I challenge you to go one full week without processed foods. Can you do it? What would you eat? How would you feel? These are questions worth finding the answers to. It's only a week... try it out...
Most of know we should 'eat better'. What does that mean?! Well the first step in living healthier and eating a better quality diet is to clean up your foods. 'Clean' eating generally refers to reducing the amount of processed foods and extras in your diet. Even if you think you eat pretty well, chances are you could do better by cleaning things up a little more. The cleaner we eat, the more our bodies benefit from the calories we give it. Cleaner calories are more nutrient dense. They energize the body without making it feel sick and sluggish.
Athletes are at risk more than the general public for eating high amounts of packaged, processed foods. We are busy people, always training, going from runs to work to group rides to pool workouts... the easiest thing to have a gym bag full of snacks to get your much needed calories right?! You are likely to fill your pockets with pre-made bars, gels, and chews to keep you fueled through long workouts. Sure, you need the calories, the energy, but does your body need all those preservatives, colors, flavors, etc...? Not likely.
1. Take Inventory
You can’t expect to know where to start if you do not know your biggest problem areas. I advise this step especially for those who say 'oh I eat pretty well, I don't do processed foods'. You may surprise yourself. Look through your pantry, freezer and fridge. What do you have that is heavily processed? Loads of sauces? Ziplocks full of deli meats and cheese? Boxes of frozen dinners?... Whatever you see the most of is where you should begin to cut down on.
Eating less processed foods generally means cooking more. Don’t let this stress you out. Pick a few meals to focus. Limiting your varieties allows you to refine the ingredients that go into them. Try to pick 3-5 breakfast, lunch and dinner options and work on making them with less processed ingredients.
3. Shop Smarter
Walk the perimeter of the grocery store first. That area is not without its flaws, but it safer than the rest of the store. Go a little beyond that and look for natural marketplaces or farmers markets in your area.
4. Single Ingredients
The easiest way to shop smarter and reduced processed food intake is to look for groceries that are not in a package and have a small number of ingredients. Single ingredient foods are best; apple, oats, almonds, tomatoes, chicken breast, tuna…
5. Improve your ratio
No need to go all or nothing, but the more you can reduce your processed food intake the better. Instead of having a sandwich with chips and a soda, have the sandwich (processed bread/meat/chz) with an apple and water. Or if you’re making a pasta dinner, use the processed pasta but with diced tomatoes, fresh garlic and herbs instead of a jarred premade sauce. Not 100% clean but you’ve improved!
6. Sport Food
If you assessed your diet and you eat all your food from your own garden and other fresh sources, but see that you consume a heap of sport food for your training, its time to clean that up. Take the extra step. Make your own gels (honey!) Make your own chews (dates!) Make your own sport beverage (water + agave + chia + lime + salt!).
Apple juice – highly processed, about 4 apples per cup, lacks fiber.
Apple Sauce – moderately processed, most have added sugar.
Apples – Skip the rest and eat the actual fiber filled fruit.
Corn Flakes – cereals are highly refined and loaded with sugar.
Corn Chips – Can be fried and loaded with sodium.
Corn – Complex carbohydrate, filling and high in fiber and nutrients.
Soup mixes – contain dehydrated vegetables with lots of sodium and preservatives.
Canned Soup – High sodium and fatty meats.
Homemade Soup – Use fresh vegetables and lean meats or beans/legumes.
Chicken Nuggets – Just pass on these!
Sliced Deli Chicken – Just look at it, chicken doesn’t look like a big loaf of condensed meat. Loaded with nitrates and sodium.
Whole Chicken – Roast with lemons and herbs. Shred the meat and use throughout the week.
‘Meatless’ strips (or nuggets)– any variety is going to be loaded with preservatives.
Tofu – Slightly processed, but not too bad.
Edamame – filled with phytonutrients, fiber and deliciousness.
Boxed Flavored Rice - There are barely any recognizable ingredients in here!
White Rice - Its been refined a bit, but won't be too damaging if eaten occasionally.
Sprouted Brown Rice - nutty and nutritious.
Ranch Dressing - The expiration date alone tells you its heavily processed.
Organic Vinaigrette - Better option.
Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar - Keep a few varieties and mix with herbs/spices.
Having a clean diet will allow your body to process calories and nutrients more efficiently. You might lose weight, but more importantly you will feel stronger, faster, leaner and reduce other health risks.