Read the ingredients before buying anything. For years, if I even bothered to look at food labels, it was to review the fat, calorie and sugar content. While this may be important to some, the best indicator of how highly processed a food is the list of ingredients. If what you are buying contains refined sugar or flour, more than five ingredients, or a lot of unfamiliar, unpronounceable items, you may want to reconsider purchasing it.
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Eat More Whole Foods
Increase your consumption of whole foods, especially vegetables and fruits. I am sure you’ve heard similar advice a thousand times, but it bears repeating again (and again and again). This will help displace some of the processed food in your diet, and will actually make picking healthy foods to eat very simple. There’s no need to count calories, grams of fat, or carbs when selecting whole foods that are more a product of nature than a product of industry.
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Buy Bread Locally
Buy your bread from a local bakery. I used to eat white bread myself, and bought what I thought was whole-wheat bread for my husband. When we finally checked the ingredients on that seemingly healthier option and found 40 different items on the list, including white flour and sugar, we decided it was time for a change. Why were there so many ingredients on the list if it only takes flour, water, salt and yeast to make bread? We’ve since started buying loaves from Great Harvest Bread Company. Not only does it grind its own wheat every morning, but it also makes the honey whole-wheat bread with just five ingredients—whole-wheat flour, water, yeast, salt and honey.
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Eat More Whole Grains
In addition to picking healthier bread, go for the whole-grain option when selecting pastas, cereals, rice, and crackers. And don’t just believe the health claims on the outside of the box: Read the ingredients to make sure the product is truly made with only 100 percent whole grains—not a combination of whole grains and refined grains, which is unfortunately how a lot of “whole grain” products are made. White flour and other refined grains are simply high in calories and low in nutrition.
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Watch Out for High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Avoid store-bought products containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and those that have, as Michael Pollan put it, “some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.” There are conflict reports regarding HFCS—some research says that it’s no worse for you than good ol’ white sugar—but it still happens to be “a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed,” according to Pollan.
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Ditch the Kids’ Menu
Don’t order off the kids’ menu. The next time your family is out to dinner, avoid dishes specifically geared toward the younger generation. More often than not, those dishes rely on ingredients like pre-made chicken nuggets, fries, and pasta made with white flour, among other less-than-healthy things. Instead, try combining a side dish, like a baked potato and whatever else your kid will tolerate, and bites from your own meal.
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Visit the Farmers Market
Visit your local farmers market the next time you need to restock your fridge. According to Michael Pollan, not only will you find “food that is in season, which is usually when it is most nutritious,” but you will also find a selection of pesticide-free produce and properly fed and raised meat. There’s also an environmental advantage to purchase locally grown products as opposed to supermarket produce, which travels on average 1,500 miles from the farm to your plate.
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Make Your Own Junk Food
Lastly, to once again quote Michael Pollan, “eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” If you had to peel, chop and deep fry potatoes every time you wanted French fries, you would probably eat them far less often. If you only eat “junk foods” like homemade cakes, sweets, and fried foods as often as you are willing to make them yourself, it’s unlikely they will become a dominant part of your diet.
Lisa Leake is a wife, mother, foodie, and blogger who chronicles her family’s journey on 100daysofrealfood.comas they seek out the real food in our processed food world. What started as a simple pledge has turned into a valuable and practical resource that’s now read by millions around the globe