Thursday, April 21, 2011

Real Food VS. Processed Food VS. Balance

You all know the argument... should you eat real foods or processed foods? And we all know the answer. Of course we should eat as many whole, real, unprocessed foods as possible. But we also live in a very "real" world where the real foods we would like to eat are not always as available or affordable as we would like.  I've read some interesting comments lately about foods I've mentioned in my meal plans and foods I've mentioned on my facebook page and I wanted to address the issue.

First, I absolutely think it's best to base your diet around real, whole, unprocessed foods. When I began a gluten free diet in 2007, I was truly appalled at the amount of  "white" flours used in most gluten free baked goods & recipes. It had been preached to me since I was a child that you based your diet on whole grains, even when you were baking. So I created lots of recipes using whole grains: brown rice flour, millet flour, and sorghum flour. 5 years later: I'm using a variety of even more whole grains like teff flour, quinoa flour, and buckwheat flour.

But this post isn't necessarily about baking and using gluten free flours. (Although I am quite passionate about gluten free baking as you well know!)

While I believe it's essential for diets to be based around healthy, whole foods... I also believe it's perfectly acceptable to eat processed foods in moderation. I have practiced & preached both extremes. Especially after becoming gluten free, I learned the nutritional value of eating whole, unprocessed foods, while in my college years I lived on mostly processed foods.

I also understand that finances, living space, and your personal environment can play a HUGE role in diets. Whole foods are expensive. Especially high quality and/or organic whole foods. What I've come to realize is that like in all things, nutrition is about balance.

Financially some months are better for my husband and I than others. We live on a steady income, but as you well know, life & financial burdens are not always steady. During prosperous months we buy fresh vegetables, organic chicken, fresh meats & fish, as much as we can. When I know I can spend more during a those months, I often try to stock up on healthy foods (such as frozen vegetables, high quality meats/chicken) so that I can store as much as I can in the small freezer space that we have. During prosperous months when fresh foods are easily available, it is most likely that we eat healthier.

Other months are much leaner financially. On those months I tend to rely on low sodium and/or "no salt added" canned vegetables & beans, canned fish such as tuna & salmon, and our freezer supply of meats/chicken. Other pantry items such as gluten free pastas, brown rice, millet & quinoa are used a lot as well. Which means on leaner months we tend to eat more "processed" foods.

Since mainstream gluten free products like Udi's bread & Rudi's bread have become more readily available, I also tend to have a loaf or two of gluten free bread in my freezer. Especially in the more prosperous months.  During leaner months, I generally make gluten free bread from scratch and freeze it because I have a supply of gluten free baking ingredients in my pantry.

Other processed foods we generally have on hand?
  • Condiments: ketchup, mustard, gluten free barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, A1-sauce, relishes, salsa, hot sauce, etc... 
  • Gluten free lunch meats like smoked turkey and ham
  • Cheese/ Yogurt
  • Peanut butter/ Almond Butter/ Jams/ Jellies/ Honey
  • Frozen gluten free treat (like donuts or ice cream) 
  • Cereal (My husband's go to meal for any time of the day! lol)
  • GF Rolled Oats and gf hot cereal in individual packages
  • Almond Milk
  • Hemp protein powder
  • Chocolate Syrup
Does this mean we eat these foods all the time? No. It means they are available if/when we need them or want them. Does it mean I think processed foods are necessarily healthy? No. It means that often when I'm in a hurry and/or if we are in one of our "lean" months we have provisions that are often still a healthier choice than junk food or using money we don't have for fast food. 

My point in this post is that one thing I've learned over the past few years is that BALANCE in our diets is necessary and important.  It means that while I truly want us to eat healthy, whole, real (even organic and ethically raised) foods... I also have to be content to live within my means. And some months that means depending more on processed foods than whole foods. 

It also means that occasionally I can eat that small serving bag of cheetos and know that because it's not something I do daily or even weekly... that it's okay. It's all about balance.  

What are your thoughts? I know this is an extremely controversial subject, especially in the food/blogging world... I'd really love to know how you stand on this issue? Do you think a balance between whole foods and processed foods is acceptable? 
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  1. Carrie, I think this is a realistic view. As long as we remain conscious of just how much processed food is in our diet on a regular basis, then I think we're doing pretty well overall. And to me, there's a difference between some of these processed foods - peanut butter, Udi's bread, cheese, etc often have VERY short ingredient lists that read with real food ingredients (as long as you're picking better brands). Those things, in my mind, are a good compromise when you don't have much time/money and most of the rest of your diet is made up of whole foods. Cheetos, on the other hand, yes, are quite processed and should be a treat. Same with candy bars and that kind of thing. I think if you were to put out everything you ate over the course of a week (or month, if you want to really get a good picture) on a table, Jamie Oliver Food Revolution-style, and were happy to see mostly real food, then I think your balance is, well, in balance. :)

  2. Carrie,

    My thoughts? Are you sure you want my thought? =) No cheetos. Ever.

    But I think you're doing a great job with your recipes and all the exercise you're doing and this blog post is wonderful. Balance definitely is important. It's great to encourage this conversation. You're so right, we have way too many nutritionally void, gluten-free processed food choices now. It's to our detriment.

    The more you go down the path of eating whole foods, the less processed and packaged stuff you end up even wanting. It's a transition to greater health and it takes time (and commitment). And sometimes there's nothing you need more than a piece of cake (GF), a handful of chips, a candy bar or a glass of red wine. =)

    Great post!

  3. I think it's acceptable, though maybe not ideal from a health perspective. Ultimately it is a person's choice though, and we need to respect each others choices, regardless of our own opinions. Personally, I've gone almost exclusively whole food because with allergies to wheat, corn, refined sugar, and nightshades, it's the only way for me to have food I know is safe. Before the allergy diagnosis, I had more of a mix of processed and whole foods, with whole foods being the ideal my family was working toward.

  4. I'm all for balance. We eat mostly whole foods around here, but sometimes processed foods are a nice treat. (Like today--I'm baking a red velvet cake for a tea party with my daughter and her friend.) I buy cheese, condiments, GF pasta, etc... all processed foods, but all of which have a place in my diet. I wholeheartedly believe a 100% whole foods diet would be better for me, but ultimately the balance is what keeps me healthy AND happy. Just my 2 cents. :)

  5. This is so important. I try to keep processed foods to a minimum...right now it's pretty much just almond milk, cheese, and yogurt that we have that's processed. I try to get my yogurt locally when I can, and the cheese is usually raw. Making my own almond milk usually isn't economical. I didn't start out like that, it's definitely been a gradual shift. I think everyone should see what feels best for them at the moment -- their bodies, minds, wallets, and health.

  6. I think it would be more helpful for people to first define the word processed. It is a matter of perspective. According to the FDA, the term "processed food" means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.Pretty ridiculous if you ask me. Would I define processed food as milled, chopped or cooked food? Absolutely not. So how do YOU define processed food? I think there is pretty much a concensus out there that would define processed food, from a nutrition and health standpoint, as any food that contains an abundance of unknown or manufactured ingredients, preservatives, artificial additives (color, flavor etc), unhealthy fats etc. I have been lacto-ovo vegetarian for most of my life and eat vegan 3-4 days of the week. I eat a GF whole clean food diet. I buy Silk soymilk, non-GM Tofu, tinkyada pasta, GF Tamari sauce, vegetable broth,Sunbutter, Teff flour, Pamelas baking mix,flaxmeal,quinoa and millet fours. My family eats the same since I do all of the cooking; however they are not GF. My boys eat 100% stoneground whole wheat bread. Are these processed foods from a nutritional and health standpoint? I would say no. They are examples of how people SHOULD eat. I would define processed foods as most crackers, white pasta, cheetos or other snack foods,most juices, chicken nuggets,luncheon meats,refined breads and cereals, gummy snacks etc. We stay away from all of those. We stick with prepared cereals from Kashi (the healthy high fiber ones), Mesa Sunrise for me, milk & yogurt only from Organic Valley or Stonyfield, Annies Homegrown for the very occasional whole wheat mac & Cheese..You get the idea. If someone is looking to increase their consumption of clean food, I highly recommend Alissa's Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook as well as Terry Walter's books Clean Food and Clean Start. All of these are GF centered cookbooks.I also love Heidi Swanson's books Super Natural Every Day &Super Natural Cooking. Not GF but easily modifiable. I use all of these cookbooks to devise my weekly menu plans. Fantastic and healthy food! I agree with you Carrie, that balance is key. I love to have a piece of dark chocolate or dove milk chocolate every once a while or go out for frozen custard in the summer. I made a great healthified GF coffee cake last weekend as a treat and fully enjoyed it. No guilt just pure enjoyment.Eating so well most of the time allows for the occasional indulgence without breaking the nutritional bank. That's what it is all about!

  7. For me, it's a 'processed food' if there are ingredients listed that I struggle to pronounce and have no idea what they are-those things I prefer to keep out of my system and my son's. I don't think of quinoa or rice pasta as a processed food but if they are by definition then we eat those weekly. We eat condiments, gluten free of course, he eats sunbutter-nut allergies in his school-we eat almond butter at home, boxed organic soup sometimes too. But with all of those things I don't feel a tiny bit of guilt consuming them. Mostly we eat a lot of fruits, veggies, fish, lentils and other grains. I bake his bread, he's the one with the wheat allergies, if he's eating a sweet like a cake or a muffin I made it. I don't feel bad about those occasional treats either. I honestly wouldn't want to give him a Twinkie or a HoHo but I'm fine with a fat slice of homemade GF zucchini raisin bread.

  8. So very true! Life is not about one or the's all about balance. When we add our little girl to the family I know it's going to be hard for me to not go a little crazy with her diet...but I am hoping I can be the kinda momma who buys organic apples...and stops at McDonalds sometimes too :)

    Brooke Annessa

  9. Hi, Carrie,
    I think it's so interesting that you are posting about this right now, this very moment. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. My cookbook is very much from-scratch (easy, using all-purpose gf flours only, but still from-scratch), & I have been thinking recently that it's time for me to come to terms with the fact that that is just not realistic for many or even most people, most of the time. I do it because I think it's most ideal, & because I have the time. But sometimes not being able to throw together something for dinner in less than 10 minutes really bothers me. I have actually been thinking of incorporating some MORE processed foods into our diet - although when I use the term "processed," I mean kitchen shortcuts. So, at the end of the day, I think it means that we should make conscious choices. That's what I teach my kids, and that is how I try to live. Sometimes, that means consciously choosing the less-good alternative. And not beating ourselves up about it.
    You're awesome, Carrie. Truly.
    Warmest regards,

  10. what wonderful comments! And Carrie, it's delightful to see you experiment and look for a way to find the balance that works best for YOU: your health, your wallet, your preferences, and your love of baking.

  11. Love your blog! I printed out a few recipes to try this weekend. What a blessing you are!
    Ginger Garrett

  12. Hi Carrie,

    Thank you so much for bringing up this delicate question. I feel the need to speak up for the many folks who, because of stretched time and pocketbook resources, do rely on some (and sometimes probably too much) processed foods. Like lots of the other commenters, we eat a wide variety of whole foods, but we also eat vegan cheese, vegan GF bullion when I don't have time to make homemade broth and don't have it in the freezer, and a host of other foods that make throwing dinner on the table in a jiffy possible. I agree that it's always a good idea to strive for the best possible diet, but I also want to limit the stress that meal times can be in a busy family. I'd rather we all eat together, even if I'm using a jarred pasta sauce, than not being able to spend time with my kids because I have to make everything from scratch every day. I love how you stressed the importance of balance in you post. It reminds me that that is the true goal.


  13. I am so glad you started this conversation. This is something I have been working with myself and trying to find a balance. I have found it is all a work in progress for me - especially after making so many large changes, now it seems to be very incremental. I do buy some frozen veggies, usually when fresh versions of that vegetable is out of season. I very rarely buy any canned products at this point, mainly because my husband has elevated blood pressure and canned items always have more salt - that also means that if I did not cook beans from dried beans, then we have no beans that day, even if having a back-up can would make it easier. He also has problems with acidity in canned tomatoes, so at this point we buy fresh in summer or a brand of crushed tomatoes that is in a bottle instead of cans. Those changes have been much more incremental as we figure out what works for him, but as a result another few processed items I still relied on after all the changes I made to my diet are gone.

    My processed items are the following: hot sauce, tomato paste, salsa, mustard (Eden makes a nice GF one that is real food ingredients for condiments my rule is that it has to contain apple cider vinegar, as just about any other vinegar causes my problems), nut butters, miso, almond milk, other non-dairy milks, protein powders (I love SunWarrior but also hemp proteins) and ... I guess things like gluten-free pasta also count in that category - I think the above commenters' question as to how do we define a processed food is on-point. I don't have a garden or the space to can my own things, so I will always have to rely on a bit of frozen produce here or there. Stuff like gluten-free pasta however - that's less essential. I eat it because I enjoy it, but I also am mindful of replacing it with quinoa as much as possible.

  14. Carrie ~ I'm a balance person. Like Alta said, there are a number of processed foods like cheese or peanut butter that have very few ingredients. We are all busy people, and I do depend on being able to have Tinkyada pasta and a jar of Classico sauce when I need something quick and easy. And I don't think of that as unhealthy.

    I consider eating lots of foods with long hard to pronounce ingredients as unhealthy, but even then I don't rule them out completely. With three teenagers in my house, I have to admit that I've given in and bought more junk food than I did when they were little. I'm thankful they like healthy options too, and I provide that as much as possible.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  15. Amen to that! I've been struggling with this myself. I try to keep with natural, unprocessed foods, but it does get expensive and some months it's really hard to keep it up and you have to cut some corners. It's also more work, and sometimes you just don't have the time you need to make something from scratch. I agree that balance is the key; it's also more realistic and attainable. Thanks for the reminder!