People want convenient, tasty, simple food. I know I do. I also want my best options to be easy and obvious.

Here’s the simple argument: you’re better off eating a diet high in “whole” and “less” processed foods. That’s unlikely to come as a surprise. You can read thousands of articles about the “dangers” of highly processed foods. Many of those foods even have labels explaining how much “safer” they are than similar options.

In reality, you’re going to eat a variety of processed foods. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person. Avoiding processed foods isn‘t a realistic or sustainable plan for many people. We want simple healthy choices, but that’s a little too simple.

So let’s approach this topic with that in mind. You need to be realistic and sustainable with your decisions. I want you making choices you can feel good about. You should know just enough to choose without getting lost in a sea of information. What you don’t need are perfect decisions or iron-clad self control.

1. Aren’t most foods processed?

True, “processed food” is a vague term. Canned beans are “processed.” So are rice and wheat. Unless you plant, grow, and harvest your own crops you’ll be dealing with processing. There’s a reason we recommend a diet composed of “whole,” “minimally,” or “less” processed foods. We aren’t warning you against the hazards of steel-cut oats.

Heavily processed foods might contain hydrogenated oils, or lots of added ingredients you don’t recognize. These foods are often designed to be shelf-stable, binge-able, and appealing. They aren’t inherently “bad” but they bring complications. I think of heavily processed foods like sports cars. They can be a lot of fun, but it’s a lot easier to get in trouble with them too. They’re engineered for performance, not as a safe and sustainable daily choice.

Here’s how I like to separate foods. This list isn’t the final word on the matter, but it will give you a picture of the spectrum. If you’re not sure where a food falls, round up or go with your gut. You’re just making dinner. It’s supposed to be fun.

Whole foods

  • Nothing added, one ingredient.
  • Often looks a lot like it does in nature.
  • Corn can be shucked, carrots can be missing their tops, and you don’t have to buy a whole pig.

Minimally processed

  • Simple state changes. Veggies are pre-chopped. Legumes are canned. Chicken is filleted.
  • The food is still recognizable.

Less processed

  • Fewer than 6 ingredients.
  • Ingredients list looks like a recipe you would use at home.
  • May or may not be recognizable.
  • “Best by” or expiration date makes sense.

Heavily processed

  • Unrecognizable in some cases.
  • More than six ingredients or with names you don’t recognize or understand.
  • Ingredients list doesn’t resemble how you would prepare this from scratch.
  • Artificially long expiration date.

2. What’s good about processed foods?

  • They’re often ready-to-eat or easily prepared. This is one reason we fall back on them when pressed for time.
  • These foods are focus-grouped to be pleasurable to eat. Broccoli doesn’t have a lab full of flavor technicians or chefs working to make it a “must-buy” item.
  • Some of the digestion work is done for you. Think about a “daily greens” drink from the store. Now compare it to 3.5 servings of fresh vegetables. Which is easier to consume?
  • Calorie-dense. This can be a negative, but if you’re struggling to gain weight or bulk up, protein shakes and meal replacers can be a big help. Eating an extra 600 calories every day with only whole foods can be daunting.

3. What’s not so good?

Making healthy choices should be obvious. The more processed something is, the less obvious the ingredients become. Whole foods are the king of obvious. Take a head of cabbage. Ingredients: cabbage. You know exactly what it is, and how much you’re getting. If you need to eat two more servings of fruits/vegetables to hit your daily goal, you know what to do.

Here are some questions you might ask when looking at the back of a food box:

  • Do I know what this ingredient is?
  • Does this ingredient normally look like this?
  • How long will this item stay shelf-stable and how normal does that seem to me?
  • If I made this from scratch, would the ingredient list look similar?

That’s exhausting. Talk to anyone with a food intolerance or dietary restriction about box reading. It’s time consuming. Remember my cabbage example? Do you have to think about the impact of each item in a head of cabbage?

The more ingredients on the box, the harder your brain has to work. Processed foods aren’t “bad” but they are more complicated. At some point you have to ask whether the energy you’re using to figure out the ingredients is more work than cooking it from scratch.

Oh, and that calorie density I mentioned earlier? It goes the other way too. Whole food diets take more time and energy to eat. A diet high in “heavily” processed foods ends up bringing in about 500 more calories every day.

4. How do I manage my relationship with processed foods?

Taking control

I buy canned vegetables unsalted when I can. I don’t want to avoid salt. I want to control how much goes in. I salt “to taste,” which is my taste. Not someone else’s.

When I buy individual ingredients I control what goes into the dish. With a boxed mix, or a pre-made option, I lose this control. The boxed option has ratios of nutrients and spices I don’t get to decide on. It might also contain ingredients I wouldn’t add on my own.

With a diet high in processed foods, we also tend to eat the same things more often. Cooking with whole ingredients makes it easy to substitute vegetables or proteins to vary up your diet. It’s much harder to “eat the rainbow” when your favorite meals always come in the same colors.

You might be using a meal plan or portion suggestions. You might be trying to hit a nutrient goal. You may be recording your meals in a food diary or tracking app. In those cases, less processed foods are easier to record.

The more you care about taking control of your food, the more annoying heavily processed foods may become.

Pasta night example

My favorite recovery dinner after a workout is pasta. I’m partial to a penne with red sauce and some squash or asparagus.

Let’s grab our ingredients (in rough order of “least” to “most” processed):

For the penne I could:

  • Make it myself.
  • Buy it fresh & handmade.
  • Grab a box or bag of the dried stuff.

For the sauce I might:

  • Scratch-build it on the stove for hours with tomatoes and herbs from my garden.
  • Use a cute trick to speed that up with some store bought ingredients.
  • Buy a handmade pasta sauce from the grocery store cold case or a local restaurant.
  • Grab a jar with the smallest number of ingredients from the supermarket.
  • Run to the corner store and grab whatever they have.

The vegetables:

  • Might be garden grown if it’s in season.
  • Grabbed at the farmer’s market – also season-dependent.
  • Bought at the store “fresh” but possibly shipped in from another state or country.
  • Might come frozen in plastic bags.
  • Those are just some of the possibilities. You could break each of those options down into smaller sub-options.

Here’s what I usually do:

  1. The penne. I’m not making it myself. I don’t enjoy making pasta, and I rarely have time. I usually buy gluten-free chickpea pasta from the store so my housemates can eat it as well. It’s high in protein, easy to cook, and only has 5 ingredients.
  2. The sauce. This one depends on the rest of my day. I’m probably going to opt for the “quicker” scratch built option. I’ll start with a recipe like this one and modify it to taste. Tomatoes from the store. Herbs from my garden. Unless I’m in a rush or forgot to grab the ingredients. Then it’s canned sauce night.
  3. Vegetables. Almost always fresh. But I live walking distance to a grocery store, so that’s easy to pull off.

The key takeaway is that I don’t stress about it. I know what my options are, and I make the “best” choices (for me) that I’m:

  1. Willing to make
  2. Have enough time to make work

What I don’t do is give up and grab a frozen pasta dinner just because I didn’t have time to build an Italian gravy from scratch. Or because I didn’t plant zucchini this year. My choices exist on a spectrum, and I make them without a lot of moralizing or judgement. I want to eat the best food I can in each particular moment with the ingredients that are available.

Your choices also exist on a spectrum. Understand that if you want to eat a diet higher in whole ingredients, it’s going to be a process. You may need to reorganize your kitchen, rethink your schedule, or even learn to cook. Agonizing over your food choices isn’t going to make your meals healthier or more fun.

Food should fuel you, expand your world, and be delicious. A big part of eating a “healthier” diet is just having fun, being adventurous, and learning new things.

Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.