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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you’re looking to reach and maintain a healthy weight, one of the first steps is usually making changes to your lifestyle. This includes exercising, minimizing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep (Parmar, 2021).
However, the most important lifestyle change to fight weight challenges is looking at your diet. While there are many different, popular diets to choose from, one of the simplest choices you can make is to focus on replacing processed foods with those closer to their natural state.
Here are some tips for how you can recognize processed foods, why you should reduce them in your diet, and a list of minimally processed foods to support your healthy eating plan.
What are processed foods?
Almost everything that you eat has been processed in some way. This can include removing inedible parts, filtering, cooking, pasteurizing, refrigerating, or vacuum sealing the food. These processes make our food safe to consume, more suitable for storing, or more pleasant to eat (Monteiro, 2018).
When healthcare researchers refer to reducing the number of processed foods in your diet, they’re usually referring to ultra-processed foods. These are foods that have been majorly altered from their natural state. They often have higher amounts of saturated fat, sugar, salt, and sometimes flavor or color additives. This typically results in ultra-processed foods having less fiber and fewer vitamins than minimally processed alternatives (Fiolet, 2018).
During the past few decades, consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased dramatically in many countries, with the U.S. leading the pack. Some surveys suggest that these foods account for 25% to 50% of daily calorie intake, which can have several negative health consequences (Fiolet, 2018).
No studies have shown a connection between ultra-processed foods and beneficial health outcomes. However, several studies have shown that health benefits were associated with diets higher in minimally processed foods and limited ultra-processed foods (Elizabeth, 2020).
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Whole foods vs. processed foods
NOVA is a food classification system that groups foods according to the amount of industrial processing they undergo. It looks at the physical, biological, and chemical processes used after foods are separated from nature but before they are eaten (Elizabeth, 2020; Monteiro, 2018).
Under the NOVA system, foods are divided into four categories based on their level of food processing (Elizabeth, 2020):
- Unprocessed foods or minimally processed foods
- Processed culinary ingredients
- Processed foods
- Ultra-processed foods
An analysis of 43 studies looked at ultra-processed foods and health outcomes and found that 37 of the studies reported at least one adverse health outcome associated with eating ultra-processed foods. Positive health outcomes were associated with diets higher in minimally processed foods (Elizabeth, 2020).
Diets high in processed foods have been associated with many unwanted health conditions such as (Martínez Steele, 2016; Parmar, 2021):
- Insulin resistance
- Weight gain
- High cholesterol
- Fatty liver
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
You can help prevent some of the negative health consequences of eating ultra-processed foods by switching them out for whole foods and minimally processed foods in your diet.
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List of minimally processed foods
The NOVA food classification system considers unprocessed or minimally processed foods to be the edible parts of plants, animals, fungi, and algae that have just been separated from nature (Monteiro, 2018).
You can prepare these minimally processed foods at home, or you can find them in many (non-fast-food) restaurants. They can be served on their own (for example, as a salad) or combined with processed culinary ingredients (such as olive oil or butter) to make more complicated dishes or meals (Monteiro, 2018).
Some common examples of minimally processed foods include (Martínez Steele, 2016; Monteiro, 2018):
- Fresh fruit
- Frozen fruit
- Fresh-squeezed fruit juices
Any edible seeds, leaves, stems, or roots of plants including:
- Whole grains
- Oatmeal (without added sugars)
- Granola (without added sugars)
- Brown rice
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- Fish (grilled, baked, roasted, or broiled)
- Fresh or frozen shellfish
- Pulses (beans, lentils, and peas)
- Red meat (grilled, baked, roasted, or broiled)
- Poultry (grilled, baked, roasted, or broiled)
- Plain yogurt (without added sugars)
Processed foods to avoid
According to the NOVA classification system, ultra-processed foods often contain “additives used to imitate the qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods… or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product” (Martínez Steele, 2016).
While this description doesn’t sound tasty at all, it means that these foods often have added ingredients to make them taste good while covering up the fact that they don’t offer much in the way of nutrition for your body.
Check the nutrition facts label or ingredient list for these examples of highly processed foods and ingredients (Fiolet, 2018):
- Foods with added sweeteners such as corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup
- Preservatives such as nitrites
- Artificial flavors and colors
- Additives such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, and protein isolates
- Breakfast cereals with added sugars
- Snacks such as potato chips that often contain trans-fats
- Sodas and other sweetened drinks
- Packaged desserts and snacks
- Instant noodles or soups
- Frozen or shelf-stable, ready-to-eat meals
- Meat products such as chicken or fish nuggets
- Cured meats such as hot dogs, pepperoni, or deli meats
This doesn’t mean that you can never have these foods or ingredients as a treat. It just means that you should choose less processed foods most of the time for a more balanced diet and better health.
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Getting help with your diet
It’s always a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider before making any major changes in your diet. They can provide you with a referral to a nutritionist or registered dietitian in your area who can help you incorporate more minimally processed foods into your diet.
- Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P., & Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review. Nutrients, 12(7), 1955. doi: 10.3390/nu12071955. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399967/
- Fiolet, T., Srour, B., Sellem, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Alles, B., Mejean, C., et al. (2018) Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ, 360 :k322. doi:10.1136/bmj.k322. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322
- Martínez Steele, E., Baraldi, L. G., Louzada, M. L., Moubarac, J. C., Mozaffarian, D., & Monteiro, C. A. (2016). Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open, 6(3), e009892. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4785287/
- Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J. C., Levy, R. B., Louzada, M., & Jaime, P. C. (2018). The UN decade of nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 5–17. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017000234. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28322183/
- Parmar, R. M. & Can, A. S. (2021). Dietary approaches to obesity treatment. [Updated 2021 Oct 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Dec. 13, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK574576
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.