Today’s Solutions: May 22, 2024

From The Optimist Magazine

Fall 2015

Megan Kimble, a journalist based in Tucson, Arizona, decided to spend one year eating only whole, unprocessed foods. Her book Unprocessed: My Busy, Broke City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food tells about her journey.

Why did you decide to stop eating processed food? 

“A lot of reasons. There was the environment—I’d come of age in an era when global warming was all but assumed, when natural resources were suddenly scarce and our food system increasingly dependent on fossil fuels. There were political reasons, as I considered the enormous influence food companies wield in our national politics. And there were economic reasons—I wanted to spend what little money I earned endorsing my local food system, one that I hoped was visible, accountable and scalable. I was also broke, tired of reading about what I should do. I wanted, instead, to explore what I could do, given limited resources of money and time.”

What does “unprocessed” really mean, anyway? 

“All food is processed, at least to some degree—cooking is a kind of process, as is preserving. I decided a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my home kitchen. I could grind up wheat berries into flour (in fact, I did), but I couldn’t take that a step beyond to make refined white flour. I bought honey from local beekeepers but I couldn’t make refined sugar. I didn’t eat chemicals, emulsifiers, preservatives or any of the other thousands of additives that now appear in our processed and packaged foods.”

How did your diet change? What food items did you have to give up?

“Refined sugar was by far the hardest food to give up—notably, because I have a raging sweet tooth. And also, sugar is in everything, from mustard to marinara sauce, deli meat to salad dressing. I didn’t think I could make it a year without chocolate—if you buy a chocolate bar at the store, it usually contains refined sugar and some sort of emulsifier—so I learned how to make my own chocolate using cacao butter, cacao powder and local honey. Refined flour is another tricky food to avoid, partly because it’s so hard to detect. Even grain products that advertise “whole-grain” on the package also often contain some portion of refined grains—that’s why it’s important to always read the ingredient label.”

It sounds like you spent a lot more time purchasing and preparing food.

“I certainly did. But the biggest way my diet changed was simply that I started eating better food. Better for me, but also better tasting and better aligned with my values. Like so many women—and men—I’d struggled with my weight for years. Eating unprocessed taught me, finally, how to eat real food in moderate amounts—and how to do it without guilt or restriction, but with joy and communion.” 

What was the toughest thing about sticking to your plan? 

“Eating out was tricky. If I could, I always looked up the menu before I left, and asked lots of questions when I got there. But it’s really hard to know everything that you’re eating, especially when ordering out. And food is such a strong social connector—all across the world, we gather around food and drink, and it was hard to refrain from so many of these shared experiences simply because the food itself was processed. That said, as more people become aware of their food choices—as more restaurants fill their menus with real, fresh foods—eating out in the world, and thus connecting over food, will only get easier.”

What advice do you have for others who would like to cut back on processed foods? 

“Read ingredient labels on every package, for every food you buy. The more you look, the more you’ll wonder, ‘What is that? And why am I eating it?’ Check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Chemical Cuisine app—you can download it for free on Android or iPhone. They also publish a print guide. Enter an ingredient and you’ll find out what it’s made of, where it comes from, and what it’s used for. Even better, buy foods with no ingredient label (apples, corn, eggplant) or just one ingredient (oats, milk, honey). Every cook and every family is going to have to make their own bargain with processed food; it’s up to you to decide what makes food too processed. Start slowly and simply by paying attention to process.” | Marco Visscher | Find out more:

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