Processed foods are an easy choice when you’re on the go, but you should only eat them as an occasional treat. Learn what processed food is and how it affects the way you look and feel. Learn helpful tips to cut back on processed foods and add more whole foods into your diet.

What are Processed Foods?

Processed foods are foods that have been taken out of their whole form. Processed foods usually come in bags, tins, wrappers or boxes.

Some examples include cookies, crackers, microwave or frozen meals, canned foods, deli meat or granola.

Why are Many Processed Foods Bad for Me?

Many processed foods have more calories, fat, sugar and salt than your body needs. All of that extra stuff can cause you to gain weight or feel sluggish and tired. Feeling tired and sluggish can hold you back from doing the things you love.

What Types of Processed Foods are There?

There are many types of processed foods. Some of them are okay to have more often. Others should only be eaten as a treat.

The arrow below shows you which processed foods are better choices than others.

How Do I Know If a Food is Processed?

  • Read the ingredient list. If the ingredient list has lots of words you can’t pronounce or has lots of extra sugar and salt, it’s processed.
  • Count the ingredients. If food has 5 or fewer whole ingredients, it’s a better choice.
  • Check the ingredients for whole grains as the first ingredient. Whole grains are better for your body than other types of grains.
  • Check if the food is in its whole form. For example, is the apple whole or mixed with other ingredients? Is the chicken fresh or frozen? Whole foods are a better choice than processed foods.
  • Swap out 1 processed meal or snack for a whole or healthier one. For example, trade deli meat for fresh cooked meat in your sandwich. Top yogurt with dryroasted nuts instead of granola. Have a piece of fruit instead of chips.
  • Pay attention to how you look and feel after you eat whole foods and processed foods. Whole foods can help you look and feel better than processed foods. Processed foods can make you feel bloated (gassy), tired or grouchy. They can also make you gain weight.
  • Teach yourself to “unlike” processed foods. If you swap out processed foods for healthier choices, over time, you will crave processed foods less. This might take a while, but you can cut back slowly, 1 snack or meal at a time.

Did You Know...?

There are many types of processed foods. Some of them are okay to eat more often. Others should only be eaten as a treat. You should choose healthier foods that can help you look and feel your best more often than processed foods. If you want to have a cookie for dessert or chips as a snack 1-2 nights a week, that’s okay. Just be sure to choose healthier options more often than processed foods to keep you looking and feeling your best.

A Note For Your Family...

It can be hard to limit how much processed food you and your family eats because processed food is everywhere. If you buy processed foods, look for foods with fewer ingredients. You should also look for ingredients that you can pronounce, like whole grains, fruit and vegetables.

One of the most important things you can do is to set a good example for your teen. If he/she sees that you’re eating fewer processed foods, he/she will have a higher chance of also eating fewer processed foods.

Rev. 8/2017. MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.