When I was in my 20s, I knew I had to learn how to stop eating processed foods if I wanted to avoid future health complications.
My diet was terrible.
Fresh off of my teenage affinity for canned and fast food, I was becoming a young adult fueled mostly by things that came in boxes and bags.
This was long before I was vegetarian or vegan, so there was no restriction to anything I ate. The more sugar, the better.
Miyoko Schinner, Queen of Vegan Cheese, has this to say about processed foods:
Yes, I was one of those indoctrinated people!
Keeping the Evidence Hidden
Back then, my favorite thing to do after a long day of school and a longer night of working was buy an entire Entenmann’s chocolate sheet cake on my way home. This was my reward for getting through the day. I’d eat half of it straight out of the box in one sitting.
When the store was out of sheet cake, I’d get low fat Twinkies instead. Half the fat, twice the chemicals, and three times the artificial sweetener! Then I’d eat half the box of eight Twinkies in one sitting.
At least I knew that if I continued ignoring this awful habit of “rewarding” myself with empty calories, this could become a huge problem. I also knew that I could eat straight through half a box of my favorite store-bought desserts because they were so unsatisfying. They were like giant puffs of whipped cream that looked like they should be magical, but were as gratifying as swallowing air.
Even the sweetness somehow lacked flavor. I dared not read the ingredient label because I knew I wouldn’t see real sugar on it. Or much of any recognizable food ingredient, and I couldn’t face that. So instead of facing it, I just ate it.
The Danger of Processed Foods
I didn’t like that had to hide this gluttonous habit from my three roommates by hiding cakes and Twinkies in my room. Processed food had me in its grip so fiercely that I didn’t care if I was storing half-ravaged desserts with the fork still in the box under my bed.
The starting point in my decades-long journey toward a mostly whole foods diet was wracked with anxiety, shame, dissatisfaction, and a lot of artificially engineered food chemicals.
Processed food is like a drug. It’s addictive, and it’s designed that way. There are food scientists who dedicate their lives to chemically engineering the cheap and perfect bite, with no concern at all for nutritional value.
If my story sounds similar to how you deal or have dealt with processed foods, know that you can alter your palate’s preferences dramatically. Like all powerful and lasting change, this process takes time. But it is entirely possible to wean yourself off of processed food and train yourself to crave fresh produce and whole foods.
Do I still eat processed foods?
I just have a much healthier relationship with them now, and there are many more healthier choices available today, compared with when I was 20. My personal rule is steadfast, though. Any convenience food that comes in a package should be eaten sparingly, in great moderation.
I just shared a pretty damning picture of what processed food addiction looks like.
So listen, if I was able to stop relying on processed foods, so can you!
How do you stop eating processed foods?
In three ways:
1) Become An Educated Consumer
Start reading ingredient lists on packages. Look for as few ingredients as possible. The fewer the ingredients, the better for you. Look up any ingredients that you aren’t familiar with and understand how they are made and for what they’re used.
Becoming an educated consumer just requires a shift in habit. Instead of throwing a bag of chips or a box of anything into your shopping cart next time, stop to read the ingredients list first. There will be times when you are shocked by how long the list is or by how many multi-syllabic, seemingly non-food-related words there are!
Sometimes it will be enough to give you pause and wonder, “Do I really want to put that in my body? These are chocolate cookies but I don’t see any actual chocolate listed in the ingredients!”
If you have an iPhone, you’re in luck! Check out these apps that efficiently deliver the info you need and will help you on the road to becoming a better educated food consumer. Healthy Food and Shop Well are for iPhone only:
2) Increase Your Intake of Whole Foods
Verywellfit.com defines whole foods well:
Whole foods are generally those that remain close to their state in nature. They do not have added sugars, starches, flavorings, or other manufactured ingredients. They are not primarily produced in a factory; in this way, they are the opposite of processed foods. Because they are not manufactured, they are not manipulated to be addictive. Choosing mostly whole foods will result in a nutritious diet and one that is naturally higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
How do we increase our intake of vital, nutritious whole foods?
We move on to Step 3.
3) Learn to Cook
Of course, this one is my personal favorite.
Miyoko shares valuable thoughts on the importance of cooking ourselves:
This is how we begin harnessing control over what we eat. And it can be a fun, flavorful, and exciting journey!
I had to learn how to cook when I became vegan. Buying supermarket pre-packaged vegan foods and getting takeout from vegan restaurants was simply not affordable.
It’s a complete myth that being vegan means spending more money on food. Not the case when you cook. The majority of money spent in my food bill goes toward packaged foods like sugar, flour, maple syrup, and non-dairy milk. I’m usually able to get a lot of produce for a relatively small amount of money. And, throughout this pandemic, produce has never run out the way meat and dairy has!
I felt the same way, but necessity breeds courage and determination. You’re going to improve your health by improving your food choices … or go broke trying! Well, I’d rather you not go broke by buying up pre-packged vegan dishes or constantly getting takeout.
So let’s learn how to put things together. Slowly. I didn’t know how to cut a tomato when I first became vegan. But eventually, I figured things out because I needed to eat. 🙂
A good place to start is my post Learn How to Eat Kale in a Way That You’ll Love.
You’ll not only learn about the best way to eat kale that’s delicious, nutrient-rich, and requires no cooking, but you’ll also see some very good YouTube videos on how to use a knife.
For many people, knife handling can be nerve-wracking, but these videos show you how to properly hold and use a knife to cut kale – and how to hold your non-knife hand to avoid injury!
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Essentials to Help You Get Started
First, head over to my favorite vegan recipe blog – noracooks.com.
Nora has saved me for years – at dinner time, and whenever I needed a quick dessert fix.
Feel confident starting your kitchen adventures with this blog! Many recipes are pretty beginner-friendly.
She has recipes for everything from the perfect chocolate chip cookie to baked ziti to waffles. Even with basic kitchen knowledge, her recipes are very easy to follow and work every single time. I’ve used many of her recipes repeatedly and they have always come out fantastic.
I even talk about noracooks in this post! That’s how much I appreciate her work. Visit her blog if only to take a look at the many things you’ll eventually make. Yes, you!
Making your own food is crucial in weaning yourself off of processed foods.
The first “advanced” thing I ever learned to do in my home kitchen was make cookies, because I always want to eat cookies but I was sick of feeling so blah from the processed supermarket cookies I was eating.
When you make your own cookies, you know exactly what’s in them. You can feel good about that. Just knowing what’s in your food, and that you had complete control over how your food was made, is the first step in harnessing control over an addiction to processed foods.
Samin Nosrat is not vegan. She is my favorite chef ever. There is excellent reason why Salt Fat Acid Heat is a New York Times Bestseller.
If you care about food being delicious, you will want this on your bookshelf forever. To make satisfying and memorable food, you must understand the elements of flavor and how to create the harmony among them that takes your food from “pretty good” to “f**king fantastic.” Chef Samin dives deep into each of the salt, fat, acid, and heat elements and teaches you how to use them intelligently and effectively.
It’s important to know how to develop flavor in food anyway, but this is especially the case with vegan food.
Many would-be vegetarians or vegans tell me, “…but I would miss meat sooo much.” They would miss the scent and texture of meat, the way it smells coming off of a grill. A great many of them can’t give up barbecue!
That’s why seasoning and developing flavor in vegan food is so important. We are trying to make up for the taste of animal flesh that vegan food obviously can’t provide. But we can provide other things – like outrageously, uniquely good flavor! This is the importance of knowing how to develop flavors well – by mastering the elements of good cooking, as Chef Samin says in her subtitle.
Knowing how to craft and finesse taste and texture is real cooking. It’s a sensibility that you can’t get from following recipes all the time. When making up my own dishes, I never measure – but that’s because I understand these elements. Once you get a handle on how to intermingle these elements that Chef Samin discusses, your confidence in the kitchen will skyrocket and you’ll make some amazing things.
Not only is she an amazing chef, she is also a phenomenal writer. Her tone and language is very relatable and easy to understand in this book. Chef Samin has made the art of fantastic food truly accessible! Her words are accompanied by wonderful illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.
I can’t say enough good things about Salt Fat Acid Heat. It’s an indispensable book for anyone who wants to make really good food.
Miyoko Schinner is the Queen of vegan artisan cheese with an empire of products that only seems to be gaining ground as people continue to learn more about the fantastic benefits of a plant-based diet. Miyoko’s cheeses delight even the most diehard dairy cheese lovers, and her cheeses are widely available now – even at Trader Joe’s!
This book is full of simple recipes you’ll need to have pantry staples on hand. You’ll be able to make your own milk, yogurt, and yes – even cheese. Keep in mind, however, that this might be a book you move on to slightly down the road after you get acquainted with the kitchen through noracooks.com and Salt Fat Acid Heat.
Reap the Benefits of Fewer Processed Foods
Eatthis has a comprehensive list of these benefits – including better skin and hair, feeling more energized, fewer mood swings, having the desire to work out, and easier weight loss, just to name some!
I still enjoy a small dose of processed foods occasionally. Now there are many available that contain whole foods ingredients and make the transition to healthier eating more accessible for many people. For this reason, I believe in using healthier plant-based snack bars like the ones in this post and this post as gateway foods to further explore the possibilities of a vegan diet!
Ultimately, the goal is to gather control over what you eat, so you can sustain yourself with foods that are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and flavonoids. Knowing how to work with whole foods is one of the very best ways to do that.
I’d love to hear from you!
Are you finding it difficult to eat fewer processed foods?
Are you someone who likes to cook, or stay out of the kitchen?
Do you think you might give some of these ideas a try?
Let me know in the comments!