Ten realistic ways to eat less processed food

Processed foods have their place, and there’s no reason to cut them out of your diet completely.

However, cutting back on processed foods is one of the best things you can do for your health and wellbeing. People who eat more whole, unprocessed foods tend to have a lower risk of chronic diseases, maintain a healthier weight, and even live longer on average. Minimally processed foods also retain more beneficial nutrients and are often more filling and satisfying.

Processed food vs ultra-processed food

The terms ‘processed’ and ‘ultra-processed’ are often used in discussions about food and nutrition, and they are frequently associated with negative connotations. So, what exactly makes a food item processed or ultra-processed?

It’s important to note that unless you are consuming vegetables straight from your garden, most of the food you eat has undergone some form of processing. However, this isn’t necessarily a cause for concern.

Processing food involves altering its natural state for various purposes, such as extending its shelf life, ensuring safe storage and consumption, enhancing its flavour, or even boosting its nutritional value.

Common food processing methods include pasteurisation, canning, fermentation, freezing, and dehydration.

Ultra-processed foods go beyond simple preservation or preparation. They are industrial formulations typically made from substances extracted from foods (such as oils, fats, sugars, and starches) and may include additives such as artificial colours, flavours, emulsifiers, and preservatives. These foods are designed to be convenient, hyper-palatable, and often have long shelf lives.

When a food is classified as ultra-processed, it means that the manufacturer employs industrial-scale techniques and ingredients that you might not recognise or use in your own home cooking to create the final product.

Here are some common examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • sugary beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks and energy drinks
  • sweet or savoury packaged snacks such as chips and biscuits
  • sweetened breakfast cereals and sweetened oatmeal
  • baking mixes such as stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes
  • reconstituted meat products such as hot dogs and fish sticks
  • frozen meals such as pizza and microwave dinners
  • powdered and packaged instant soups
  • sweets and other confectionery
  • packaged breads and buns
  • energy and protein bars and shakes
  • meal replacement shakes and powders meant for weight loss
  • boxed pasta products
  • ice cream, sweetened yoghurt, and cocoa mixes
  • margarine and other ultra-processed spreads such as sweetened cream cheese.

Eating a diet high in processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats are classified as Group 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organization.

How to reduce processed foods in your diet

1. Stock up on healthy snacks. Instead of grabbing a packaged snack, keep nutritious, whole food snacks on hand such as fresh fruit, raw vegies and hummus, mixed nuts, or hard-boiled eggs. Spend a few minutes prepping snacks in advance so you always have healthy options ready to go.

2. Swap refined grains for whole grains. Trade white bread, pasta and rice for whole grain versions to instantly boost the nutrition and fibre in your meals. Swap white rice for brown and experiment with ancient grains such as quinoa, farro, and barley.

3. Make your own versions of processed favourites. If you love potato chips or granola bars, try making them from scratch using simple whole food ingredients. Homemade versions are often healthier, tastier, and easier than you think. You can control what goes in them and avoid unnecessary additives.

4. Replace sugary drinks with infused water. Soft drinks and other sugary drinks are a major source of processed sugar in the diet. Swap them for water infused with fresh fruit and herbs for a naturally sweet, sugar-free beverage. Start gradually replacing one sugary drink per day and work up from there.

5. Prep meals in advance. Cooking meals from scratch is much easier when you prep ingredients or cook in batches ahead of time. Pick a few simple recipes to make each week, then portion them out for easy meals all week long. You’ll be less tempted by processed convenience foods or to pick up fast food when you’re hungry and not in the mood to cook.

6. Include vegetables in every meal. Make it a rule to include at least one vegetable every time you eat. Toss spinach in smoothies, add capsicum to your omelette, mix cauliflower rice into stir fries, or just enjoy cut up raw vegies on the side. The more vegies, the less room for processed food.

7. Clean out your kitchen. You can’t eat processed foods if they’re not in your house. Clear out chips, biscuits, microwave meals and other highly processed items. Then restock with nutritious, minimally processed whole foods. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store where the freshest foods are sold.

8. Find healthy swaps. Instead of going cold turkey, replace processed items with healthier alternatives. Trade sugary cereal for oatmeal with fruit, microwave popcorn for air-popped, bottled dressing for homemade vinaigrette, and croutons for nuts and seeds. Get creative and find swaps you enjoy!

9. Eat less processed meat. Bacon, sausage, hot dogs and deli meats are some of the worst offenders when it comes to processed foods. Swap them for fresh meat and poultry, fish, eggs, or plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu. Your heart and gut will thank you.

10. Don’t go cold turkey. Cutting out processed foods doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, making small changes over time is the best way to form lasting healthy habits. Each week, focus on one or two of these strategies. Gradually work up to more whole foods while still enjoying your favourite treats in moderation.

Remember, processed foods can still be enjoyed occasionally as part of a balanced diet. The key is to base the majority of your meals around nutrient-dense, minimally processed ingredients. With these simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to eating cleaner, feeling better, and enjoying real food more than ever. 

What strategies have you found effective in reducing processed foods from your diet? Share your tips and stories in the comments section below.

Also read: Forget counting calories – just focus on these ‘medicinal’ foods, says expert

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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