Healthy Eating 101, Part 2 – Bad News about Processed Food

top view of french fries on white backgroundWhen I started thinking about this series of posts, I didn’t intend to talk much about processed foods.  I wanted to keep the series positive and to emphasize simple changes we can make to improve what we eat.  But then the New York Times Magazine published an amazing and provocative article about the processed food industry, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” and my plans went out the window.  I thought I knew a lot about the big food companies and the products they produce to “feed” Americans, but this article left me wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  So for Part 2 of Healthy Eating 101. let’s talk briefly about processed foods, which will set us up to focus in Part 3 about real and whole foods.  (Here’s Part  1 – Get Organized and Make a Plan, if you missed it.)

For our purposes, the term “processed foods” refers to foods that have been significantly altered from their natural form, usually through a manufacturing process.  Very often, the manufacturing process removes important nutrients and adds salt, sugar, fat and/or preservatives.  Although many foods need to be “processed” in order for us to consume them (homemade whole wheat bread, for example), the foods we need to worry about are generally packaged, boxed, canned, frozen or served in restaurants or through drive-thru windows.

What did the New York Times investigation find?

The article provides a glimpse into a four-year investigation of big food manufacturers by Times reported Michael Moss.  (His new book – Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us – details the complete investigation.)  One of his key findings is this – not only have the “big food” companies hooked us on foods that are bad for us, they did it on purpose.  They used science, research and marketing to create a demand for foods they knew were bad for us.  Here are just a few astonishing quotes from the article:

  • “What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort – taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery store aisles – to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”
  • “…the food industry already knew some things about making people happy – and it started with sugar.  Many of the Prego sauces…have one feature in common:  the largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar.  A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies.”
  • “…the next question was how to expand the franchise (Lunchables), which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food:  when in doubt, add sugar.”
  • “In an effort to control as much market share as possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans – where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average…”

That’s just a small sample, but you get the idea – food manufacturers are not looking out for our health.  Okay, fine.  At least we know where we stand.  So the burden is on us to make sure that we and our families eat well.  It’s a big job, but  I think we’re up to the task.

So how do we get started?  The first step is to look carefully at what we’re feeding our families, in terms of processed foods and fast foods.  Start reading labels.  How long is the ingredient list?  Generally, the longer the list, the more processed the food. If you can’t pronounce most of the ingredients, it probably isn’t a food you want to eat.  How much sodium does it contain?  (A majority of people should eat less than 1500 mg per day, and everyone should eat less than 2300 mg.)  How much sugar? (The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 g of added sugar per day for women, and no more than 37.5 for men.)  How much fat?

If your family is eating a lot (or even a moderate amount) of processed food, the next step is to figure out why.  Is your schedule so hectic that you don’t have time for anything else?  Are you too tired to cook?  Don’t know how to cook?  Don’t have any healthy recipes?  Or maybe you’ve just gotten into an unhealthy pattern.  Sit down and really figure out what’s going on with your family’s eating.

Then, figure out what you can do to change the pattern.  Start small – maybe eliminating one fast food meal per week or cooking one meal from fresh ingredients.  Clean out your pantry or cupboards and get rid of things you really don’t want your family to eat.  Start reading and gathering information about replacing processed foods with real foods. Good books include Real Food by Nina Planck and Food Rule by Michael Pollan.  Healthy eating blogs that encourage me and give me great ideas include Juggling Real Food and Real Life, My Sister’s Pantry, and The Empowered Momma.  Begin by taking small steps to wean your family off processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, fat and chemicals.

In Part 3 we’ll talk about reasons to eat more whole and real foods, and ways to incorporate them into your life and in Part 4 we’ll talk about simple strategies for getting started.  In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts about the American diet, food manufacturers, processed foods, or the difficulty of eating well in the midst of a busy schedule.  Please share your thoughts in the Comments.

(Have you downloaded a copy of my free ebook17 Ways to Live Calmer, Healthier and Sexier – Starting Today?)



  1. says

    Food is big business is the US and many of the big companies have no shame when it comes to selling their products. It is so sad. Thanks for the great information and getting the word out.

  2. says

    I think we do a pretty decent job of staying away from processed foods and balancing fresh with processed. It’s the sugar that still creeps in and is something that still gets us. My hubby can’t seem to kick his sugar habit…ugh.

    • GC says

      Hi Erlene – Yes, sugar is tough for me too. I really have to watch it carefully. I find that if I stay away from it for a while, it becomes easier to stay away from it (and vice versa!).


  3. says

    I do fairly well staying away from prepackaged foods and cook things from scratch as often as I can. I don’t eat out hardly ever so no problems there. I think I need to sit down and try to better organize my meal plan and blog ideas.

    • GC says

      Hi Chrystal – Staying organized with meal planning is my number 1 challenge. When I have that under control, our eating is great. When I don’t, it’s hard to predict what we will eat!


  4. says

    I have known for a long time what processed foods do, and when I don’t eat them I feel wonderful and I lose weight. My problem is I am addicted to sugar. If I get a little taste of it, then it go hog wild. I am trying to do my best to avoid processed foods. I hope your post will help keep me on the right track.

    • GC says

      Thanks Betty – Yes, I tend to have the same reaction to sweets – when I eat them I just want to eat more!


  5. says

    Wow. That just makes me angry. The awareness of what processed foods can physically and mentally do and yet going ahead anyway. There are some selfishly messed up people in high places out there.

    • GC says

      I know – I have to keep myself from getting angry and just focus on feeding my family well.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  6. says

    Hi! Stopping by from Empowered Living Social. :)
    I’m so glad you wrote this post because many of us only look at the nutrition label on our foods- not the ingredient list. I started our “real food” journey about a year ago with small changes, and I feel so much better about what I’m giving my family. Excited to keep following you and to read the rest of this series.


    • GC says

      Thanks Jess – Yes, small steps are the key to this journey, at least for me.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  7. says

    I have been able to get to the point where I no longer buy processed foods, except on rare occasion. I am pretty proud of that, even though my kids hate me for it. :)
    So happy to see you on the Medical Monday grid again! Great post!

  8. says

    Thanks for linking up with medical mondays. One of these days I will consistently eat the way I should. Instead I do really well for a while and then a box of Oreos is calling my name. But all we can do is try again tomorrow, or in my case the next time I go to the grocery store.

    • GC says

      Thanks Sarah – I know – it’s sobering and somewhat enraging! Like you, I’m just focusing on being informed and making good choices for my family.


  9. says

    We do not eat processed foods and I think the adjustment is at first difficult, but once we got used to it, not at all. Trader Joe’s has great “processed” foods that I do buy, my daughter loves the dried peas- ingredients- peas and sea salt, love it there!
    Visiting from SITS!

  10. says

    The salt issue is the worst. I am shocked at how much sodium is in food now that I carefully read all the labels. I prefer to eat fresh but that gets so expensive. I try to balance it as best I can for my family.

    • GC says

      It’s definitely a question of balance. I don’t have the money or time either to do everything I’d like to do regarding food. So I do the things that seem like they will benefit my family the most.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  11. says

    I’ve recently switched my food blog over to be self-hosted which I hope will make it more user-friendly in the future. As a result, if you were following Can’t Stay Out of the Kitchen via email, WordPress, or using RSS feeds through Google Reader or some other way, you are no longer subscribed. If you wish to continue receiving future posts from my blog you will need to re-subscribe. Sorry for the inconvenience, Teresa.


Please leave a comment - I would love to hear from you!