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I Gave Up Processed Foods for a Year and This Is What Happened

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On the morning of the first day I tried to give up processed foods, I sliced up organic strawberries and a banana, covered them with Greek yogurt, and added honey and flaxseed. Just as I was about to take my first bite, it occurred to me that the flaxseed in my cabinet was blueberry-flavored. A quick look at the label revealed that in addition to milled and roasted flaxseeds and blueberries, the package contained cornstarch, maltodextrin, cane sugar, natural flavors, and soy lecithin. 

The second time I tried to go unprocessed, I learned just how hard it is to find chocolate without processed cane sugar or soy lecithin, an emulsifier extracted from soybean oil. I spent more time in the condiment aisle at the grocery store than I could ever have imagined, reading ingredient labels and wondering what on earth is natural flavor? (Psst: these 9 Common Foods Contain Toxic Ingredients.)

The third time I gave up processed food, however, it stuck. In January of 2012, I set myself a challenge: one year of unprocessed eating. The first question you might ask—besides “but why?” and I’ll get to that—is “what makes a food processed?” Cooking is a process, as is dicing, heating, fermenting, and preserving; indeed, many foods are processed and often they are better for it. But many times, they are not. For the purposes of my year, a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my own kitchen. I could grind wheat berries into flour, but, short of storming a chemistry lab, I couldn’t separate the wheat germ and bran from the endosperm. So no refined flour. If I wanted to make table sugar at home, I’d need a centrifuge, bleach, and a few de-clumping additives; honey required only figuring out how to collect the plant nectar that bees regurgitate onto honeycombs. I didn’t brew beer, but I theoretically could have; I gave up soda and bought myself a SodaStream for my bubbly fix.

Now for the why. There were environmental and economic reasons—by eating unprocessed, I hoped to situate my sustenance just a little closer to home, to keep my food dollars in my own community, where I hoped they might be visible, scalable, and accountable. And, of course, there was my health. Many of us know that we’re not eating as well as we could be—but it’s a confusing world out there, one where every new nutrition study seems to contradict the previous one. But the lesson to take from many of these studies is that whole food is better than fiddled-with food. And eating unprocessed food was an easy way to conceptualize eating healthier—it required only that I eat foods that were integral and intact.

While I had a few false starts, eating unprocessed soon became second nature—helped by the fact that, conveniently, real food tastes better than fake food. After my year of unprocessed eating ended, I gleefully returned to store-bought chocolate chip cookies and diet soda, only to find that they now tasted of chemicals and left my stomach unsatisfied and cranky. If, at the beginning of my year, everyone asked “what’s processed?” then at the end, they asked “how do you feel?” The answer: I felt stronger in mind and body. And mostly, I felt full. Before my year-long challenge began, I’d been dieting for over a decade. I had lost weight, but in the process I’d lost something in my relationship to food. And frankly, I’d been hungry too much of the time. But when I focused on unprocessed food I rarely felt hungry. After a food passed the “is it processed?” test, I let myself eat however much filled me up. I learned how to listen to my stomach. I ate a lot of delicious food, and I didn’t gain any weight. I thought about food a lot, but also, I thought about it way less—it became so much less fraught, so much more fun. (Fun is finding a food truck that sells unprocessed waffles.)

You don’t have to eat unprocessed for a year to reap the benefits. Try it for a day, a week, or a month. Start by reading the ingredient label on everything that ends up in your shopping cart. (Familiarize yourself with these 7 Crazy Food Additives You Probably Missed on the Nutrition Label.) Buy foods made of only one ingredient—oats, milk, honey—and combine them yourself at home: oatmeal! Consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture program—summer is the best season—for a great organic veggie bang-for-your-buck. Buy organic dairy, or locally raised meat, or additive-free tortillas. Cook—or find your equivalent of an unprocessed waffle food truck. You don’t have to do it all, or all at once. But you can start.

Megan Kimble’s is the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

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