You’ve heard it said before, but it’s no less true: these days, it can be tough to eat well. Most of us are constantly on the go, bouncing from one task to another with practically no time to stop and eat a proper, nutritious meal. More often than not, we end up grabbing whatever we can to sustain our appetites until we can catch enough of a break to eat something that we know is good for us, but even then, we often fall back on eating some form of processed food. While a lot of experts will tell you to avoid processed foods as much as possible, processed foods are not necessarily all bad. In fact, some actually can be healthy for you.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says a large number of foods we eat have been processed in one way or another. “All foods exist somewhere on a spectrum of processing,” she said. “Some can be completely unprocessed, meaning we eat it just as it is found in nature. This can include foods such as fruits, vegetables and eggs. Other foods can be highly processed. These are items such as chicken nuggets, chips and Twinkies. Most foods, however, fall somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum,” Tillman explained. “The goal is to eat more minimally processed foods. Remember, just because a food has been processed, does not mean it is bad for you. Sometimes ‘processing’ simply means slicing, dicing, precooking, freezing, culturing or blending,” she added.
“More often than not, the more processed a food is, the less nutritious it is,” Tillman said. “This is not always the case, though. For instance, the absorbability of lycopene – an antioxidant vitamin – is higher in cooked or canned tomato products than it is in fresh tomatoes. Plain yogurt is a form of processed milk, in this case by bacterial cultures. It retains milk’s protein and calcium content, while gaining probiotic benefits as a result of processing,” she explained. “Some processed foods, such as canned pumpkin puree or frozen spinach, lose negligible amounts of nutrients from processing, and are nearly as nutritious as their fresh counterparts,” she added.
Tillman says examples of healthy processed foods are easy to find, and that you may actually already have some in your pantry. “In addition to canned tomatoes, canned beans are a great source of fiber and protein. Aside from some salt added during the cooking and preservation process, there are no real additions that come from the processing. Oats also are a processed food, but they really begin with a whole oat that is then steamed and rolled, so they can be a great source of fiber, as well. Frozen vegetables and fruits can actually benefit from processing and freezing, because their nutrients get sealed in, so if you have a hard time getting your recommended allowances of fresh fruits and vegetables, remember to keep a stock of frozen alternatives available. Peanut butters or almond butters go through some processing, but often just a little bit of salt is added to them. Those can be sources of protein and healthy fats, as well,” Tillman explained. “Finally, even though they are processed, some cereals can be healthy for you. Try to look for cereals that contain more natural ingredients, and avoid cereals that have a lot of sugar added,” she said.
Ultimately, Tillman says eating all natural all the time can be tough to accomplish. “It’s always good advice to tell someone to try to eat more whole, real foods and fewer processed foods, but we have to be realistic,” she said. “You definitely should try to do that, but keeping some healthier processed foods on hand can help you have a well-balanced diet,” she explained.