There is no shortcut to nutrition, but limiting your intake of highly processed foods is probably as close as you can get. Though there is considerable argument over the optimal diet — is it vegan, keto, carnivore, low carb, balanced, high fiber, something else? — the one point almost every medical professional (and every study conducted on the topic) will agree upon is that highly processed foods should be avoided.

At first this can be a confusing idea. If new technology is good — the latest iPhone or car is usually faster than last year’s model — shouldn’t new foods made by scientists in a lab be better than older foods that haven’t been improved in hundreds of years? Though this is an appealing idea, when it comes to human health it turns out that is generally not the case. Almost every study of highly-processed food intake shows much worse outcomes than whole foods.

In today’s age of food tracking and calorie counting apps, it is easy to misunderstand food as simply consisting of calories from fat, protein and carbs. As long as you hit your total calorie goals and macro breakdown, everything is fine right? These variables are very important, but far from the full story.

How processed a meal is matters almost as much, and is an important question that often goes overlooked.

What exactly is “processed food”? Why are processed foods bad? How do you avoid them? Does the research really show any benefit from removing them? Are whole foods any better?

What is a processed food?

The official definition is...

A “processed food” is one that has been processed (or changed) in some way, so that’s it is different than how it is found in nature.

USDA defines processed food as “any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. The food may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.”