Tag Archives: healthy foods


How Unprocessed Do We Need to Be?

First things first: I’m not one of those dietitians who hates all processed foods—you won’t find me proclaiming the evils of food processing from the aisles of the local Whole Foods or farmer’s market. Nevertheless, I was intrigued enough by the concept to purchase and read Megan Kimble’s Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food...

And it confirmed what I thought already: striving to eat a completely unprocessed diet is ridiculous. At least for me it is. Reading Megan’s account of her attempts in this regard, however, were interesting, informative and entertaining. But, it left me shaking my head and wondering what the point really was, in the long run—especially because not all types of processing render the food overly-handled, devoid of nutrients or laden with added substances that might be better avoided.

Unprocessed book

While this is not a book review exactly, the reading of this book is what prompted me to think more about choosing processed foods. Her goal it seems, was to see if she could figure out where to draw the health line in the food processing continuum. Which processed foods are so minimally processed that they are fine for the body and the planet, and which could she firmly stamp as unacceptable—and for those she was going to avoid, how would she make do without them and what would she swap into their places?

There’s processing and then there’s processing

Not all processed food is bad for your health, and the author of Unprocessed acknowledges that. Obviously, there are levels of food processing, and I’m a big fan of some of it. Food processing started out mainly as a safety measure—one that would keep food fresher longer and prevent food-borne illness. Who can argue with freezing as a processing step that preserves food safely?

Let’s face it, pretty much all food purchased at supermarkets these days is processed in some way. According to a recent study from the University of North Carolina, 61% of the food we eat is “highly processed.” Even fresh fruits and veggies are processed—which many people consider to be unprocessed, but aren’t: they’re washed, sometimes treated to prevent spoilage, trimmed, cut up into different shapes, and often packaged either at a manufacturing facility or in-store. Obviously, fresh produce is minimally processed. Lots of foods are more obviously processed, such as cereals, crackers, breads, candies, pastries and snack foods, canned foods of all kinds, and of course, frozen convenience foods—even the ones from the more health-conscious or organic brands. So when we talk about “processed food” we need to realize that it’s a very inclusive term; one that includes plenty of really healthful foods that we should be eating more of, not trying to remove from our plates.

Processed food can help me eat better

Yep. You heard me. Without some help in getting food to my table, I’d be less likely to eat some of it (and I don’t think I’m alone in this view). It would take too long to shell all the beans and peas I want to consume, there’s no way I will crack nuts and seeds by hand the rest of my days, and you couldn’t pay me to take meat and poultry from live animal status to plucked, skinned, trimmed and ready-for-the-grill status.

Waiting for salt to appear from seawater she collects in a pail and grinding her own wheat by hand—these are not activities I see myself doing (though I did enjoy reading about her trials and tribulations in do so). I don’t have a book project prompting me to do these things, after all! In many cases, Kimble chooses the path of complete processed food avoidance, finding it easier to abstain completely than make some small allowances while not letting her efforts slip away. Not eating something at all when one cannot figure out about absolutely every ingredient in it sounds easy, but in real life, it isn’t, she finds. How does one eat out at all? How does one not spend all day sourcing and preparing food and ingredients? It all sounds like a decent into drudgery to me. I prefer to eat well and healthfully, and enjoy myself too.

Unprocessing your diet

Many people could improve their diets substantially by making just a few smart choices in the quality of food they purchase—and none of these choices require all-day (or multi-day) effort. Megan Kimble gives some good examples of how to do this right up front in her book, including:

  • Buying food that doesn’t need a label at all—fresh produce.
  • Next, choose single-ingredient foods (those for which the ingredient list is just one word long—or maybe two): rolled oats, cream, navy beans, wild rice.
  • Choose which ingredients you want to avoid before you start shopping. You’ll save yourself some agonizing decisions while standing in Aisle 9.

Other ideas that might help you unprocess:

  • Opt for locally-produced foods when you can (many are made the “old-fashioned way” using whole food ingredients and therefore have fewer additives, etc)
  • Frequent farmer’s markets and look for signs at the supermarket for “home grown” or “local farmer” items
  • Check out smaller local shops (they will frequently have more small-batch products that may be less processed than supermarket versions)
  • Grow your own produce, if practical
  • Learn to can/preserve foods if you have that interest (or barter something with a friend who does like to do those things)

Fruit vs. Veg

Everybody knows that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a smart health move for a variety of reasons. I recently ran across two different articles that discussed produce consumption trends and ideas, and a couple days ago a meta-analysis compared organic vs traditionally-farmed produce and the media gobbled that right up. All of these make me wonder—do the differences between the nutritional merits of fruit and vegetables really matter overall?

All produce is not created equal

I follow Yoni Freedhoff‘s blog called Weighty Matters and one of his staff RDs wrote a post entitled “Newsflash! Fruits are Not Vegetables.” I instantly knew what it was going to be about, but I clicked through to read it in its entirety anyway—just to see if I was right, of course, but also because this is something I’ve thought about a lot in my own eating life and when feeding my children (especially when they were little).

The gist of the post was that if one ate the recommended allotment of fruit and veg daily, but ate it all as fruit, one would most certainly take in far more calories than if one had consumed some or all of it as vegetables. Not a newsflash by any means (and the author certainly acknowledged that his title was tongue in cheek), but I agree with his point of view that we are fooling ourselves if we believe that nutritionally it doesn’t matter. Just because fruit and veg are grouped together in food guides does not mean they are equal (just like all grains are not equal, etc). They are not equivalent in nutrients of course, but most certainly not in calories either as he points out. Then again, even within the fruit category, nutritional differences abound. And the same can be said of vegetables (here’s where the old greens comparison of Iceberg vs Spinach or Romaine comes in). Ok, so more veg and less fruit is the answer. Not so fast.

Unadorned fruit vs doctored veggies

There is other research that shows that the people who eat more fruit tend to have a healthier weight than those who eat predominantly veggies? Surprised? I was…initially. It’s surmised that it’s because in order to make veggies more appealing, we cook them differently (fried) and/or cover them with cheese sauce or butter or otherwise compromise their nutritional merits. So at least in the weight control department this is the state of affairs. The simple answer, of course, is to learn to eat veggies in their more natural state. It doesn’t have to be raw, but it should be more simple. Give yourself and your kids a chance to learn to like the taste of the actual vegetables!

How much produce do YOU eat?

Keep track for a few days and just simply tally the servings of fruit and vegetables that you eat in the day. Making it mostly veg and a couple fruit servings is a good goal. If you’re not sure how much produce you or your kids should be eating, check out this handy fruit and veggie calculator. Sadly, the older that children get, the fewer servings of fruits and veggies they consume overall. This tells me that parents are trying to get their little ones to eat some produce (yay!) but as kids start choosing their own foods, the appeal of fruits and veggies diminishes. It also tells me that there is hope for fixing this, provided it’s done while kids are young. If they get used to eating fruit and veg at each meal it will be more natural for them to continue that habit as they get older. (I still have to sometimes remind my own two teens to include a fruit at breakfast for example, and luckily they both like salad so they often get that at school and then of course our dinner includes vegetables, too). As for grown-ups, try to find ways to work in fruits and veggies without making a big fuss over it. Here are a few ideas that everyone can benefit from:

  • Always put fruit on your cereal
  • Keep prepped veggies in a bag or bowl in your fridge so they are handy for snacking or adding to sandwiches, etc.
  • Start dinner with a salad
  • Visit your local farmer’s market weekly to be inspired and stock up—take the kids along!
  • Add grated vegetables (carrots, zucchini, beets etc) to things you’re already making, such as soups, pasta sauce or casseroles/mixed dishes
  • Serve vegetables or salad before the rest of the meal—when you’re hungriest

So does Fruit vs Veg matter really?

I think in this country at least, since the majority of folks don’t consume nearly the recommended amounts of fruits or vegetables (according to the CDC) it probably doesn’t matter as long as we are getting some of both. The focus should be on getting MORE produce and being less picky about what it is exactly. Aiming for 2 fruits and 3 servings of vegetables per day is the goal, but more certainly wouldn’t hurt us. Starting infants on veggies before fruits can be helpful, or mixing them together works, too. As kids get older, serving veggies in different ways (my daughter likes frozen peas and also frozen grapes, and we puree a lot of vegetables soups for a change of pace) is fun and shows that it’s ok to mix things up a bit. As for us older folks, eating seasonally and making sure to get a variety of fruits and veggies (break out of your banana habit) will do you body good by providing it with a wider array of nutrients. Oh, and lose the cheese sauce. You might realize you actually do like broccoli the way Mother Nature intended it to taste.