We know veggies are good, but does that mean that processed foods are terrible? Whole foods vs processed foods, in the real world most of us eat both. And pretty regularly, with some choices being far better than others.
I personally both love and appreciate the food industry. I also see the harm that has come as people have increased the processed foods they consume. My kids love cereal, and nothing beats chicken and veggie potstickers for a quick weeknight meal. And what about the the shake that replaces breakfast on my busy days? The snack bars that provide a ton of filling fiber and protein, or the yogurt loaded with healthy probiotics? Lifesavers.
On the other hand, what about the heart disease, cancers, and inflammation we see when people eat more processed foods? Or the rising levels of obesity? Yup, we can thank processed foods for a good portion of those too. So which is better? And if it’s a case-by-case decision, how in the world do you navigate that?
What’s the Difference Between Whole Foods vs Processed Foods?
Whole foods are things like potatoes, cucumbers, and steaks. These foods are pure and untouched. They are things you would eat if you lived off the land itself.
Processed foods had something done to them before reaching you. Sometimes they are changed to provide a different texture or flavor. Often so that they have a longer shelf life before they spoil. Whatever the design, they have things added, changed, or taken away from their original form. These foods come in packages and containers, and if civilization fell, we would run out of them.
When most people refer to whole foods, they are also including foods that were minimally processed. A frozen vegetable blend is minimally processed. But since the processing that was done didn’t strip it of any nutrients (and nothing bad was added either) it can also be considered a whole food.
Since minimally processed foods are also good for you, in this article we are going to stick them in the “whole foods” category. You will probably come across people who feel strongly about any processing, so understanding the difference can be helpful.
The Benefits of Whole Foods
Hands down, eating whole foods is best. These foods are packed with nutrients, generally are slower to digest, and fill you up without encouraging you to overeat.
These are the foods our species evolved eating. They provide everything we need to survive without adding a bunch of guck. Basically, they are what we were meant to live off of.
As we eat more processed foods, our waistlines have grown. So have our rates of heart disease, cancers, and diabetes. Even something we thought impossible: we are seeing this in kids. Type II diabetes used to be called adult onset, not anymore.
Are all Processed Foods Bad?
Not all processed foods are bad for you though. There are many that make eating healthier easier. You can think of processed food as a spectrum with some foods minimally processed and other foods being highly processed. Also, some foods are made to be healthy. Others are made to taste good and get you to eat more of them. Yes, they can make you hungrier and eat more.
Processed foods aren’t all bad. Because of food processing we have year-round access to a variety of fruits and vegetables. I can put a meal on the table wicked fast that everyone eats. No longer do we each knead fresh bread every day. We have an abundance of food of all varieties, flavors and textures.
We also have extra ways to get some of our missing nutrients. Many foods are fortified with nutrients. These foods can help you improve your health. They have reduced birth defects and have virtually eliminated the majority of vitamin deficiencies.
100% whole grain crackers and canned tomato puree are examples of foods that are processed and still good for you. They provide a quick snack or recipe ingredient. These days none of us have time to puree and boil down tomatoes.
On the other hand, there are existing foods that are made to taste good, like ice creams, cookies, and chips. Foods with lists of ingredients too complicated to pronounce. Added sugars, salt, and preservatives beyond what you would ever eat on your own. These are the foods it’s best to avoid.
The Bad Side of Processed Stuff
Where to start: salts, sugars, additives, and preservatives? Or how about when they just strip out the healthy parts of the food leaving nothing but the junk (like white bread). This is the stuff that causes you to overeat. It increases your risks of diabetes, heart disease, and a multitude of other chronic conditions.
These foods introduce chemicals into your body, drive inflammation, and may be a component of rising rates of food allergies. They are a large part of our country’s obesity epidemic.
Food processors are paid when you buy their food. The more you buy, the more they make. Often these foods are designed to make you hungrier. They encourage you to eat more and make sure you don’t stay full for very long. It’s the opposite of what most of us want, but manufacturers make money off it (and us). Lots and lots of money.
Also, we have the confusing problem of unhealthy processed foods trying to look healthy. A good example of this is how the foods changed when heart disease became a concern. Suddenly everyone stopped eating so many processed foods.
That was great, at first, because they substituted whole foods in their place. Then the food manufacturers lost money. They decided to focus on making food that was lower in saturated fat. Unfortunately, they added other processed fats and chemicals (instead of saturated fats) to make sure they tasted the same.
Heart disease rates remain high because those chemicals and processed fats are not any better for you. Sometimes they are worse. In the end, we fill up shelves of foods that look healthy but really aren’t.
The reality is when looking at whole foods vs processed foods, there is one clear winner (ahem… whole foods).
How to Switch
In my years of working with people to change their eating habits there have been 2 major barriers: 1) Lack of time and 2) lack of cooking skills.
I have spoken with countless people that live off processed, convenience foods, and takeout restaurants. Cooking has become a lost art for many families. It doesn’t take a ton of time to cook (but it does take some time and energy to learn).
Most people say cost is a barrier. In reality, cooking can be much more affordable than buying processed foods. You just need to plan accordingly.
I never knew how to cook, and never watched anyone cooking growing up. Both my parents worked long hours. I still remember when I started searching for recipes. If you are anything like me that was a horribly overwhelming experience.
What helped me best was taking a cooking class. I’m not saying the ones where you learn a bunch of recipes. I’ve had those classes too, and in the end they aren’t very useful. While they were fun, I do not have hours to make fresh ravioli and truffles.
I believe that classes which focus on the foundations and basics of cooking are the most helpful. For example, those that start with how to correctly hold a knife, and how to choose the correct pan for your meal. It’s also important to know exactly what temperature to use and the right technique to use to cook anything from kale to steak. I knew nothing in the beginning. Building that foundation is essential.
My personal favorite platform for this has been Rouxbe. You can check them out here and see what you think.
Take your time to learn how to cook easy and healthy meals. That will make transitioning to whole foods a piece of cake. Of course, a totally whole grain cake, but cake nonetheless.