Navigating Nutrition Part One: Processed Food

“Avoid processed foods” is common nutrition advice given out these days. It is a well-intentioned, sound suggestion that seems easy enough to follow…assuming you know what the term “processed foods” means. As it turns out, there is no easy definition of “processed foods”. Most foods we eat are processed in some form or another unless you’re eating it straight out of the ground.

The degree of processing is what most people are talking about when they use this term, and even then, there is no set list of things to avoid, and some processed items are better than others. Generally speaking, this refers to anything that comes in a package, but doesn’t usually apply to things such as milk or whole beans in a can. Confused yet? Who can blame you?

So why is this advice out there? One reason is that it can be very easy to overeat packaged goods. A box of cookies can disappear in an instant, and no time was taken to prepare them. Another reason for this advice is the number of unfamiliar ingredients used in our “food” these days. For example, maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and artificial flavors are all common ingredients found on nutrition labels. Do you have any idea what they are? This isn’t some big exposé, I’m just pointing out that you might not know what you are putting in your body. Lastly, processed foods tend to have a lot of sodium or sugar added in, which isn’t good for us.

It might not feasible to go “package-free”, so here are some rules of thumb to simplify things:

  • Only choose foods with 5 ingredients or less.
  • Make sure you know what each ingredient is, and how it’s made (knowing that something is made “from corn” or “from soy” doesn’t tell you how it’s made).
  • Check the nutrition label for the amount of sodium (look for items with 150mg or less per serving).
  • Choose items with no added sugar. That means NONE of the following ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, dextrose, maltose, sucrose, molasses.

Do your best to buy whole foods and do the processing yourself, but when you need to buy things in a package, be sure to check the labels!

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