Clean Eating: What Happens When You Give Up Highly Processed Foods

Thinking about giving up highly processed, packaged foods? You might experience these changes.

You've probably heard plenty of nutrition talk about eating "clean eating" and avoiding highly processed foods. But what exactly is processed food?

"Any food that has been altered in some way during preparation is technically processed," said Mara Weber, RD, a clinical inpatient dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. "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."

Not all processed foods are necessarily unhealthy—consider baby carrots and plain yogurt, both of which are good for you. But in some cases, foods can be healthier when consumed in their most natural, recognizable state, Weber explained.

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," Weber said.

Other times, processing may infuse unhealthy ingredients by adding more sugar, sodium, or trans fats. Too many of those things can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or weight gain.

Be careful if you want to pursue clean eating, as some diet variations will ban entire food groups, leading to nutritional deficiencies. But reducing your intake of highly processed foods such as candy and soda is never a bad idea.

Weber said that if you choose to cut out highly processed foods from your diet, your body will undergo some adjustments. Here are five things that might happen when you nix packaged cookies, chips, and more.

You Could Experience Fatigue or Irritability When You Start Clean Eating

Depending on how much processed food you are 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," said Weber, adding that cutting out sugar can have a similar effect.

 But there is good news: Those symptoms don't typically last long, according to Weber, and your body will likely go back to normal after a period of adjustment.

You Might Think Foods Are Too Sweet or Too Salty

You aren't going to suddenly dislike a favorite dessert overnight. Still, in time, those cravings you experience for packaged snacks or manufactured sweets may die. 

"Don't get discouraged if it takes time to transition to a less processed lifestyle," said 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," Weber suggested. "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 explained, adding that it can take 10 to 15 days for taste buds to regenerate.

Eventually, after ditching processed stuff for a couple of weeks, you may find items with added sugar or salt taste overly sweet or salty.

Your GI Tract May Need Time To Adjust

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," explained 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, Weber added.

You May Lose Weight

Over time, reducing processed food can help you lose weight. After removing those additional calories from unneeded ingredients, you may see the scale dip. 

"This lifestyle change can help you lose weight and prevent obesity," said Weber.

You May Feel More Energized and Focused

Of course, some of the benefits of reducing processed foods can be experienced almost immediately. 

"It's not all delayed gratification," noted 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.

A Quick Review

Clean eating and cutting out overly-processed foods from your diet can bring about a slew of health benefits, helping you lose weight, feel more energized, and more.

Struggling to cut out every single treat? Weber pointed out that you don't need to eliminate all processed foods from your diet to experience benefits. As previously noted, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Try not to fall for extreme variations of clean eating that encourage you to eliminate entire food groups from your diet.

Keep an eye on the daily limits for sodium and added sugar outlined by the Department of Agriculture, but do feel free to honor your foodie desires in moderation. 

Weber suggested: "If it's a food you love, and you restrict yourself from ever having it, you may ultimately end up binging on it later."

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  1. American Heart Association. What is clean eating?

  2. Harvard Medical School. Clean eating: The good and the bad.

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