Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.
You’d be hard-pressed to make a case for eating processed foods. But considering processed foods are staples of most people’s diets (technically, everything from baby carrots to whole-grain bread to yogurt to poultry is processed somehow), the idea of cutting them out completely is completely overwhelming.
There are tons of processed foods that are actually still healthy, even if they contain tongue-twister ingredients. (Consider this: You might be alarmed by a word like ‘cyanocobalamin’ in an ingredients list, but that’s just a chemical name for vitamin B12.) So while you don’t need to nix all the processed foods from your diet, there are some—we call them ‘highly-processed foods’—that you really should consider cutting out.
Highly-processed foods are the ones laden with unhealthy trans (hydrogenated) fats, sugars, sodium, additives, colorings, and preservatives. They also often lack fiber and other important nutrients, like antioxidants, that help support our health. In fact, diets laden with highly-processed foods spike our risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, digestive issues, and cancer, and they contribute to obesity.
Cutting out these highly-processed foods can keep your waistline from expanding and generally make you feel better inside and out. I know it’s easier said than done, so I’m here to help you clear up any confusion, shop smarter, and clean up your diet step by step.
Days 1-2: Make Friends With Food Labels
With thousands of products to choose from every time you step foot in the supermarket, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Reading just one food label can be confusing, let alone five! It’s no wonder that just 13 percent of Americans always read food labels, even though 61 percent are concerned about calories, sugar, salt, and fat in packaged foods, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.
The first step toward making the best food choices for you is feeling comfortable reading a food label—and I promise you don’t have to be a dietitian or mathematician to do it. Just look out for a few general red flags when scanning a food label.
Most importantly, the ingredient list: If a food lists some form of sugar (like brown rice syrup, cane juice, or anything ending in ‘-ose’) or a refined grain (anything not labeled as ‘whole’) as one of the first ingredients, or contains any trans fats (they’ll be identified as ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially-hydrogenated’), it’s not a healthy option.
How you prioritize the rest of numbers on a label depends on your particular health needs. If you have blood pressure issues, for example, you need to watch sodium; if you have blood sugar concerns, you need to watch sugar; if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to watch calories.
A dietitian can help you fine-tune your shopping for your individual needs, but avoiding those red flag ingredients is a huge step in the right direction.
Days 3-4: Make The Most Of The Middle Aisles
We’re often told to ‘shop the perimeter of the grocery store,’ where we’ll often find whole foods like produce, dairy, meat, and poultry. Often we associate the middle aisles of the supermarket with two-liter bottles of orange soda and giant backs of cheese doodles. Yes, it’s true that the center aisles house many highly-processed foods, but if you look closely, you’ll also find healthy foods like beans, nuts, and cereals that are easy on your budget, easy to store, and even easy on your waistline if you choose wisely.
Some of the middle aisle staples I stock up on: whole grains like brown rice, farro, and quinoa, canned tuna fish, all-natural no-sugar-added peanut butter, canned tomatoes, and canned beans like chickpeas and black beans.
Related: 10 Foods Nutritionists Always Have In Their Pantries
When shopping the middle aisles for these foods, be wary of added sugar or tons of sodium. Steer clear of canned fruit or veggies that list sugar in the ingredients and rinse veggies and beans before using. By rinsing canned beans, for example, you can ditch up to 40 percent of the sodium listed on the label.
Days 5-6: Revisit Your Creamer
If you look forward to half-and-half with a few packets of sugar or flavored creamer in your coffee, you may be taking in lots of excess sugar, fat, and more. Many flavored creamers are made with artery-clogging hydrogenated trans fats and artificial flavors, too. While you may not be pouring a full cup of the stuff into your coffee, if you’re drinking multiple mugs a day, the calories, sugars, and fat really add up.
Step one: Ditch any creamer that contains added sugar or anything artificial.
Step two: Try diluting half-and-half in skim or almond milk.
Step three: Slowly switch over to just skim or almond milk. Before you know it, you’ll acquire a taste for a less-sweet cup of Joe and appreciate the rich, robust aroma of your coffee even more.
Days 7-8: Be A Sugar Sleuth
One of the biggest issues in packaged foods—and in our diets—is sugar. It’s often added to boost the flavor in low-fat and fat-free foods, but adding sugar to these foods can actually be more harmful than just keeping the fat. Sugar gets metabolized by our body quickly, so when we eat sugary foods we often don’t feel satisfied and end up overeating, gaining weight, and increasing our risk for related health issues.
Scouting out added sugar can be a little tricky, because not all of the grams of sugar in a product are necessarily ‘added.’ Foods like milk and fruit contain naturally-occurring sugars along with their other nutrients, and are an a-okay part of your diet. Meanwhile, the added stuff offers little to no nutrition along with a higher risk of developing heart disease or diabetes.
To determine whether there’s added sugar in a food, you need to look at the ingredients list—just don’t always expect it to be spelled S-U-G-A-R. Sugar has been a master of disguise for decades, so you might see it listed on labels as molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, organic cane juice, among many other names. (Check out some of its other fake identities here.) The closer sugar (and its aliases) are to the top, the more sugar the food contains and the less worthy it is of making it into your cart.
Days 9-10: Shake The Salt Habit
If you’re shunning the salt shaker but still eating a lot of highly-processed foods, you’re probably not cutting down on sodium as much as you think. Most of the sodium in our diets actually comes from highly-processed foods—even those we don’t identify as ‘salty,’ like baked goods. (A NYC bagel, for example, contains more than 750 milligrams of sodium!)
Related: Are There Any Benefits To Eating Salt?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest we limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams—or about one teaspoon of salt—per day. Whenever possible, purchase ‘low-sodium’ soups, sauces, olives, pickles, and pre-made dishes, which 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving.
Days 11-12: Overhaul Your Freezer
The freezer is often home to some of the least-healthy eats in the house, so first things first: Chuck anything that contains any of the food label red flags we talked about on days one and two. Sodium, unhealthy fats, additives, and preservatives run rampant in many frozen meals, sauces, and other foods.
Then, replace those foods with basic staples, like frozen berries and other fruit for smoothies, frozen mixed veggies for soups, and frozen edamame for snacking. When you buy frozen foods that contain just the fruit or vegetable you’re looking for, you set yourself up for healthy meals on-the-fly later on.
Some frozen produce packs even more nutrients than its fresh counterparts, because it’s harvested and frozen at the height of freshness. Meanwhile, fresh produce often travels across the country or globe, sits on the shelf at your local store, and then sits in your fridge until you’re ready to serve it. All that exposure to the elements (varying temperatures, light and air) takes a toll.
Days 13-14: Go Whole Grain
‘Wheat flour’ doesn’t say much about the grain your bread, pasta or cereal is made of. When grains are highly-processed—think white bread, pasta, and crackers—only some parts of the grain are used, stripping the end product of essential nutrients.
Whole-grain foods, though, use the entire seed—the bran, endosperm, and the germ. So while refined grain foods are often stripped of important nutrients and may increase risks of developing diabetes and heart disease (notice a pattern here?), whole-grain foods provide fiber and other nutrients that help keep you feeling full satisfied and offer heart and digestive health benefits.
Make sure any grain-based products in your cabinet list ‘whole-grain’ or ‘whole-wheat’ as the first ingredient. That goes for breads, pastas, crackers, cereals, and even baked goods. And don’t be fooled by the “multi-grain” term on many labels. While this indicates that a product contains more than one type of grain, it doesn’t mean those grains are whole grains.
Related: Shop for wholesome snacks like pretzels, crackers, and cookies, made from ingredients you can trust.