Do Processed Foods Belong in a Heart-Healthy Diet?

Health Professional

What are processed foods?

A processed food is anything that is changed from its natural state. Some food processing methods include:

  • Refrigeration
  • Freezing
  • Fermentation
  • Pasteurizing
  • Pickling
  • Dehydration

Processing does not necessarily make a food less healthy, but as a food undergoes more processing, it typically becomes less healthy.

The following are technically processed foods, even though they fit within a heart-healthy diet:

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Orange juice
  • Frozen, skinless chicken breast
  • Crushed pineapple
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Sundried tomatoes

Good vs. bad food processing

Here are three examples where food processing yields a positive result:

  1. Fortification of breads and cereals with folic acid to prevent birth defects.
  2. Calcium-fortified cereal, bread, orange juice, and tofu to boost calcium intake for those who do not consume milk products.
  3. Pasteurized milk to remove bacteria.

However, when we use the term “processed foods” we are usually referring to the other extreme where foods are changed and the end-product contains high levels of sodium, sugar, and fats not necessary for health and oftentimes harmful to health.

These processed foods can lead individuals to consume higher levels on certain nutrients (i.e. salt, sugar, and fat) than desired for heart health.

Examples would be:

  • Box macaroni and cheese
  • Stir-fry meal kits
  • Flavored box rice
  • Frozen waffles or pancakes
  • Frozen pizza
  • Canned soup
  • Frozen ravioli or tortellini
  • Bacon
  • Sausage

“Convenience foods” is another phrase that often encompasses processed foods. If it comes in a box and preparation consists of adding water and heating it up, this is likely a highly processed food not ideal for heart health.

What about processed grains?

In the case of grains, processing leads to less fiber as it becomes a refined grain. When grain is processed the bran and germ is removed resulting in our “white” grain products, like white bread or white rice. This is done to extend the shelf life of the product, but nutrients are lost in the processing and manufacturers try to add them back in by “enriching” the food with certain nutrients.

The final product is never as nutritionally rich as the unprocessed version.

Healthier alternatives to processed foods

Your best bet is to move away from buying frozen or boxed meals. Instead, explore making more foods with individual ingredients. This does not have to equal extra time in the kitchen. Start by swapping out one or two meals you regularly prepare that are highly processed. Select a recipe that contains a reasonable number of ingredients and a 30-minute or less cook time. We’re not going for a gourmet meal here, just a healthy and tasty home-cooked meal.

After you prepare that meal a couple times, you’re going to have the process memorized so it becomes quick and easy to throw together. Next, tackle a few other favorite meals that need a facelift to further reduce the processed foods in your diet.

While you are making this transition, you can make boxed or frozen meals a bit healthier by altering what you add. The sauce or cheese packet is usually the source of too much sodium. Experiment with adding only half the packet to cut the sodium content. You can also usually add less butter than the instructions call for to reduce fat content.

How do I include processed foods as part of a heart-healthy diet?

Remember, not all processing is bad. Food processing allows us to extend the shelf-life of many foods. For example, fruits and vegetables lose little of their nutritional value when frozen. Bread and rice are a part of a heart-healthy diet, but select whole grain breads and brown rice. When preparing foods with flour, opt for whole wheat flour.

What you are doing is trying to select foods that are closest to their whole and natural form… as if you were in the field planting, growing, and harvesting your own crops.

Quick test of food processing level

Read the food label ingredient list. Can you pronounce all the ingredients? Could you purchase all the ingredients individually in the grocery store if you wanted to prepare the food yourself?

The more ingredients you don’t recognize or could not purchase, the more processed the food.

Avoiding the high sodium and fat content of processed foods is just one step you can take to lower blood pressure levels. Do you want to learn more ways to lower blood pressure? Try my free e-course!

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