There’s a lot of talk about eating “clean” and “whole” these days — as if these chips are dirty… or aren’t from whole dang potatoes?!
Don’t worry, we’re not here to judge — or to come for your snack cupboard. (Just *try* to take my Oreos. See what happens. 😈 )
But there’s def some convincing research to suggest that eating more fresh, unprocessed foods can have a positive impact on your overall health and wellness. These include:
- fresh fruits and veggies
- nuts like walnuts, pistachios, or almonds
- meat like chicken or beef (not deli meat, hotdogs, etc.)
- seafood like salmon
- beans like black beans or chickpeas
- herbs and spices
The “unprocessed food diet” can vary widely depending on who you ask, but it also typically means skipping things like packaged cookies, crackers, and fast food.
Still, processing WTF “unprocessed” means? Understandable. Here’s the deal.
TBH, there’s no single definition for an unprocessed food diet. Obvi, it means eating unprocessed food — but for some people that means absolutely *nothing* with added salt, sugar, or preservatives, while others are a little more lenient in their approach.
To understand what makes up a (mostly or fully) unprocessed food diet, let’s look at what processed and unprocessed roughly means in the first place:
- Unprocessed foods. These include what’s naturally edible in plant and animal food sources, like fruits and veggies, nuts, or meat that hasn’t been cured or treated with preservatives or additives. While everyone has a different definition of unprocessed, cooked food (whether in the oven or on the stovetop) still counts as unprocessed for most, depending on how you go about it. If you’re slathering it in highly processed vegetable oil, it won’t count to the unprocessed purists out there.
- Minimally processed foods. Includes those that have been slightly changed for the process of preserving it, including fermentation (like pickles), grinding (like hummus), or pasteurization (like many dairy products).
- Processed culinary ingredients. Minimally processed foods are made by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. Think plant oils, flour, and pasta made from whole grains.
- Processed foods. These include food from the previous groups that also might have some added salt, sugar, or fat. Canned fruits and veggies, some cheeses, fresh-made bread, and canned fish are some examples. These foods are typically made from at least 2 to 3 ingredients.
- Ultra-processed foods. These include food from the previous group that go above and beyond in their addition of salt, sweeteners, fat, flavors, or preservatives. These might be added to boost shelf stability, preserve texture, and make them tastier. They’re usually ready-to-eat require no further preparation They’re often low in fiber and nutrients. Examples include packaged cookies, some chips and breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners, and lunch meat.
Those who follow a “whole food,” or unprocessed food diet pretty much make their own rules as to what fits their diet goals. The general idea, though, is to limit processed foods as much as possible and eat more unprocessed foods due to the inherent health benefits.
According to 2018 research, about 60 percent of calories Americans consumed from 2007 to 2012 came from ultra-processed foods.
In a large 2020 review, researchers found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods is linked to a number of adverse health outcomes, diseases, disorders, and conditions like heart disease, IBS, depression, obesity, and a shorter lifespan. It’s also linked to overeating. Meanwhile, the same study found beneficial health outcomes to be associated with diets higher in unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
The potential benefits of eating unprocessed foods and eating healthier in general include:
- a longer lifespan
- strong bones and muscles
- a healthy immune system
- healthy skin, teeth, and eyes
- lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers
- healthy pregnancies and breastfeeding
- a smooth, functional digestive system
- a healthy weight
- increased energy
- better sleep
- improved mental health
- increased focus and agility
TBF, processing isn’t all bad. For example, pasteurization, cooking, and drying can inhibit the growth of bad bacteria. Meanwhile, additives like emulsifiers can preserve the texture of foods, such as preventing PB from separating into solid and liquid parts. Processing with preservatives can also help extend shelf life of foods.
At the same time, some highly processed foods can be addictive, have fewer nutrients, and may contain added sugar, sodium, and oils. (Watch this YouTuber eat ultra-processed for a week to see, at least anecdotally, how it can make you feel. Spoiler alert: Not so good. But the donuts were really good at least!)
Still not sure how to eat unprocessed (or minimally processed)?! We got you.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods you can nosh on freely
- Veggies and fruits. Organic, seasonal produce is No. 1 for unprocessed stans, but frozen, nonseasonal, or GMO options are also fair game. Canned fruits and veggies can be a healthy, minimally processed addition to your diet as well.
- Beans. Dried beans (chickpeas, black beans, etc.) are an easy way to dodge preservatives and sodium, but canned varieties are also a good, quick-prep choice. Bean spreads like hummus are also minimally processed and have health benefits.
- Nuts. Raw nuts are the least processed, but roasted ones without a ton of additives are also pretty legit. Minimally processed nut butters that just contain nuts are also pretty “whole.”
- Meat and seafood. Poultry, beef, pork, or seafood counts as unprocessed (or maybe minimally processed once you cook it). For some unprocessed food eaters, hormone-free and organic is a priority. Whether you roast, bake, grill, or boil, be sure to use natural plant oils (if any) and avoid deep-frying.
- Herbs and spices. Rosemary, oregano, cumin, chili, garlic, oh my — herbs and spices, whether ground or raw, are a healthy and delish addition to any unprocessed diet.
- Eggs. Eggs are an unprocessed food and can be cooked in a variety of delicious ways. We’re partial to hard-boiled, which are great fresh or when saved for later.
- Some dairy. Dairy without lots of additives is considered minimally processed. Unpasteurized dairy is technically unprocessed but can come with a heightened risk of harmful bacteria, which is why docs and the FDA advise those who are immunocompromised to avoid it. Ultimately, as long as you can tolerate lactose well, minimally processed dairy can be healthy in moderation.
- Some oils. And by some, we mean oil in moderation. Olive oil has a great rep when it comes to health benefits and cooking versatility.
- Whole grains. You can find these in pasta, whole-wheat bread, snacks, and more.
Highly processed foods you may want to limit include:
- sugary drinks like soda
- chocolate and candy
- ice cream and dessert
- fast food like French fries and burgers
- frozen food like pizza and pasta
- sweet treats like muffins, buns, and cakes
- processed meats like sausages and deli meats
- foods with certain chemical additives, like nitrites or nitrates
- Head to the produce and fresh food section of the store first. Stock up on veggies, fruits, and whole foods.
- When in doubt, even a 2-second glance at the label can help. Oftentimes, a really short ingredient list means you’re in the clear, while a super long one (looking at you, Maruchan ramen) is prob pretty processed. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it can be helpful if you don’t feel like spending your days researching ingredients. And if you need assistance learning to decipher nutrition labels, check out our guide here.
- Make friends with your kitchen. Research shows that cooking at home is strongly associated with better diet quality overall. We know schedules get busy, so if you’re not up for making every last item in your kitchen, choose strategic opportunities to meal-prep. Even making one meal at home per day can lead to healthier eating habits.
There’s a lot of variation in what people count as processed. Some people say wine counts as minimally processed, while others swear any alcohol at all is a no-go. Others say dried fruit without added sugar is fair game from time to time, while others turn their heads at the slightest glimpse of a raisin. Some swear off tofu or PB, while others are like, it’s fineee!
In the end, you get to make the call based on your unique needs and preferences. You do you!
There are a couple of diets out there that are loosely based on the foundations of unprocessed eating. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the below diets can be extreme and potentially harmful when it comes to eating a balanced, whole foods diet.
According to the Whole 30 website, following this diet means:
Eating “real food,” which they describe as:
- seafood, meat, and eggs
- veggies and fruit
- natural fats
- herbs, spices, and seasonings
They recommend eating foods with a “simple or recognizable list of ingredients, or no ingredients at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.”
Avoiding the following:
- No added sugar, real or artificial. This includes maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, Splenda, xylitol, etc.
- No alcohol. “In any form, even for cooking.” They also suggest skipping tobacco.
- No grains. Nada. Including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sprouted grains, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Also, grains that are commonly added to foods, like bran, germ, starch, etc.
- Most forms of legumes. Including beans (black, pinto, red, chickpea, garbanzo, etc.), peanuts (including peanut butter and peanut oil), and all forms of soy (soy sauce, miso, tofu, edamame, soymilk, etc.)
- No dairy. No cow, goat, or sheep products like milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, etc.
- No carrageenan or sulfites. Check the label for these preservatives.
- No Whole 30 “substitutes” for your faves. This one seems kind of cruel, TBH, but the site says you’re not supposed to recreate your favorite treats and eats with Whole 30-approved ingredients. So, no Whole 30 “Cheesecake Factory cheesecake” or whatever. 😞 The site claims that creating substitutes will lead you to keep the same coping mechanisms and eating habits as when you started.
- No looking at the scale. And no taking any body measurements for 30 days. This is to encourage you to look at all the other benefits of eating this way, instead of just appearance or weight loss. (Even if that’s a bonus, too!)
Some specific off-limit foods that fall under the list, according to the site, include pancakes, bread, tortillas, biscuits, muffins, alternative flour pizza crust or pastas, granola, ice cream, commercial-prepared chips, or deep-fried French fries.
As the name suggests, you’re supposed to keep this up for at least 30 days to see what changes happen.
Read our complete guide to Whole30 here.
Again, we’re not here to call your diet dirty or clean — we’re not your mom! What you eat is up to you. But the methods of eating often called clean eating are related to the unprocessed food diet and worth mentioning.
While there are variations of this diet out there, in general, it’s based on fruits, veggies, fats, protein, and whole grains. It sometimes involves taking specific supplements, but we’re going to leave that part up to you and your doc.
It involves avoiding the following:
- processed foods like white flour and white sugar
- artificial sweeteners
- sugary drinks
- foods with chemical additives like food dye and nitrites
- foods with preservatives
- artificial foods like processed cheese slices
- saturated fats and trans fats
- calorie-dense foods with limited nutritional value (think donuts, Cheetos)
Read our complete guide to clean eating here.
An unprocessed food diet means different things to different people. But in general, eating foods that are unprocessed to minimally processed like fruits, veggies, eggs, meat, seafood, and natural fats leads to positive health outcomes and may be worth a try.
Minimizing ultra-processed foods like packaged snacks, fast food, and sugary drinks is also associated with improved health and wellness.