Let’s first define processed food. Processed food is anything that is changed from it’s original state. Technically, if you take a banana and strawberries and blend them to smithereens with your VitaMix, that is now a processed food.
But wait, you say, isn’t that a little extreme? Well, yes, but for our purposes here, and for yours going forward, let’s just think of processed food that way…as anything that’s been changed from it’s original state. An apple…not a processed food, while apple juice is a processed food. Cooking a potato is processing a food. Steaming broccoli is processing food.
Okay, now we’re straight on that, let’s examine why consuming processed food is likely sabotaging any plans you may have to lose weight:
- Processed food is full of sodium -unless you’re the Sherlock Holmes of label reading, standing in the canned food aisle with a magnifying glass and a silly hat, you likely have no idea how much added sodium is in processed food. Take canned black beans, as an example. I dare you to find one that doesn’t have at least 500 mg of sodium per serving. It’s tough to do. How about bread? Good luck finding one with no added salt. Most pasta is also full of salt. Why? Because adding salt provides two very distinct benefits for food companies that want to sell more food – it is a preservative and it makes food taste good (which makes people buy more of said food). You can easily verify this by taste testing a reduced salt vegetable soup. I can guarantee it won’t taste very good.
Sodium, while a big benefit to food companies and their bottom line, is not quite as kind to your body. Excess sodium results in inflammation, water retention and can even be an appetite stimulant. What? Oh great, so in addition to making me feel bloated and puffy, it can also make me want to eat more? Wait, won’t that make it REALLY DIFFICULT TO LOSE WEIGHT?
Your body does need sodium, which it can get easily from unprocessed foods. Unfortunately, the average person takes in north of 3400 mg of sodium per day, while the recommended amount is 1500 mg or less. So where are those nearly 2000 additional milligrams coming from? Since nearly everyone I know claims they don’t salt their food, then it must be coming from, you guessed it, highly processed foods.
If you think you’re safe because you eat no processed foods but you eat out all the time, think again. Restaurants are notorious for cooking with salt, both to enhance flavor but also to keep up with the “average” consumer, who is taking in 3400 mg of sodium a day. Restaurant fare is designed to appeal to the masses, so salt, sugar and fat are used seemingly without restriction. For this reason and a million others, I hate eating out.
Guess what doesn’t have added sodium? Well, not much, but you’re pretty safe with raw, fresh fruit and vegetables. You know, the unprocessed stuff. They also don’t have a label, so you can get rid of that silly hat and magnifying glass. Oh, and even better, eating fruits and vegetables is not an appetite stimulant. Actually, because they’re so high in fiber and water, they actually suppress your appetite. As any real food should, right?
2. Processed food is calorically dense – processing food, by changing its form, either by cooking or blending or juicing, will make it more calorically dense. When trying to lose weight, calorically dense food is not your friend. Unless you enjoy feeling like you’re starving. Highly processed foods like olive oil are super calorically dense. It takes up very little room in your stomach. It doesn’t make you feel full, despite being very high in both fat and calories. Eating rich foods that aren’t satiating is not the recipe for success you need if you’re looking to lose weight.
Blending and juicing foods is a form of processing. It also makes it super easy to overindulge. Imagine sitting down to eat 8 bananas. It sounds nearly impossible. But if you blend those 8 bananas with water, you can easily drink down that smoothie quicker and easier than you can possibly eat all those bananas. So leave smoothies and juices for once-in-a-while situations and just eat the fruit or veggies you planned on blending instead. It’s just too easy to ignore your natural satiation signals when you blend and juice food. For more on satiation signals and how highly processed foods completely bypass those, read the awesome book The Pleasure Trap.
Cooking food is also a form of processing. Cooking, whether baking, steaming or frying (please no), removes water from the food and changes it’s structure and resulting nutrient content. It also makes it more calorically dense and thus harder for your body to signal satiation.
3. Processed food dehydrates you – the more processed a food is, the lower the water content. Think of high water content, unprocessed foods – like watermelon, oranges and lettuce. They all have north of 90% water content. Now think of highly processed foods like crackers, bread and those ridiculously good Girl Scout Cookies. All have very low water content. When you eat these highly processed foods, your body has to pull water from somewhere in order to digest them, resulting in dehydration.
Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger pangs, which can lead to eating when you’re really not hungry…which by the way, CAN MAKE IT REALLY HARD TO LOSE WEIGHT. So the solution isn’t to eat those processed foods and drink more water. The solution is to not eat those foods, drink water when you’re thirsty, and eat high water content fresh fruits and vegetables. You might actually find, as I did, that you don’t need to drink nearly as much water if you’re avoiding processed foods and eating fresh, whole, ripe produce. Always try and get your water from your food first, then from drinking fresh, filtered water (from your own reusable container, of course).
If weight loss is your goal, or even if you just wish to make the healthiest choices possible, eliminating processed foods from your diet will turbo charge your progress. At the very least, choose the least processed option with the least amount of ingredients.
You’ll know you’ve made progress when you reach the point where the majority of the food you eat doesn’t even have a label.