You've probably heard plenty of nutrition talk about eating "whole" or "clean," while avoiding highly processed foods. But what exactly is a processed food? "Any food that has been altered in some way during preparation is technically processed," says Mara Weber, RD, a clinical inpatient dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "Most of the time when we talk about processed foods, we're referring to those packaged items found in the freezer aisle, at the deli, or those junk foods that sit on the shelves for months at a time."
A diet is typically healthiest when foods are consumed in their most natural, recognizable state, Weber explains, and processing sometimes removes nutritious ingredients. Take refined grains like white bread or rice, for example: "refined" means the bran and germ have been removed, which also "removes fiber, iron, and other nutrients," she says. Other times, processing may infuse unhealthy ingredients, such as by adding more sugar, sodium, or trans fats. Too much of those things can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or weight gain.
If you choose to cut out processed foods from your diet, your body will undergo some adjustments, Weber says. Here, five things that might happen when you nix packaged cookies, chips, and more.
You could experience fatigue or irritability
Depending on how much processed food you were eating to begin with, you may notice increased fatigue or irritability when you cut those items from your diet. For example, "for those who usually consume a lot of caffeinated beverages, if cut cold turkey, this could also mean headaches," says Weber, adding that cutting out sugar can have a similar effect. But there is good news: These symptoms don’t typically last long, she says, and your body will likely go back to normal after a period of adjustment.
You may eventually think foods are too sweet or too salty
You aren’t going to suddenly dislike a favorite dessert overnight, but in time, those cravings you experience for packaged snacks or manufactured sweets may die down. "Don’t get discouraged if it takes time to transition to a less processed lifestyle,” says Weber. "There’s always a learning curve, especially if you’re a junk food junkie." Start by becoming an avid nutrition label reader: "Check the ingredient lists to know exactly what is being added to your foods," she says. "Limit high-salt foods and steer clear of hydrogenated oils or foods that have one of the first ingredients listed as sugar.”
Once you cut back on hidden sources of sodium and sugar, your body should start to develop a "taste" for the whole stuff. And don’t give up if you have a setback; it just takes time. "When you cut out high-sugar and high-salt foods, your taste buds take some time to adjust,” Weber explains, adding that it can take 10 to 15 days for taste buds to regenerate. Eventually, after ditching processed stuff for a couple weeks, you may find that items with added sugar or salt actually taste overly sweet or salty.
Your GI tract may need time to adjust
Just like your taste buds, your stomach may need to get used to a new diet. "Many changes your body experiences after you consume less processed foods can be linked to those healthy dietary changes," says Weber. "For example, increasing your fiber intake, an ingredient frequently removed during processing, can cause your body some gastrointestinal discomfort like bloating or loose stools as it adjusts to the higher fiber load." Don’t worry: Your GI tract adjusts quickly to these beneficial changes, and your gut will be healthier as a result, she adds.
You may lose weight
Over time, eliminating processed food can help your waistline. After removing those additional calories from unneeded ingredients like fats and sugars, you may see the scale dip. "This lifestyle change can help you lose weight and prevent obesity," says Weber.
You may feel more energized and focused
Of course, some of the benefits of eliminating processed foods can be experienced almost immediately. “It’s not all delayed gratification," says Weber. "You may feel more energized, more focused, a better mood, maintain a healthy weight, even sleep better." Also good: Feeling immediately better will help motivate you to continue making healthy food choices in the future.
Struggling to cut out every single treat? Weber points out that you don’t need to eliminate all processed foods from your diet to experience benefits. Keep an eye on the daily limits for sodium and added sugar outlined in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, but do honor your foodie desires every now and then, she says: "If it’s a food you love and you restrict yourself from ever having it, you may ultimately end up binging on it later."