5 unbelievably easy ways to avoid harmful processed foods

Perhaps the most simple rule? Read the ingredients label on everything you purchase

Published July 13, 2015 7:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Richard Drew)
(AP/Richard Drew)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetAre you a little freaked out that all of the processed foods you’re eating might be less than wonderful for your health? Do you feel overwhelmed about what on earth to eat instead, so you don’t do anything about it?

Sometimes the hardest thing about making a change is simply deciding where to start and realizing that you don’t have to know everything before you take your first step.

Sure, you could flip your entire diet upside-down all at once and embrace the cold turkey strategy for ditching processed foods. But I’m guessing you don’t find that idea very appealing, so I’m giving you five simpler strategies that will help you start ditching processed foods without losing your sanity.

What are “Real Foods”?

No matter what strategy you choose, you’ll need a way to figure out which foods are “real” and which foods are too processed to keep in your diet. Follow this simple rule: Read the ingredients label on everything you purchase. If you can easily identify every ingredient as having come from a plant or animal in nature, then it’s a keeper. If not, leave it on the shelf.

Sure, you can research even deeper with food additives information and animal welfare issues (which won’t necessarily be represented on food labels), but we’re just taking our first step, remember? So let’s just start with this one simple rule.

Pick Your Strategy

1. One Enemy at a Time

One popular way to start ditching processed foods is to target one food additive or chemical ingredient to avoid. You choose one additive (e.g., MSG, high fructose corn syrup, food coloring, natural flavor), and you stop purchasing anything that contains that ingredient. Once you’ve mastered that ingredient, you move on to another one. You don’t have to know everything about every food additive that exists; you just find one you feel may be harming your family’s health and then refuse to purchase it any more.

2. Weekly Recipe Make-Over

One of the most overwhelming things about ditching processed food is that you likely don’t know how to cook anything. Well, there’s only one way that is going to change—start practicing.

Force yourself to practice by cooking one new recipe each week. Once you’ve mastered an additive-free version of a dish, avoid the old processed version of that dish from that point forward. Before you know it, you’ll have built an entire additive-free recipe portfolio of delicious meals. Don’t think you have to create any recipes yourself. Just search the Internet for things like “additive-free recipes,” and you’ll find all sorts of yummy ideas.

3. Start Sweet

Looking for a fun way to get started? Why not start with dessert? Homemade treats are a great way to build your confidence and win over the hearts and support of your family members. Choose this strategy if you’d like to build up your additive-free desserts arsenal (and your confidence) before conquering entire meals and worrying that everyone is going to turn their nose up at the dinner you worked so hard to prepare.

4. Master a Meal

Feeling a bit more advanced? Choose one meal and commit to eating an additive-free version of that meal every day. Once you’ve mastered that meal, and it no longer overwhelms you in any way, move onto the next meal.

Start with whichever meal is most convenient for you to prepare. Maybe breakfast time is always rushed for you, so you choose dinner as your meal to master. Or maybe dinner sounds the most overwhelming, so you choose breakfast because those menu items seem simpler to tackle (e.g., fried eggs or oatmeal). Or maybe you choose lunch because you’re fine with taking a salad to work every day, and that feels pretty do-able for you to figure out. It really makes no difference which meal you choose. Just pick one and commit to making that one meal from scratch every single day.

5. Run Out & Replace

A popular strategy for getting started with an additive-free diet is to convert your pantry to more natural products as you run out of the processed versions you have on hand. Commit to no longer purchasing chemical additives, but don’t throw anything away. As you notice you’re getting low on an item (e.g. pancake syrup or peanut butter), start researching how you can select an additive-free version when you run out.

Don’t reinvent the wheel here. You can search the Internet for “additive-free grocery guides,” and you’ll discover that others have already done all of the research to help you find additive-free products at the grocery store.

Get Your Mind Right

Once you start reading ingredient labels, you’re probably going to discover that much of what you’re eating really isn’t even food. It’s a bunch of mysterious ingredients whipped up in a chemistry lab somewhere. If you are truly convinced that you shouldn’t be ingesting this stuff, it’s time to suck it up and start making some serious changes.

No matter which of these strategies you choose, you’re only going to be as successful as your attitude will allow. So before embarking on any changes, it’s worth taking a little time to get your mind right. You simply cannot sit around having a pity party for yourself because you wish you had a personal chef or because it’s not fair that you have so many dishes to wash now or because it’s so hard to make these changes. Sure, these things may be true, but concentrating on your struggles isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Take a bit of time to mourn these things if you must, but then ditch the pity party and get on with the business of focusing on your strategies. Be grateful that you care for yourself (and your family) enough to go through the trouble it takes to nourish your body to the best of your ability. Start viewing shopping, cooking and doing dishes as acts of love rather than burdensome chores. You’ll be amazed at how much happier you’ll feel.

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By Christy Pooschke

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