Why You Shouldn’t Try to Cut Out Processed Foods

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If you’re searching for advice on how to totally cut out processed foods, I’m so glad you stumbled upon this post! It’s true that processed food isn’t always the most nutritious option. And yes, emerging research shows that a diet high in ultra-processed foods can have a slew of negative health consequences. But trying to cut out processed foods completely is a losing game for most of us, because we just don’t live in a culture that makes it easy or accessible to cook everything from scratch all the time.

For starters, processed food makes cooking and eating much easier.

Before you demonize processed food…remember that before there was processed food, women had to spend HOURS a day in the kitchen. Our food system is far from perfect, but at least it presents options for people who can’t or don’t want to cook everything from scratch.

Yes, it’s true that Americans eat more processed food than we used to.

Yes, it’s true that a diet high in low-nutrient processed foods and low in fresh fruits and vegetables isn’t as nutritious. But processed food isn’t some kind of poison. Even a very nutritious diet still has room for processed food. If nutrition is very important to you? Prioritize fruits and vegetables. Swap out some animal protein for plant-based protein (if you eat meat). Drink less alcohol (if you drink alcohol). Processed foods absolutely fit within those guidelines.

There are many reasons why we eat processed food. It’s convenient, lasts longer, and takes less time to prepare. And not all processed food is created nutritionally equal. Processed foods like sweets, refined grain snacks (crackers, cereal, cookies, etc that aren’t made with whole wheat flour) aren’t super nutritious. They’re low in helpful nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals. And they’re high in less-healthful nutrients like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. But there’s no need to cut those less-healthful nutrients out of your diet completely.

Many processed foods are very nutritious. Whole grain bread, pasta, and other snacks are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Processed snacks made with fruits and vegetables are great. Frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Saying that all processed foods are bad is completely misleading.

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Some people rely on processed food.

In addition to all this, lots of people don’t have realistic access to fresh food. 12 percent of Americans are food insecure right now — that’s 1 in 8 people who can’t afford enough nutritious food to meet their needs. They rely on processed foods. They’re less expensive. They stay good for longer (important when you’re far from a grocery store and don’t have a car). They’re easy to make (important if you do long hours of shift work and have little or no time to cook for your family).

Including nutritious foods often isn’t a priority when someone is worried about whether or not they’ll have enough food to feed their family.

Shaming people who don’t have adequate access to fresh food isn’t the answer.

One commenter on a recent Instagram post of mine suggested that if you can’t afford nutritious food, you should “elevate your thinking.” Can’t afford fruits and vegetables? “Take some responsibility for your own health.” Grow your own fruits and vegetables. Use your Instant Pot to make quick meals.

Unsurprisingly, people who have actually experienced poverty and food insecurity told said commenter to reexamine her perspective. Planting a garden costs money, and takes time that many shift workers don’t have. It also requires a back yard or some bit of outdoor space to grow, which many food insecure people don’t have. Instant Pots also cost money that many food insecure people don’t have. Plus, keeping a tomato garden isn’t top priority when you’re stressed about rent, kids, and employment. Shaming people into spending scarce time and resources buying and prepping raw produce is elitist and gross.

You don’t have to spend loads of time and money on what you eat.

Even if you’re able to buy whatever food you want without worrying about the cost, you don’t have to spend tons of money and significant amounts of time buying, prepping, and cooking food. Many diets encourage you to do this, but it’s just not necessary.

If you’re wondering how to cut out processed foods, it’s not because you’re naive. Diets push this kind of thinking all the time! Some diets tell you to completely eliminate processed foods and common ingredients like sugar and preservatives for a certain period of time (say, 30 days). That means you have to make everything from scratch. You stress about what to order when you absolutely have to eat out. (Then you order a plate of grilled meat and steamed vegetables and you leave feeling completely unsatisfied.) You spend far more time and money than usual at the grocery store, reading every label and loading up on pounds and pounds of fruits, vegetables, and expensive meats.

There’s no point figuring out how to cut out processed food, because that’s unsustainable.

If you’ve ever done this, you know how unsustainable it is. First, any benefit you feel is probably from eating vegetables and getting extra fiber, not from cutting out processed foods. Or, it’s from not drinking alcohol, which will absolutely increase your energy levels. Second, wasn’t it hard to cook everything from scratch? Didn’t you finish many meals feeling unsatisfied, even if you felt full? Could you imagine doing this forever? No.

And, how did you feel when you finished the diet and went back to eating processed foods? Did you feel a little guilty about eating them? Maybe you felt intense cravings for chips/cookies/ice cream/French fries/pizza/mac and cheese/WHATEVER. You eventually gave in and ate the thing, then felt totally out of control and unable to stop. This isn’t because processed food is inherently impossible to stop eating. It’s because you avoided it for so long that once you started, you couldn’t stop. (More about that here.)

Instead of wondering how to cut out processed foods, eat a variety.

If your goal is to eat a nutritious diet and you don’t have any major barriers in your way, great! You can prioritize fresh foods some or most of the time. But you absolutely don’t need to cut out processed food completely. You’ll just want it more! Plus, cooking everything from scratch sucks up lots of time. That time might be better spent doing something else.

If intuitive eating sounds impossible, our free 5-day intuitive eating course can help you build a solid anti-diet foundation.

It’s totally free, and teaches you the ins and outs about why diets don’t work, how they’ve been fooling you for years, and how to finally break free. Sign up here.


If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, we can help. We’re a group of dietitians who specializes in eating disorders, disordered eating, fertility, pregnancy, and pediatric nutrition. We take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh and Durham, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)

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