You’ve probably heard that you should limit processed foods in your diet, but might be wondering exactly what those foods are—and how to cut back on them. Many packaged foods are full of ingredients you can’t pronounce and are loaded with sodium, sugar and unhealthy saturated fat, so it’s worth trying to avoid them when possible. Here are some simple swaps you can make to cut back on unhealthy processed foods. And, because not everything that comes in a box or plastic tub is bad for you, learn which packaged foods can actually be part of a healthy diet.
—Lisa D’Agrosa, M.S., R.D.
Trade cereal for oatmeal. Many cereals on the market are packed with sugar and/or missing out on fiber. Sure, you can pick a healthier breakfast cereal (and there are plenty of healthy choices), but oatmeal is a whole food with only one ingredient—oats. If you stick to plain oats—not the type that come in flavored packets—you’ll get 150 calories and 4 grams of fiber per ½-cup serving. Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which can help lower your cholesterol, prevent your blood sugar from spiking and keep you feeling full. Add some fruit for natural sweetness and even more fiber, milk or Greek yogurt for calcium and protein and a dash of cinnamon or vanilla for extra flavor—and you have a satisfying and wholesome breakfast.
Trade your salad croutons for nuts. A salad can be a very healthy lunch—but watch out for the toppings. Croutons add a nice crunch, but they also add sodium, fat and calories without a lot of extra nutrition. Instead of those processed cubes of toasted bread, add some nuts to the top of your salad. They’re full of heart-healthy fats, and also add some protein and fiber. Another way to clean up your salad is to make your own healthy, homemade salad dressing. Bottled salad dressings can have lots of added sugar, sodium and ingredients you can’t pronounce; instead, try making your own. To make a super-healthy salad into a filling meal, add a source of lean protein, such as chicken or fish, and a serving of whole grains, like quinoa or brown rice.
Trade canned soup for homemade soup: Canned soups often have long ingredient lists and are full of things you wouldn’t add to a homemade pot of soup. Plus, they’re notoriously high in sodium. While opening up a can is easier than starting from scratch, you can still have a healthy, homemade soup on the table in 30 minutes (try some of these quick, healthy soup recipes). If you don’t have enough time to prep soup for dinner some nights, cook up a big batch of soup when you have time and freeze it in individual portions—ready to be reheated for a healthy dinner in a flash. You can cut back on other processed foods by cooking them at home too. Think homemade pizza instead of a frozen box, and stir-fries instead of takeout. You can use fresh, healthy ingredients and will know exactly what you’re eating because cooking lets you control what you’re actually having for dinner. Cooking at home can be just as convenient as using packaged foods—and a lot healthier.
Not everything that comes out of a package is unhealthy. Many foods that are served in plastic bags, boxes or cans—like dried beans, bagged salad greens, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables (without added sauces, salt or sugar)—are minimally processed and healthy. Plain, low-fat yogurt, natural peanut butter and canned wild salmon should make it into your grocery cart too. When you’re shopping, look for foods with short ingredient lists with names you recognize and can pronounce before purchasing an item to be sure it doesn’t fall in the unhealthy processed-foods category.