Healthy Monday Tip #5: Avoid Processed Foods

Healthy Monday is a public health initiative founded in 2005 in association with Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and Syracuse University. HM’s goal is to end chronic preventable disease in the U.S. by offering people and organizations a weekly prompt to start and sustain healthy behaviors, intentions, actions and initiatives. For most Americans, the week begins on Monday. Studies suggest we are more likely to maintain behaviors begun on Monday throughout the week. That makes Monday the perfect day to make a change for your health and the health of our planet.


Last week’s semi-controversial post, “Stop Thinking, Start Eating” had some interesting responses. The main thing that people seemed to criticize me for was this: ok, “real food” is great… but what the heck is “real food”?

For me, eating real food means avoiding processed foods, but aside from that eating everything from fried chicken to fresh salads. (I think that) nearly all of the health problems in our society come from eating processed foods. Not from eating meat, or fat, or even white bread – no! The problems start when we start eating chemicals and preservatives and pre-packaged sweets or snacks.

Why avoid processed foods?

  • I don’t think that the human body recognizes them as food the same way that it does non-processed foods. I don’t really know the science behind this; it’s just a hunch.
  • People have been eating “bad” things like red meat and butter for years, but the truly awful epidemics – obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc… – did not really become epidemics until the advent of processed foods. Maybe it’s correlation and not causation; I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Avoiding processed foods is (I think) less restrictive than avoiding, say, meat or dairy or some other random set of foods that some health professional deems unworthy. I think pretty much everyone is in agreement that processed foods are crap.
  • It’s nice to eat things that were prepared by real humans instead of machines.

Examples of processed foods I would probably avoid:

  • Oreos and other pre-packaged cookies. (This does not include pre-made cookies from Whole Foods – those are fabulously delicious.)
  • Pringles and other chips that are not recognizable as a potato.
  • Breads that don’t go moldy. (Scary.)
  • Sugary candy like Twizzlers. (If I’m going to eat candy it’s going to be something with fat, like chocolate or peanut butter.)
  • Twinkies. (Ha. I have never had a Twinkie.)
  • Fake butter or margarine.
  • Ritz crackers (these don’t go moldy as far as I know).
  • And so on…

In the ideal world we wouldn’t have to worry about how to find real food. But we do. I’ve found that a lot of it comes down to WHERE you want to eat, and not WHAT you want to eat. For example, going to a fresh Mexican restaurant is much preferable to eating at Taco Bell. Or getting a nice juicy burger from a deli is probably better than getting it at McDonald’s.

Remember that your diet will not ever be perfect.

We can and should try to avoid the clear yuck foods (like those on my list above). We can try to set good examples for our friends and families. Little things really do add up, and they can start a revolution 😉

Do you have a list of no-no’s? What foods do you eat that other people might think are “bad for you”?

For more Healthy Monday tips, check out the archives.

30 Replies to “Healthy Monday Tip #5: Avoid Processed Foods”

  1. I think recognizing imperfection and building it into the system, rather than beating yourself up about it, makes for more sane eating. For example I really really want to be a vegetarian since there are a zillion reasons to be so (environmental, ethical, health etc.) but I am a weak weak soul who would “cheat” and then feel awful about it. Now I’ve become a ‘flexitarian’ and my philosophy is “If 90% or more of my meals are vegetarian then I get an A”. This allows me to strive to be better without feeling guilty and sad if I eat a meal with meat in it (which makes it so much easier to visit others homes for dinner!).

    That’s just one example. I have other friends who “take Saturday off” or who are vegan except for ice cream. I think if we work with our imperfections instead of against them it can help us be more consistent instead of giving up when it’s too hard to eat “right”.

  2. And that isn’t just about meat… same thing goes for processed foods or organic or whatever you are trying to encourage or avoid.

  3. I agree with the comment above me in that the second you make it a “rule,” there is a certain amount of guilt attached to any variation from that standard.

    To be honest, the way I eat is very similar to yours in that I just like things natural and whole. I have never had a Twinkie, but love butter. I won’t do reduced fat anything (other than Greek yogurt) and love real cheese and oils, etc. It’s kind of selfish, but I figure that I deserve the “best” of whatever I’m going to eat and I want to feel good after eating it.

    That means not eating something just because it’s there, but rather eating something because I enjoy it and know that it’s something of quality. I don’t eat meat because I don’t like the taste, but if I ever really wanted it, I would simply find a high quality piece and honor the craving. It’s about keeping things natural and easy to understand. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to digest it.

  4. i just found something to add to my no no list 🙁 a resees peanut butter cup mini gave me itchy red lips (they had gluten in it). i just feel better when i eat whole, unprocessed foods and i really do prefer cooking it myself with coconut or olive oils.

  5. I am pretty much eat anything and sometimes an onion ring finds its way to my plate (and becomes dinner) but my biggest rule of thumb is to keep it as real as I can.

    real cookies, real butter, real eggs, real fish…

    like if you can recognize it…and spell it, and pronounce it and it’s balanced…enjoy.

    I get so easily wrapped up in the next “diet” and I don’t mean weight loss…just a food eating system it’s crazy.

    I do love REALLY love most of the principles of a paleo diet which is basiclly again less carbs, higher fats and proteins.

    I feel so good and still I find an onion ring pretty much AMAZING.

    I’m so DONE with lables too. DONE DONE DONE.


  6. I know this is random, but I was reading your blog before I went to sleep last night, and then I dreamed that you and I hung out in the Bay Area and went to Fraiche for frozen yogurt. It was awesome 🙂

    Love this post. I also eat many foods that some would frown upon, but I’ll take a steak over Doritos with no apologies!

    1. @Lara: LOLOL!!! THat is hysterical. I really want to get Fraiche froyo with you! Next time I am in the Bay Area we will have to. I havne’t been back since we moved away.

  7. I eat very similarly to you and just feel better when I eat unprocessed foods. I love full fat dairy and although I don’t usually eat a lot of meat, if we’re out to eat and it sounds good or if I’m craving something, my husband and I approach it with the idea that the meat will be a side dish–not the entree. That seems to work well for us. That being said, I do have the occasional diet soda (gross, I know) and if I’m sick, I usually can only tolerate jello and crackers (gross again, I know).

    I really believe that if people would just slow down and think about what they are putting inside their bodies that maybe something might change. I mean, would you put garbage in your car and expect it to drive?

  8. wow i could not agree with you more!!! ive definitely established food rules in the past and im trying to get past that but im learning that it is SO much better just to eat real food, even what others deem as “fattening” or “bad for you” than to survive on diet bars or processed food marketed as “low-calorie.” i think it’s great that youre sticking to your guns, because honestly all the processed stuff we eat is all based on marketing and what people around us are telling us to eat.. also because its often convenient! but if we do indeed care about our bodies real food is the way to go!

  9. I was afraid to eat butter for about 10 years (age 12-22). During that time, there were lots of Lean Cuisines, bowls of Special K, and other “diet” food consumed. I was so brainwashed that fat was terrible and that I needed these processed foods engineered to be low calorie to stay thin. Now, my philosophy is very similar to yours. Instead of Special K cereal for breakfast, I usually eat eggs. Sometimes with bacon. Yum. Last night, I made local pork chops pan fried in butter with a chipotle cranberry sauce and butternut squash on the side. Butter + pork chops = a dietary disaster in some people’s eyes, but I say it is way more nutritious than a Lean Cuisine. And it tastes a 100 times better 🙂

  10. It’s so funny, the other day I was discussing this exact topic with my Dad and he seemed to agree with me when I said that the issue is processed foods-nothing else.

    I agree with you when you say that the body doesn’t recognise these as foods. It’s kinda like eating play-doh, it’s non-toxic, yes, so therefore it’s more or less harmless to eat. But it’s not “real” food so the body won’t treat it as such.

    I eat full-fat everything, butter, white rice (’cause apparently that’s bad for you :S), sugar, the yolks of the eggs…I can’t really think of anymore but I do get people saying “you eat THAT?” and I just say, “yep”. People feel as though they have to live off of low-fat products and artificial sweeteners to stay thin. It’s all about moderation, duh!! hehe


    1. @Katy: I love white rice 🙂 The comments that people make when I eat things like bacon are annoying, but I just try to get over it. Yay for moderation.

  11. I think its totally ok to have processed food from time to time. I had (and still have) to many “no-nos” and I need more “yes yeses”. Of course I want a real cookie verses an oreo, but that i feel is my ed talking. Maybe the real me just wants an effin processed oreo.

  12. Lately I have been on to Minute Rice’s new single serve rice pots. Probably not the best for me but I don’t eat mac n cheese, Sidekicks or pre seasoned rice in pouches. That’s my justification, anyways! 😉 I’ve never been a big starch gal so when it’s on my plate it’s mainly couscous, quinoa or rice. Not a fan of pasta, potatoes, bread, etc. I just wish I could get my fam off the boxed crap for good!

    1. @Emily Elizabeth: I am a big proponent of saturated fat – coconut oil, butter 🙂 Yum. Mark’s Daily Apple has a good article on why it is actually good for you.

  13. I try to avoid foods that have tons of chemicals and preservatives, but I want to let go a bit more with this. I mean, it’s not going to kill me, right? Over the years, my tastebuds have changed a lot so a twinkie would be the last thing I’d crave. That said, if my mother-in-law serves a 2-day-old, preservative-laden cake from the grocery store (which she would), I don’t want to be a bitch and say “no.” Ya know? I do eat lots of chips, but I stick to things that just say “potatoes, oil, salt” on the ingredient list. I don’t really crave candy, but I eat lots of chocolate-covered nuts and stuff from Trader Joe’s 🙂 I eat french fries somewhat often… I don’t see the problem with oil, basically. I LOVE pizza. I eat full-fat everything. I have white bread at least a few times a week… I guess some of my eating is random, but I feel better without having rules 🙂 My “safe” foods list used to be absurdly short, so I’m just happy with the length of it now.

    1. @Kim: Yeah, I don’t understand why people hate oil. Okay, I understand – I used to be scared of it. But it’s completely unfounded! Oil/fat does not make people fat. My “safe” foods list is absurdly long now 🙂 Which makes me very happy! Yay for pizza. It is a new favorite. DO you like California Pizza Kitchen? I had the best vegetarian pizza last night there – the japanese eggplant one with mozzarella and lots of other goodies.

  14. My parents whisper to each other when they visit, and I have full fat yogurt in my fridge “blah blah heart disease blah blah blah thinks she’s immune blah blah”. I have friends who look at me funny about bacon, and friends who look at me funny about microgreens, collard greens, tofu. Friends who look at me askance for fresh lemons, raw dairy, raw fish, kimchi, sugar. My more carniverous friends think I eat strange veggies, my veggie friends can’t believe I’ll eat steak, nobody can believe I’ll eat fried chicken. But you know what’s really bad for you, absolutely, even has scientific proof (unless most dietary interventions)? Stress and smoking.

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