Could You Give Up Processed Foods for a Month? Take the Challenge

An enterprising blogger has kick-started a campaign to get Americans to eat only real foods for the month of October.
Living without processed junk like Twinkies for a month does a body good. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 27, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

October is upon us, which means foliage, a crispness in the air, relentless candy marketing—and, increasingly, a widespread commitment to eating only unprocessed foods.


Considering Americans eat more processed foods than almost any other country (Japan eats more, but it’s typically minimally processed seafood and dried seaweed, both quite healthy), Andrew Wilder’s challenge to go an entire month eating only unprocessed foods sounds like crazy talk. But three years after he posed the challenge to a few friends on Facebook, people are making the pledge in droves and Wilder’s got an all-out movement on his hands.

That first year, 2009, Wilder—a website designer in Santa Monica, Calif.—invited a handful of Facebook friends to participate with him. He was so inspired by his experience the previous year that in 2010, fueled by a new food blog and expanded marketing, that number jumped to 415 signers. Last October, more than 3,000 people across the nation signed Wilder’s “October Unprocessed” pledge. For this year’s challenge, which begins Monday, Wilder wants to see a whopping 30,000 people commit to transforming their diets for the month, a length of time in which he says bad habits can be broken.

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“A month is easy to wrap your head around, and it takes around a month for your palate to adjust and for habits to change,” he says. “If you can do it for a month, you can do it for two months, and if you can do it for two months, you can do it for a year and for the rest of your life.”

So, what constitutes “processed food?” Wilder uses what he calls “the kitchen test”: “Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with whole-food ingredients.” He quickly adds, however, that each person’s definition of unprocessed might differ slightly, and that’s OK—the underlying goal is to get people to become aware of what they’re putting into their bodies.

Mitchell Schwartz, who was training for the New York City Marathon while participating in October Unprocessed 2011, made a slight exception on Wilder’s definition of unprocessed for foods and drinks he needed during his workouts, like sports drinks, nutrition bars, and endurance gels. Schwartz says the challenge made him an avid label-reader, which he wasn’t before last year, even though the challenge didn't much alter the types of foods he eats.

“What has changed are the brands I buy, and there is an extra reason why I choose grapes over grape-flavored purple-colored candy,” he says. “I found that almost every food has a better option.”

Wilder says the idea that his challenge would reach several thousand Americans seemed impossible three years ago. Today, his popular food and nutrition blog, Eating Rules, serves as a hub for October Unprocessed and will feature 90 guest posts throughout the month from food bloggers, nutrition and diet experts, and even medical doctors. Wilder encourages those who wish to participate in this year's challenge—whether health food beginners or pros—to sign the pledge because “there’s something really powerful about signing your name on a petition.”

Schwartz will run the New York City Marathon again this November, but last year’s October Unprocessed inspired him to “de-process” his regimen of gels, sports drinks, and pre- and post-run meals.

“Although I will still make some exceptions for training,” he says, “there will be fewer chemicals and dyes in my fuel this year.”

Will you be signing the October Unprocessed pledge? Why or why not?

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Top 10 All-American Food Myths: What You Don’t Know About Our Food Chain Will Shock You