While helping myself to yet another takeout meal one night, I reflected on my erratic college eating habits. Aside from the dent in my wallet from snacking and eating out, I was oblivious to the additives, sugars, and fats that these processed foods could be hiding.
My friends know me as inept in the kitchen, so I came up with a brilliant challenge to alleviate my nutritional guilt and prove them wrong: stop eating meals with processed ingredients for one week. How hard could it be to resist chips and artificially sweetened drinks? Little did I know, this processed foods avoidance would push me to my dietary limits.
It wasn’t until I wandered the aisles of the grocery store that I realized how restricted my diet was. A recent study on American families’ diets revealed that three-fourths of our calories come from highly processed purchases. Bread is processed. Yogurt is processed. Even bagged spinach is processed!
Defining unprocessed as anything I could make at home or that contained 5 or fewer ingredients, I settled on chicken, snow peas, and a huge bag of grapes. I was surprised to see that many items I usually buy, such as tortillas and granola, failed the “5 ingredient rule.” As college students, we value convenience, but quickness and freshness seldom go hand in hand.
If buying groceries was difficult, eating out was even harder. When on campus, the only safe choice was a salad, but even salad dressing was off limits (I allowed myself oil and vinegar since they don’t have additives, though they are technically processed). On one long day of classes, I had a fruit smoothie for lunch but couldn’t feed myself anything else until I returned home after 8 pm and could cook for myself.
After many nights of produce-only dinners, any photos of french fries or donuts left me longing for an indulgent meal. Halfway through the week, I walked into a candy store, saw stracciatella gelato, and was almost sent into a tailspin. Another day, a friend offered me a chocolate cookie and I happily took a bite before I realized that I was violating my food restrictions
Though I did feel healthier and less groggy by cutting out most fats and carbs, eating fresh is a huge commitment for a busy college lifestyle. If I were to permanently cut out processed foods, I’d need to make more frequent grocery trips, learn new recipes, and resist eating out with friends.
For anyone who wants to become more aware of how much processed food we eat every day, I’d recommend this extremely eye-opening experience. Stock up on produce, closely read ingredient labels, research restaurant menus before social outings, and save cooking time by prepping meals in advance.
Upon ending my processed foods regimen and being able to buy a croissant on the way to class or enjoy a sandwich while doing homework, I reaffirmed to myself that moderation truly is the key to happiness.