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Is it okay to eat processed foods?

The focus on healthy eating has shifted to a whole foods, minimally processed diet. But when someone says, "I try to avoid eating processed foods," what does that even mean? While it may be relatively easy to identify some processed foods like fast food, frozen entrees or boxed macaroni and cheese, it can be tricky to determine which foods you should consume minimally and which foods can be part of a balanced diet. Here are some things to consider:

What is a processed food?

The dictionary definition of "processed" is: to perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations in order to change or preserve something. That means simply chopping a vegetable is a method of processing it, as is peeling an orange, turning milk into yogurt or shelling peanuts. Minimally processed foods such as milk, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned tomatoes or beans are preserved of their nutritional quality and freshness. Moderately processed foods might include salad dressing, jarred pasta sauce and yogurt. Ready-to-eat foods are more heavily processed—think crackers, deli meat, frozen entrees or frozen pizzas.

What's wrong with processed foods?

Processed foods often get a bad rap because the more processed an item is the more "extras" like sugar, fat, sodium and unrecognizable ingredients it will have compared to its less processed counterpart. For example, milk is a minimally processed food, which can be processed into cheese—which can be processed even further into a cheesy snack like cheese curls. That cheese curl is going to contain more sodium, fat and unrecognizable ingredients—and less of the vitamins and minerals that the original whole food item had.

So, is it okay to eat processed foods?

Absolutely! Minimally and even moderately processed foods can be beneficial to our health, especially in fortified foods which have nutrients added during processing. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, lean cuts of meat or nuts and beans, whole grains, milk, yogurt and cheese are all foods that provide us with the necessary daily nutrients and still fit into a "whole foods, minimally processed" diet. There's even room for some heavily processed foods once in a while. Just look at the big picture and follow the 80/20 guideline; eat out of physical hunger and to nourish your body 80-90% of the time. Eat for pleasure, to indulge in a craving 10-20% of the time.

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