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 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.