Want to eat healthier, feel better and live longer? A million suggestions are out there on how to do just that, but a good place to start might be processed foods. As in, not eating them. Doritos, M&M's, Oscar Mayer wieners, McDonald's french fries — could you do away with them all? Okay, how about just for a month?
That's what Andrew Wilder has done, and he's preaching the good news on his blog Eating Rules. Since proposing that October be a “month without processed foods,” Wilder has influenced nearly 300 folks to make the pledge to abstain. (And counting — add yourself here.)
So how exactly does one go an entire month without eating any processed foods? Turn the page for our interview with Wilder.
Squid Ink: What does eating unprocessed mean?
Andrew Wilder: Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients. I call it the “Kitchen Test.”
Most people seem to intuitively understand what you mean when you say “processed food.” We all think of the industrially made foods in a factory (Twinkies! Spam!), but when you really start to think about it, you realize that almost all of the foods we eat are manipulated in some way. Unless you're going to pluck an apple off a tree and eat it right then, it will probably undergo some sort of processing. So you have to find somewhere to draw the line.
My “Kitchen Test” definition eliminates anything you would never use to cook a meal yourself. Things like preservatives, artificial flavors, and artificial sweeteners. (Yes, I know some people cook with Splenda at home — but I certainly wouldn't call that a “whole-food”). I'm not saying you have to cook it yourself. Store-bought items, if they could be made in a kitchen, are just fine.
I wanted to use a definition that allowed for some gray area. I'm encouraging people to come up with their own definition of unprocessed, and also to make any exceptions they think are necessary — as long as it's a deliberate choice. The conversations on my site about what is “processed” and what isn't have been vibrant and informative — people are really getting into it, which I love. It's all about getting people to think about where their food is coming from, and what impact it has on the people who produce the food, the planet, and their bodies.
SI: What's really so bad about processed food?
AW: It's not so much the processing itself as it is the junk they put in the food.
We're pumping our food full of fat, salt, and sugar — and then lacing it with preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and artificial colors. I saw a report this morning that said kids now get half their calories from nutritionally devoid, processed junk foods like cookies and soda. That's insane.
Food dyes have recently been linked to higher incidences of ADHD. Some artificial sweeteners are notorious for likely causing cancer in laboratory animals. Another study came out recently which said that the calories in processed foods may actually be absorbed by our bodies more effectively than the calories in whole, unprocessed foods. That's huge! So it may not be as simple as calories-in-calories-out anymore. A 100-calorie Oreo Cookie snack pack might actually “go to your hips” more than a 100-calorie banana would.
SI: Why did you propose a “processed-food-free month”?
AW: Michael Pollan's books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food opened my eyes to what's happening to our food supply. I followed it up with David Kessler's The End of Overeating, which explains how and why fat, sugar, and salt create a self-reinforcing cycle of overeating and actually change your brain physiology.
I also figured that if Morgan Spurlock, in his movie Supersize Me, could do a entire month of some of the most processed food out there, I could surely do a month of the most unprocessed foods. A month is long enough to break habits, but not so long that it seems insurmountable. It's also enough time for your taste buds to start to adjust.
SI: How are you getting people interested and involved?
AW: I usually just ask. It's really easy, as long as you're proactive and not afraid to ask. Enthusiasm is contagious, too. What really got the ball rolling, though, was a short tweet that I sent out during a food blogger conference last month: “I'm considering a month of no processed foods whatsoever. Want to join me?”
Within seconds, quite literally, I received back about a dozen enthusiastic, positive replies. Since then, I've enlisted the help of about 40 other bloggers and leaders in this arena (such as Slow Food Los Angeles) who will be contributing guest posts throughout the month.
SI: What about people who simply can't live without processed food?
AW: It works the other way around! Processed food is what's killing us.
Having said that, I get your point. It's very hard to break the addiction cycle — and that's what we're dealing with here: We literally become physically addicted to all the fat, salt, and sugar in these foods. It's just like smoking — you have to want to quit.
SI: Why is there so much processed food?
AW: It's cheap and fast, and it tastes good if it's what you're used to.
SI: What's the worst processed food you can eat?
AW: There are so many, I'm having trouble choosing just one! There are obvious offenders, like the McDonald's Big Breakfast with Hotcakes that I recently saw on a billboard near Culver City. $3.59 gets you about half a day's worth of calories, and an entire day's worth of saturated fat and sodium. And you'll probably be hungry again in two hours.
I think the worst offenders, though, are the ones that you probably don't realize are so bad for you. Salad dressings are notorious for packing in the fat and salt — it's easy to have a 1,200 calorie salad and think you're being healthy.
SI: What processed foods do you still eat?
AW: I'm a sucker for some of the veggie meat substitutes. Morningstar Farms Breakfast Patties are my favorite. Unfortunately, they're incredibly high in sodium (I'd actually prefer if they tasted less salty, too… Kellogg's, are you reading this?). I've sworn them off for October, but afterwards will probably continue to enjoy them as an occasional breakfast treat.
I also rely a lot on energy bars, such as Clif Builder's bars, at the gym or when I travel. The ingredient lists of those can be pretty shocking if you look closely, so they're off the list for the month. (Lara bars are still good, though — they're made with only fruit and nuts.) I'll start making my own as soon as I can find the time.
SI: What processed foods do you still crave that you no longer eat?
AW: There really aren't too many, since I've lost my taste for most of them. When you stop eating the stuff for awhile… say, about a month, and use fresh, whole foods instead, they start to taste, well, fake.
Trader Joe's Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches are, well, aptly named. (Check out the nutrition facts — 440 calories a pop! And they're pretty small.) Not everything at TJ's (or Whole Foods) is healthy.
SI: What have you learned from all this?
AW: I've learned that people really do care about the quality of the food they eat, and all hope is not lost. Even the folks I've talked with who weren't ready to swear off all processed foods thought it was a terrific idea. I'd like to offer one final thought to everyone reading this: Skip all the nutrition claims on the front of the package. Instead, go straight to the ingredients list, and learn what you're putting into your body.
Processed food: hot or not? Leave a comment below and join the conversation on Twitter via hashtag #unprocessed.