Worst Processed Foods You Can Eat (and What to Eat Instead)

Do you know how much of the food you eat every day is processed? According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, over half of the average American’s daily calories comes from highly processed food. All food goes through some form of processing — even vegetables from farms are washed and sorted. The more processing a food goes through before it gets to you, though, the worse it is to eat. That’s why so many fad diets these days actually encourage cutting out highly processed foods — the foods that go through the most processing in a factory or lab.

These foods, though they often taste great, have very little nutrition, and plenty of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat. There are healthier alternatives for all the dangerous you love to eat. It doesn’t take as much effort to cut highly processed foods from your diet as you think. In some cases, it’s just a matter of swapping one prepared form of a food for another.

Some of the worst processed foods out there are foods you eat on a regular basis.

1. Pickles

Pickles are the perfect burger or sandwich topper, giving your dinner the juicy crunch it needs. While pickles are technically made from cucumbers — a vegetable — they’re not as healthy as you think. To transform a cucumber into a pickle, you have to soak it in a solution called brine. Brine is a mixture of vinegar, spices, and salt … a lot of salt. This is what gives them their delicious, sour flavor. The excess salt in the average pickle might not be worth the taste, though.

There are about 833 milligrams of sodium in one medium-sized pickle (it varies slightly by brand and type). However, this is almost 40 percent of your daily recommended salt intake — in one pickle. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per person per day. Even if you quarter a whole pickle to fit on your sub sandwich, that’s still more sodium than one person needs in a single meal.

What to eat instead: Scoop a small amount of pickle relish onto whatever food you’d normally add a pickle to. It’s not the healthiest condiment you can eat, but it has far less sodium per serving than a whole pickle. A small amount will still give your sandwich the sour, crunchy kick you’re looking for.

breakfast cereal

2. Breakfast cereals

Eating breakfast gives you the energy you need to ace your morning routine — right? Not if you try filling up on breakfast cereal. Though TV ads try to convince you otherwise, breakfast cereals are anything but nutritious. One cup of Corn Flakes has 24 grams of carbohydrates, about 3 grams of which come from sugars. And that’s just what they include on that part of the label. Ingredient lists reveal much more: added sugars.

Added sugars are, as the term implies, sugars added to foods to enhance their flavor. Humans haven’t been eating these kinds of foods for that long. Only within the last decade have scientists started to realize how dangerous these kinds of sugars can be. According to research, eating too many foods with added sugars is bad for your heart. It’s also addicting — weight gain is common in people who eat excessive amounts of added sugar because they just can’t stop eating it.

What to eat instead: If you still need something cold and crunchy, combine raw oats, almond milk, almond butter, and cinnamon and leave them in an airtight container in the fridge overnight. It’s sort of like cereal, but much better for your heart.

TV dinners

3. Frozen TV dinners

A good way to evaluate how much you depend on processed foods for nourishment is to count how many sealed boxes and bags end up in your cart after a grocery shopping trip. Foods in packages are created to last in your freezer and cabinets, but your health never benefits from this much processed junk.

Frozen dinners are prepped, frozen, packaged, and sold to save you time — but their lack of nutrition is appalling. A chicken fettuccini Alfredo dinner from Stouffer’s alone has 570 calories, 27 grams of fat, nearly 900 milligrams of sodium, and 55 grams of carbohydrates. You can’t escape the sauce: it’s poured on top of your entree and frozen without your consent. The majority of these frozen meals are not healthy. They may be convenient, but they won’t leave you feeling satisfied.

What to eat instead: If you are short on time during the week, prepare several meals on Sunday you can “recycle” throughout the rest of the week. Some frozen TV dinners are healthier than others, but in the end, it’s always best to leave them in the grocery aisle.

ice cream

4. Ice cream

It’s the summer treat you crave even when summer’s still months away. It’s also a frozen, cream-based dessert that’s definitely not healthy just because it’s a dairy product. Dairy products in general tend to be higher in fat. This one’s a dessert, high in fat, and has the potential to be extremely addicting.

Saturated fat isn’t quite as bad as experts used to think. It’s not the major cause of heart disease studies once led scientists to believe. Ice cream is a common source of it: you’ll get only about 4 grams of saturated fat — 22% of your daily recommended amount — per 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream, which isn’t bad compared to other foods on this list. However, the same amount of ice cream will also yield 182 milligrams of omega-6 fatty acids, which studies suggest should be avoided as much as possible.

What to eat instead: Start with 1/2 cup of frozen yogurt, sans toppings. This might be enough to satisfy your craving for something sweet. If it doesn’t, you can make your own ice cream, which won’t have nearly as much sugar or fat as the stuff you get at the store.

frozen pizza

5. Frozen pizza

Don’t ruin pizza night by shoveling something frozen into your oven. Frozen pizza is one of the most heavily processed foods you can find, peppered not just with cheese and other toppings, but synthetic chemicals as well.

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