit the gym post-burger dinner). But what you may not realize is that what you eat has a real effect on your mental state, too. In fact, fueling up too frequently with the low-octane stuff (food-speak for processed food) might set you up for a better chance at struggling with depression later in life. 

The Survey Says....
This revelation comes as a result of a 2009 British study which revealed that not only can a diet high in processed food make it more likely that an individual will be diagnosed with depression, but it also uncovered that a healthy diet can actually be protective against depression. Chalk up another point for sticking to a healthy diet.   

The study results were impressive and are enough to motivate even the staunchest chip-dipper to think twice. Partaking in a high volume of processed foods such as meats, chocolate, sweet desserts, fried foods, refined cereals and high-fat dairy made research participants 58 percent more likely to experience depressive symptoms in the future, as opposed to those who filled up mostly on whole foods like fruits, veggies and fish. In fact, those whole-foods folks who ate few processed foods had a 26 percent lower risk of experiencing depression as they aged. 

This study is timely, considering the increased buzz surrounding improving the Average Joe’s diet. Fast food joints are now allowing you to sub fruit for fries, and coffee shops are displaying better breakfast choices alongside feed-a-family-of-three pastries. The First Lady even is pledging powerful, White House-backed support for a healthier future by concentrating on fighting childhood obesity. It seems like America is finally waking up to the damage those greasy burgers, thousand-calorie cookies and sat-fat-trap coffee drinks have done to us all. And a big part of an improved diet starts with cleaning up the amount of processed food you eat.  

What to Blame and What to Change
But even while the phrase “processed food” just sounds bad, and health experts give it a nearly unanimous diss, it’s not entirely unusual to wonder what, exactly, is so bad about spray cheese and chicken nuggets. The obvious reasons—many processed foods contain much more salt, fat and sugar than we need—are no-brainers. But add to that the fact that they are often filled with refined grains, trans fat and high fructose corn syrup, too—all of which can have a hand in upping your chronic disease risk. Plus, top those downsides with the long list of questionable additives and preservatives, many of which have unknown long-term effects, and you’ll more clearly see why health experts are urging us to put the kibosh on processed food. 

To illustrate the impact of additives in processed food, let’s take, for example, aspartame, a popular sweetener often found in diet drinks, sugar-free yogurt and low-calorie snacks. The news isn’t good: as reported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, countless studies point to an increased risk for cancer with lifelong consumption of aspartame. Plus, foods sweetened with aspartame—which is 200 times sweeter than sugar—can set you up for a skewed sense of taste. Think of it this way:  with the best of intentions, many calorie-conscious folks swill diet drinks to cut calories. Problem is, super-sweetened diet drinks can change your tastes, leading your taste buds to believe that something has to be seriously sweet to taste really good. And that leaves you less than satisfied with a lightly sweet alternative, like a cool glass of iced tea sweetened with, say, a touch of honey.   

Cutting back on processed food doesn’t just seem like a good idea—it is a good idea; you can cut your risk for chronic disease, obesity and depression. But we’ve become such a fast-living society, that sometimes it’s hard to consider how you’ll pare down the processed foods to which you (and your taste buds) have become accustomed. To get you started, here are a few hints on how to make some healthy changes.

  Start Small
Don’t blaze into the grocery store on a mission to buy everything you see that looks healthy; you’ll most likely end up with a big bill and a lot of food that goes to waste. Instead, take stock of where you are in your diet journey and make a plan to go from there. If you’re already eating a few servings of fruits and veggies a day, think of where you can substitute another serving of produce for something that’s processed. For example, try a couple plums instead of a bag of chips in the afternoon. To swap out diet drinks, try hot tea (or iced tea) in place of a midmorning diet soda. And if you buy treats like ice cream or cookies, try eliminating one of them at a time and fill the space with something that you’ll look forward to—like a glass of fat-free milk with a tablespoon of pure, high-quality dark chocolate syrup made from natural ingredients. 

Soup It Up
Try to bring back meals that start from whole foods you buy yourself. For instance, are you eating soup from a can that contains carrot bits and pieces of green that might be zucchini? Make your own soup for a change—it will be more filling and less salty than the canned version. Plus, it really doesn’t take long and, in the end, is a better bargain since you’ll have a big batch to eat now and freeze for later when you don’t feel like cooking. A quick internet search can turn up tons of recipes for easy-to-make and mouthwatering soups. 

Run Fast and Away
Processed food lives in abundance in fast food restaurants, so make it your practice to avoid them at all costs. Most fast foods are swimming with trans fat, high-fructose corn syrup, salt and refined grains—those bad-for-your-body offenders often found in processed foods. To avoid the lure of an instant-gratification meal when you’re starving, stock your briefcase, car or bag with anti-spoil foods like Kind bars, nuts and dry fruit that can take the edge off your hunger until you can find better choices.

Think of Grandma
If you’re confused about what to buy, think about the foods the folks before you ate. Did your great grandparents eat butter-flavored microwave popcorn and triple-threat cheese crackers for snack? Probably not; it’s more likely that they ate stove-top popcorn popped with a little oil and crackers with slices of real cheese—both excellent choices that contain simple ingredients that you can likely pronounce. Modern times may have brought a new crop of foods that would baffle your great grandparents, but sometimes old standards make the best standbys. 

Limiting the processed foods you eat won’t happen overnight—but you can make a difference in your taste for those foods as well as improve the odds for a better long-term health outcome with every chip, sweet roll and dehydrated noodle brick you dump from your diet. And that’s a prospect that can definitely make you feel whole.