Cut out processed foods in 7 steps

The change from eating tons of dirty processed foods to cleaning out your diet and eating unprocessed foods can be a long and daunting process for many people. Many of us grow up with certain eating habits grounded in certain food philosophies and it is incredibly challenging to break out of these bad ways.

But first we need to know exactly what constitutes processed foods. At face value it’s pretty simply; any food that isn’t in its natural form, something that doesn’t look the way it did in nature, or something that doesn’t exist naturally on its own. But in reality the most unassuming food items are in fact loaded with chemicals, extra salts and too much sugar, which makes it difficult to keep track. For this reason, the best way to make sure of what you’re eating is to keep a critical eye on the ingredient labels of anything you buy; if there is any ingredient in there that you’re not familiar with it is probably an unwanted chemical.

These chemicals, added preservatives, and hints of hormones can disrupt your own hormone levels, increase toxin levels in the body, make you gain weight, increase your risk for heart disease and cancer. Many additives are quite insidious as they can actually change the profile of the foods, making them incredibly addictive and thus harder to say no to. But the taste of processed foods and the instant gratification they afford are not worth all the strain they can put on your body. 

Kari Jonker, a registered dietitian from Kelly Lynch Dietitians in Cape Town, gives us some sage advice on how to dodge the evils of processed food in our daily lives. 

1 Find your food philosophy

Jonker says the most important step is educating yourself. “You need to become aware of what’s in the food you eat, and then decide what you actually believe about food. Choose a philosophy that suits you and your lifestyle, because if you are trying to bant, but you are also trying to paleo, but you are scared of fat so much that you prefer fat-free foods then you are confused. Figure out what you are going to do with your meals and find a philosophy that can guide you,” she says. Our perceptions of food are too orientated around how quick and easy the meal can be, but often there are so many things we can do with unprocessed foods that are just as satisfying and efficient. Start by getting information, talk to a dietitian, learn to shift your thinking towards what is nutritious (and delicious) rather than only delicious.

 2 Keep a food diary

Keeping a food diary is helpful as it can help you get an idea of what you are eating and how much. Often people don’t even know how much processed foods they are eating, but logging those details can move you closer to health consciousness.

3 Plan, plan and plan some more

This is the part where you re-establish your old habits of eating whatever is available, or turning to what you’re used to, instead of what you know is best for you. If you’re used to quickly and mindlessly picking up a sandwich or packing in some rolls for lunch then you need to break that habit by planning what you eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between. This can help you avoid coming home so starving that you reach for the quickest and easiest; pasta or some refined, canned rubbish. Planning can help you avoid becoming so hungry and rushed during the day that you grab a quick bag of instant gratification. To plan, pick a day when you are more relaxed, like a Sunday, or even the day before and write down all you will need and all you will cook. Preplan your shop too, so that you get the right foods for the week. The diary should help with deciding how to structure your meals better as well.

4 Make it interactive

Make the cooking part fun and relaxing, especially if you have children. Bring the ingredients into the home and get the kids involved in making the bread, rolling the date balls and most importantly learning about food. Many of our food choices are related to what we grew up with. For example, if parents buy and eat white bread and processed cheese then that is most likely what you will one day buy and eat. Becoming aware of these dynamics in the home can improve the habits and thinking that is formed around food from early on. Plus by making the food an activity – for you if you are alone or for the family – it can act as a de-stressor and help build a deeper appreciation for the things you make your body digest.  

 5 Swap out when you dine out

A lot of the foods at restaurants are processed, so find out about what you are eating, and then swap out. Sacrifice your burger bun for extra salad, ask for the Caesar salad without the croutons, drizzle lemon juice on your sides instead of ketchup or dressing. Swapping out should also happen when you shop; instead of cold meats shop for fresh, uncooked, uncured meats and roast them at home over the weekend which you can then cool and cut up for sandwiches. Speaking of bread, look for organic varieties with whole grains listed as the first ingredient – the closest to unprocessed you can get. For cooking stay away from processed oils such as canola and margarine, instead try olive, coconut or almond oil/butter.

6 Cut back to cut out

The trick is to cut back slowly at first, getting rid of the easy-to-cut foods that you eat every day first and then moving on to the more undercover ones that you love so much. Over time you can cut them out completely and then the processed foods you think you crave will be completely yuck. By eliminating one food at a time, you will be surprised at how easy it is to actually eat clean.

7 Don’t be too hard-core

You aren’t going to get this 100% right all the time. It’s important to not become so strict that you end up binging and ultimately failing. Go slowly and be kind to yourself. You can decide how strict you want to be. An average person doesn’t have time to soak their own beans, that’s ok. When you go out or eat at friends and family, you are allowed to have a small portion of the nachos they made, but just bulk up with more of that salad on the side. Once in a while is totally fine. This world is basically one giant processed ball of sugar and salt anyway, and if you hate yourself for rolling along with it for one tiny second then that’s not healthy either. Ultimately you just need to establish a healthy relationship with unprocessed foods and you are good to go.


We need to eat food to nourish our bodies and as soon as we start adding things or taking things away and processing foods through a billion steps we lose a lot of the natural and very valuable nutrients. If we go back to eating food the way it comes out of nature we can get all the nutrients we need without thinking too much about what we are putting our body through. Basically as humans, we were created to eat from the Earth, not from a factory.



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