Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Will the Real Food Please Stand Up, Part II

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Processed vs Unprocessed

I'm not sure it's so easy to eat a healthier diet simply by dividing foods into processed and unprocessed. A slice of white bread is processed, but so is a slice of multigrain bread, just less so (specially if it has lots of seeds in it). A baked potato is not processed, but is less healthy than that slice of multigrain bread, specially in the way that the potato can spike blood sugar.

Processed foods follow a continuum of amounts of processing. How do we figure out which processed foods are too processed, and which aren't so bad? In that pizza I might order in today, the crust is highly processed, but I can get a bunch of vegetables on top. So, where would that pizza, as a whole, fall in the continuum of processing? Just how healthy/unhealthy is it?

Processed v. Unprocessed Foods

Hi Donna,

You're right. There's quite a bit of debate about which foods are better. For example, I would say that the potato was better than the multigrain bread despite its GI index, but depending on who you ask, you'll get a different answer. You must also consider existing health concerns and what various foods do to the body. The GI index is useful up to a point, but you have to remember that the GI index is based on foods eaten alone. Typically when we eat a meal, we are eating more than one food, so the GI index's useability decreases.

I'm going to try to cut and paste a table that I share with my clients below. Hopefully you will find it helpful in determining how bad is bad... I generally tell people to minimize their consumption of highly processed foods, try to eat more unprocessed foods and eat partially processed foods in moderation.

Unprocessed Foods
Corn (raw, whole)
Fruits (raw or dried without any additives)
Beans/legumes (dried or fresh)
Whole grains (e.g., quinoa, millet, oat grout, buckwheat grout)
Vegetables (raw, whole)
Raw Dairy (fresh raw milk, dried milk, raw cream)
Meat, fish, and eggs
Nuts (raw)

Partially Processed (“semi-fake”) Foods
Corn products (e.g., tortillas)
Unsweetened applesauce, frozen berries, canned fruits (100% fruit, no additives)
canned beans with no additives
Flours and processed grains (e.g., white or whole wheat flour, oat bran, oatmeal, wheat bran)
Vegetable oils; canned vegetables with no additives
Dairy products (e.g., evaporated milk, cheese, yogurt, butter)
Animal fats (lard)
Roasted or salts nuts, Nuts or Nut butters with no added sugars or preservatives
No sugar-added juices, coffee and teas (without added sugars or preservatives)

Highly Processed (“fake”) Foods
Corn tortilla chips, juice containing high fructose corn syrup
Fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, Squeezable fruit sauces, Sugars and sweeteners
beans/legumes with added sugars or preservatives; Prepared meals (e.g., dried soup, Lean Cuisine)
Pastries, cookies and crackers; Pasta products; bread made with enriched flours; Breakfast cereals
vegetables with added sugars or preservatives, Sugars and sweeteners
Fat spreads and shortening; Formula and complementary foods; Ice cream and frozen desserts
Sausage and prepared meats; Prepared meals (e.g., dried soup, Lean Cuisine)
Nuts or Nut butters with added sugars or preservatives
Soft drinks, packaged juices, coffee and tea with added sugars or preservatives

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Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.


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