12-Step Program to Cut Processed Food

I admit it. I love sugar. I eat less sugar than I used to but I still eat it. And although I don’t believe sugar is as addictive as cocaine, food manufacturers certainly seem addicted to the stuff—or at least to the huge profits that added sugar enables. A University of North Carolina survey found that 68 percent of processed food in grocery stores contains added sugar. So maybe the food manufacturers need to attend PA (Processed Anonymous) meetings and not us, the consumers.

Before I explain my 12 step program, we need a definition of processed food. Once I have washed and trimmed a carrot I bring home from the farmers’ market, I have processed it. I don’t consider that processed food. While the rare troll I get on Twitter—the troll’s platform of choice—might take exception to my use of the phrase “processed food,” I think most of us know what I mean—the packaged junky stuff in the center aisles of the grocery store, the dead food devoid of nutrients, full of sugar and often plastered with health claims: “low sodium,” “no high fructose corn syrup,” “natural” or “gluten-free” (on a food that has never been anything but gluten-free).

Most people know how real food differs from processed food. Here in the US, we used to have labeling laws to distinguish the two:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food that was, well, an imitation. Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.’ ” Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out. — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

The 12 Steps

Stick with the following rule of thumb and you can skip the rest of this post: avoid buying food in shiny plastic packaging. While you’re at it, avoid buying food in matte plastic packaging also because some plastic packaging now does have a matte finish in order to pass itself off as more natural and paper-like. I’m sure you’ve seen the stuff.

I’ve ranked these steps in a bit of a how-much-work-is-all-of-this-going-to-require order.

1. Start slowly

If you eat lots of processed food, don’t white knuckle it and kick the habit all at once. That will lead to failure, binge eating of processed food and probably a stomach ache. Take baby steps.

Difficulty level: Low to minimal. You may find taking that first step the most difficult.

2. Examine what you currently eat and make one easy cut

When auditing your diet, if you notice you eat one energy bar nearly every day, stop eating one energy bar nearly every day. Once you have eliminated your energy bar habit, keep going. If you eat many other processed foods, remove another one from your diet. 

Difficulty level: Very low. This step is almost a freebie. It’s not difficult.

3. Drink more tap water

Unless you live in Flint, Michigan, you can do this. You will save time and money, improve your health and reduce your waste. I’m not suggesting you drink only water. I don’t. I also drink tea brewed from looseleaf, kombucha, ginger beer and other natural sodas in moderation (well okay less moderation in the tea department…I need a vice…) and a bit of nut milk. My partner drinks coffee made in a French press.

Difficulty level: Low. If you have a soda addiction, you may find this one difficult. My mother has guzzled diet cola for decades. She has tried to give it up several times but to no avail.

4. Introduce more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet

Add an apple to your breakfast or, in your lunch, pack celery with peanut butter (not Jif or Skippy—choose peanut butter that contains only peanuts and if desired, a bit of salt) or sauté a side of string beans for dinner. Viola! Because you can eat only so much food in a day, you’ve just pushed some processed food off of your plate!

Difficulty level: Low. If you live in a food desert, you will find this step challenging. However, if your grocery store has a decent produce section, you can tackle this one pretty easily. If you have a good farmers’ market, even better. Find your farmers market in the US through Local Harvest.

5. Read labels

Ideally, you will buy food without labels. But remember, you will start this slowly (see #1). You won’t cut everything all at once. So when you buy processed food, go for minimally processed food. Read the ingredients on the label. I know a woman who won’t buy a food if it contains more than five ingredients. Make sure those ingredients actually are food, not polysyllabic substances that you would never stock in your pantry.

Difficulty level: Low, although you may have difficulty pronouncing those polysyllabic substances. If you find something with a huge list of ingredients, look for a different item.

6. Replace pasty carbs with whole grains

Refined grains are, well, more refined than whole grains. They contain no bran or germ—the nutritious parts. Pasty carbs include cookies, cakes, processed breakfast cereal, white bread, white rice and so on. Whole grains include whole wheat, rye and spelt flour, oats, whole wheat couscous, buckwheat, barley, bulgur and brown rice. But brown rice contains more arsenic than white. Sigh… Find out more about arsenic in rice in this Consumer Reports article. If you don’t want to eat rice, you have many other grains to choose from.

Difficulty level: Low to medium. I won’t lie and promise you you won’t miss or crave pasty carbs if you currently eat them often. But you will likely feel better if you do cut them. This step mostly requires making different choices but not more work. When you buy bread, choose whole wheat. If you bake bread, bake with mostly whole grain flour (I still add a bit of white because I want my dough to rise).

7. Cut the fast food

I don’t think I need to explain this one. If you cut fast food, you’ll also have to do #8.

Difficulty level: Medium-low. This step does require basic skills on how to feed yourself because you will need to replace that fast food with something.

8. Learn to cook

Yes, if you cut processed food, you’ll spend more time in the kitchen. But you need not make anything elaborate. When you do cook, double or triple a recipe. Embrace leftovers. They taste delicious. If you truly hate leftovers, freeze some of that giant batch of whatnot and enjoy it in a few weeks. Share the work with roommates. Get the kids involved. Cook with your partner over a glass of ginger beer.

Difficulty level: Medium. This may depend on your point of view and skill level. But do as Julia says and everything will turn out.

9. Plan your meals

To avoid resorting to pizza delivery at the end of a long workday when everyone is tired and hungry and you all need to eat asap, do a bit of planning ahead. You don’t need to come up with a comprehensive plan to cover every morsel of food you’ll consume for the entire week. But if you prefer to plan that way, then please do so! Here is a blog post on simple 4-step meal planning. I usually plan a couple of meals at a time. I can stretch those two meals to four dinners and a couple of lunches (I love leftovers). 

Difficulty level: Medium-low. In order to plan your meals, you need to know how to cook your meals. It’s sort of a pastured chicken and egg conundrum.

10. If you eat meat, dairy and eggs, choose minimally processed from pastured animals

In 2015, the World Health Organization labelled processed meats—in other words meat that is preserved in some way—as “carcinogenic to humans.” This is the packaged stuff like hot dogs and luncheon meat (those shiny packages again).

Less processed than most milk, local-to-me St. Benoît milk is non-homogenized and pasteurized at the lowest temperature allowed by law (and it comes in returnable glass bottles). The Jersey cows that produce this milk graze on pasture 365 days a year. “Milk from cows that graze on grass—versus eating a grain-based diet on feedlots—is a better source of heart-healthy fats and certain antioxidants.” As Michael Pollan says, “You are what what you eat eats.”

Difficulty level: It depends. Let’s say medium-high. I can find minimally processed and pastured anything where I live. You may not. Pastured meat, dairy and eggs do cost more money than industrially produced meat, dairy and eggs. Inhumane practices such as cramming so many hens into a cage that they can’t move and leaving the lights on 24/7 to encourage continuous laying result in more and thus less expensive eggs.

I pay through the nose for eggs at my farmers’ market and am happy to do so because I know the hens are treated well. They run around outside, doing what hens do. Occasionally I get free eggs from friends who have backyard hens. The egg yolks of pastured hens are a beautiful orange color because the hens eat what hens are supposed to eat—bugs, worms, seeds, grass, the occasional small rodent.

I also pay a premium for the milk I buy to make yogurt. Overall, I spend less money on food than I used to though.

11. Make knock-off processed foods

Miss your favorite snack foods? Look up recipes for homemade versions. This is why Google exists. I just searched “oreo cookie recipe” and this recipe from Splendid Eats came up :O I want some…

Because baking homemade Oreos requires much, much, much more work than just running to the store and buying Oreos, you’ll eat fewer Oreos. How can that be a bad thing? I’m pretty sure you’ll also appreciate those homemade Oreos more. Cooking makes you respect and appreciate food and all the work that goes into producing it. This is especially true for the cook and even for the eaters (usually).

Difficulty level: Medium to high. I’m probably never making these Oreos. They look like a lot of work. My daughter MK makes delicious graham crackers. Those taste delicious and look easy to make. My sourdough crackers taste a bit like Cheez-Its—but contain no cheese. They don’t require much work but you’ll need a sourdough starter to make them.

12. Don’t strive for perfection

Eating a donut occasionally won’t kill you but worrying too much about your health can make you sick. Just do your best.

Difficulty level: From very low for the laid-back to very high for perfectionists—and recovering perfectionists.

Congratulations on completing this 12-step program to cut processed food. Now, take a look at your trash. You’ve generated much less, haven’t you? When you cut the processed food, you cut your waste and vice versa.

27 Replies to “12-Step Program to Cut Processed Food”

  1. Thanks Chef. This listicle is quite helpful. I am far from being zero-waste but I am taking baby steps in making lifestyle alterations. I agree with Julia Child’s quote; I noticed that I am more”energised” to cook when I purchase fresh ingredients. I definitely get that spike of creativity.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Lillian,
      I’m glad you found the list helpful 🙂 I agree with you about the fresh ingredients. They are much more inspiring to cook with.
      ~ Anne Marie

  2. Wow! This was very useful to me. I especially like the one where you encourage us to buy food with limited ingredients and real food as ingredients. Thank you! Keep writing!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you found the post useful.

  3. Great article! However I disagree with one statement. Whole wheat bread will rise. It takes longer and requires some patience. I have a grain mill and make it often. My first few tries were less.than successful because I was used to making white bread. Same experience with sour dough. I had to learn patience.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Myrta,
      Thanks 🙂 Do you use 100% whole wheat? I do 80% to 85% whole grains and use white for the rest. I have a small hand mill and grind up small amounts with it. I love the flour.
      ~ Anne Marie

  4. Thank you for this post! I am not 100% zero waste yet but I am trying. I find I get a bit frustrated with the process, for instance, ordered reusable straws online and they arrived wrapped in plastic…feels like I am one step forward, two back most days…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Stephanie,
      Thanks for reading it 🙂 I remember when we first started, we were so excited about what we thought was our first plastic-free dinner. Then we spied a cheese wrapper. We felt a bit deflated but compared to how we had been eating before the switch, the meal was a huge success. It takes a while to get the routine down. It took us at least a few months and the routine constantly changes. Some new challenge will present itself. Usually I find these fun to solve though. Keep up the good work!
      ~ Anne Marie

  5. I’m so pleased to discover your blog! You’ve encouraged me to level up! =)
    Do you use tap water to make your kombucha or sodas? It seems like chlorine-free filtered water is always one of the recipe ingredients so I’ve been going out of my way to buy a gallon of spring water or chalking up my failures to the tap water.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Tricia 🙂 Yes, I use tap water. I do have bamboo charcoal filters (well, they actually absorb impurities rather than filtering them out) but they don’t filter out chlorine. If you have lots of chlorine in your water, you can fill a vessel with water and leave it open to the air for half a day or a day (you can tie a cloth around the opening to keep out flies and dirt) and the chlorine will dissipate.
      Enjoy!
      ~ Anne Marie

  6. Great stuff! “Read labels Read labels Read labels”… I couldn’t agree with you more. Almost everything in the supermarket these days have chemicals inside. Really need to pick and choose well!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks, Angela. Chemicals and added sugar, and then more chemicals! ~ Anne Marie

  7. My favorite line was, Worrying too much about your health can make you sick.” May I please use it in my blog? I will give you all credit due, Of course!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hello, sure, feel free to use it (and thank you). I’m sorry I have taken so long to respond. I just noticed a bunch of comments on this post now :O

      1. No problem! I guess it’s that time of year. I’m way behind in my blogging. Spring has me hopping!

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        I know the feeling!

  8. Never had cocaine but had so many relapses with sugar, I am convinced it may well be just as addictive. Thank you once again for the inspiration.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      My pleasure Allegra 🙂 Thanks for reading. ~ Anne Marie

  9. I had to laugh at your “one rule” because while we were in the city this past weekend, we visited the most amazing Asian market and everything in the produce department was packaged like meat – styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. I had never seen anything like it.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sara,
      That sounds like a ton of packaging! If only produce had its own natural packaging :/
      ~ Anne Marie

  10. I love this simple twelve step program – inspirational and practical – thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you!

  11. […] 12-Step Program to Cut Processed Food […]

  12. Some great ideas here 🙂 Over the last month or so, I’ve been avoiding the plastic bags for fruit and veg and avoiding as much packaging as possible! I’ve definitely seen the amount of rubbish and recycling decreasing as a result- thanks to this blog! All the best, Ryan

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Ryan. I’m glad you find the info on here useful. Those different choices (loose rather than packaged) really add up 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

      1. It’s slowly but surely! Going back through some of your posts I have missed lately!

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