Healthy meal prep and cooking start with healthy ingredients. However, unless you are a nutritionist or dietician, knowing what foods and ingredients are unhealthy can be a challenge. This article will provide easy tips to remember as well as a great list for cleaning out your kitchen to rid your family of the most harmful ingredients in food.
What is a Processed Food?
When food is cooked, canned, packaged, dehydrated, frozen, or changed from its natural nutritional makeup by fortifying (adding), preserving or preparing it in some way, that food is considered processed. We process food every day when we cook dinner, bake something, or preserve food. Not all processing is bad; however, most processed foods found in the store do contain unhealthy ingredients that everyone should avoid.
If you’ve had bariatric surgery, you’ve gone through quite a lot to better your health. Avoiding the following ingredients will help keep you maintain a healthy diet.
Top Ingredients to Avoid
1. Trans fats. This ingredient has been at the top of the “bad foods” list for a very long time. Trans fats clog your arteries, increase your cholesterol and your risk of metabolic syndrome, and are known to contribute to obesity. They are most often found in fried foods and bakery-type products. There is no daily recommendation for consuming trans fats precisely because they have no nutritional value and only hurt your health.
Shortening, soybean oil and palm oil are three examples. However, many foods contain trans fat as an ingredient. Any food listing partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient contains trans fat. Throw away any foods containing trans fats or solid trans fats. Instead, choose healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (also known as MUFAs and PUFAs), such as olive, coconut and peanut oils and foods that contain unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.
2. Added sugars. You’re probably not surprised to see this tasty ingredient at number two on the list. Sugar comes in many different forms. Some examples include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, cane crystals, maltodextrin and fruit juice concentrate. The dietary recommendation for added sugars is below 24 grams for women and below 36 grams for men, but if you can keep it lower on a regular basis, that is best. Sugar is so unhealthy because it increases triglycerides, creates cravings that contribute to overeating, and boosts fat-storing hormones.
3. Artificial sweeteners. You may think that sweeteners are the answer to replacing sugar when you’ve got a sweet tooth. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Look for the ingredients aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. In high doses, these sweeteners may harm your health. Research is ongoing but suggests that artificial sweeteners “trick” the brain and can create additional cravings for sweets (more calories).
4. Refined grains. Replace all refined grains like white flour, white or bleached rice, pasta and many breads with whole grain versions. To extend a product’s shelf-life, whole grains are “refined,” which strips them of their bran and germ, removing all healthy fiber, minerals and vitamins. Refined grains increase your blood sugar and insulin levels. There are often whole grain options for most refined grains, with a few additions, such as oatmeal.
5. Preservatives. Sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate are sometimes added to soft drinks (soda) and juices to inhibit mold, bacteria and yeast from growing. While not dangerous by themselves, when paired with vitamin C (ascorbic acid), heat and light, these preservatives can form benzene, which is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Juices may be most at risk because many contain ascorbic acid.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative added to foods to prevent spoilage and food poisoning. However, it is being investigated for possible interaction with the endocrine system; mainly, that it disrupts the endocrine system and can affect your hormone levels. Unfortunately, BHA is in so many foods, food packaging, and even cosmetics, that it can be hard to identify. It also goes by other names. This preservative takes a bit of online research, but your time will be well spent when you know exactly what to avoid.
6. Artificial flavors and colors. These are easier to identify because they often say “artificial” as part of the ingredient name. Artificial colors include blue, lake, red, yellow 1, 2, 3 and caramel color. The research is mixed on artificial flavors and colors, but many people and children are sensitive to these ingredients. The side effects vary by individual.
7. MSG/flavor enhancers. What damage they might pose to the body is still being investigated; however, these ingredients are best avoided. Natural flavors like herbs and spices without additives or preservatives are best. You can grow your own herbs indoors or outdoors in the growing season. Most are hardy plants and can be dried or frozen for later use.
8. Sodium nitrates and sodium nitrites. Though they sound the same, these are two different preservatives found in certain meats; in particular, processed meats. Examples include hot dogs, bacon, sausage and pre-packaged lunch meats. Some lunch meats and bacon are now being sold as “natural” and “unprocessed.” They must always be refrigerated and will expire sooner than their unhealthy counterparts. Also, in some meats, the high heat required to cook the meat creates these same unhealthy ingredients, regardless of if they started out unprocessed. Sodium nitrates and nitrites are believed to have many harmful effects in the body, most notably as carcinogens. Always choose fresh meats and organic meats if possible.
9. Carrageenan. A food additive extracted from seaweed, carrageenan is used as a thickening agent in foods. It’s commonly found in low-fat dairy alternatives and dairy products to increase creaminess. However, carrageenan has been linked to gastrointestinal diseases and inflammation. Constant inflammation in the body leads to more dangerous and chronic problems.
10. Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is not a food ingredient, but it does leech into your food because it is used in the lining of aluminum cans, some jar lids and some plastic food containers. Look for “BPA-free” on the labels of any canned foods you buy. If BPA sounds familiar, it’s because the FDA banned it in infant formula containers and baby bottles. Increasing research is linking BPA to reproductive disorders, cancer and problems regarding normal growth in children. Microwaving plastic containers is especially dangerous because the process allows more BPA to be released into the food.
11. Omega-6 fats. Corn, vegetable and soybean oils contain more of the omega-6 fats than many other oils. While a certain amount of these oils are essential to a healthy diet, they must be used in moderation. Omega-6 fats are known to be inflammatory, which leads to many illnesses. The problem comes not from cooking, but that these oils are a common ingredient in packaged foods, which makes it very hard for you to know just how much oil you are eating.
Helpful Tips for Shopping
- Look at the ingredients list and not the nutrition label. If you can’t recognize the ingredients or pronounce them, you should not buy it.
- Moderation is key. Small amounts of these ingredients here and there are fine. You don’t have to deprive yourself on special occasions. Just remember to not overindulge or make them a habit at home.
- Always seek out foods with the fewest artificial chemicals, especially when shopping for your kids. Look for color-free medications and natural food products that don’t contain artificial colors.
- Stick to the outside rim of the grocery store. The outer walls of the grocery store contain all your fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products. The aisles contain all the processed foods, added sweeteners, added fats and preservatives. Though you may need to make a trip down an aisle for some healthy nuts, many grocery stores have a whole foods aisle that may keep you away from the ingredients (and temptations!) you want to avoid.
- In doubt? Don’t buy it.
Bariatric Surgery Diets
If you recently had bariatric surgery, you should follow your provider’s instructions and the particular phases depending on the type of surgery:
At Advanced Laparoscopic Associates, our patient relationships don’t end after bariatric surgery. We’re committed to helping our patients achieve lifelong weight loss and health.
Our aftercare program includes a dietician as well as a line of nutritious meal replacements, protein supplements, snacks and vitamins to make meal planning and snacking stress-free. We also have a phased diet plan for patients who have just undergone bariatric surgery. At ALA, you’ll find the support and the products you need to help you reach your goals.
Contact us today to make an appointment to discuss your weight loss goals and treatment options, or to ask questions about our services and nutrition store.