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Whole foods are foods that have not been processed, meaning they have not been refined, altered, or packaged in a way that changes their natural state. Whole foods are typically rich in vitamins and minerals and provide the body with the nutrients it needs to function properly.

Processed foods, on the other hand, are those which have been refined, altered, or packaged in a way that changes the natural state of food. Processed food is often low in vitamins and minerals when compared to whole foods and can lead to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Most foods are processed – changed, prepared, or packaged – in some way before we eat them. They fall somewhere between a simple process such as salad mix, bagged dry beans, roasted unsalted nuts, or frozen fruits or vegetables to what some refer to as highly or ultra-processed like sugary beverages, chips, or smoked sausage.

Some processed foods have ingredients added, such as sweeteners, oils, colors, and preservatives. Some are fortified to add nutrients such as fiber, calcium, or vitamin D. Some are simply prepped for convenience (washed or chopped) or packaged to last longer. Processes such as pasteurizing milk, canning fruits and vegetables, and vacuum packing meats help prevent spoilage and increase food safety. Even foods labeled “natural” or “organic” can be processed.

If you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. About 70 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from commercially processed and restaurant foods. Manufacturers use sodium to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. 

So what can you do if want to eat healthier?

Choose healthier processed foods.

  • Read food labels. This is the best way to know exactly what’s in a processed food. Choose products without a lot of salt, added sugars, and saturated fats. Learn what to look for in the Nutrition and Ingredients labels on the package.
  • Enjoy frozen and canned produce. Canned or Frozen Vegetables and Fruit are convenient and affordable options that can be just as nutritious as fresh produce. Look for varieties without salty sauces and sugary syrups. Compare the labels and choose items with the lowest amounts of sodium and added sugars.
  • Look for the Heart-Check mark. The American Heart Association’s Heart Check Mark will help you find packaged foods that can be part a healthy eating pattern. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification.

Choose more unprocessed and minimally processed foods.

  • Cook more meals at home. You don’t have to be a master chef to get your cook on! You can find a lot of great recipes. Brush up on your cooking skills online. Preparing food at home gives you control over what’s added. It can save you money and be a great family bonding time.
  • •Make a few simple swaps. Some examples: Make your own vinaigrette  instead of buying bottled salad dressing. Add fruit to plain oatmeal, cereal and yogurt instead of buying the sweetened or flavored kind. Slice up leftover roasted chicken or make a light tuna salad for sandwiches instead of using processed deli meat.
  • Snack smarter. Think crunchy unsalted nuts and seeds, cut-up veggies, fruits that hit the sweet spot, and easy homemade popcorn. Package these healthier snacks in small containers and they’re just as convenient as that bag of chips!

*Info from American Heart Assoc