Processed Foods

Is There Space on the Plate for Processed Foods?

October 31, 2016

Processed foods have been the hot topic of many a nutrition discussion in recent years. The concern? It has been blamed for numerous ailments, from obesity to heart disease, cancer to diabetes.

As food preparation has gotten easier and more convenient over the years, the quality of many foods has decreased, with many important nutrients being “processed” out. Concerns have also arisen over food additives and preservatives. Living in our fast paced society, convenience and ease are very important to many people, however, so is the quality of the food they consume. So, is it possible to still include processed foods into a healthy diet, particularly for someone that is a weight loss surgery post-op?

What are Processed Foods?

First, let’s define processed food. Processed food is much broader than just the picture of boxed and pre-packaged foods we all tend to associate with the term. Processed describes any food that has been altered from its natural state. Therefore, not only are TV dinners, boxed meals, frozen pizzas, and canned goods are considered processed, but so are cut up fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat bread and baked fish. However, not all processed foods are created equal. The degree to which they have been processed is what sets minimally processed foods (i.e. cut up fruits and vegetables) apart from the most heavily processed foods (i.e. boxed dinners and frozen TV dinners).

Preservation, visual appeal, texture, use and convenience are among the most common reasons foods are processed. These factors play a part in how the food is processed, which may be positive or negative.

Examples of positive processing practices include nutrient fortification and/or enrichment, preservation of nutrients (i.e. frozen fruits and vegetables are flash frozen to retain their nutrient quality) and convenience through pre-peeled, pre-cut fruits and vegetables and pre-made whole grain breads. Negative processing practices largely include the addition of food additives and excess nutrients. One of the most concerning practices today is the addition of too much sugar, fat and sodium and the deletion of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Added to increase the taste and texture of foods, sugar and fat increase unnecessary calorie consumption, and thus can impede weight loss, and increase the risk of certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Heavily processed foods are the most likely to have high amounts of these nutrients as well as other additives.

Sugar content, in particular, should be given close attention, reading labels and keeping added sugar consumption as low as possible (the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons [24 g) per day for women and 9 teaspoons [36 g] per day for men). After weight loss surgery, high sugar foods also increase the risk of dumping syndrome.

Sodium consumption should be no more than 2300 mg/day (equal to about a teaspoon of salt) – processed foods often account for more than half of our sodium consumption, as many processed foods are very high in sodium. Furthermore, serving sizes are often tricky with heavily processed foods, as they are often small, calorie dense servings, leading to overconsumption of calories without even knowing it.

Can Processed Foods be Included in a Healthy Diet?

So, can processed foods be included in a healthy diet after weight loss surgery? Absolutely! The key is monitoring WHAT you are eating and HOW MUCH you are eating them. Many easy high protein foods are processed foods, such as deli meat, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, canned tuna and even chicken breast or ground beef. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are also examples of processed foods that can be included in the diet post weight loss surgery, but should be monitored for sugar and sodium content, choosing those options that have no added sugar or sodium, when available.

Choosing more of the minimally processed foods will undoubtedly serve you better in the long term, as heavily processed foods will have more of those characteristics that are more likely to sabotage weight loss, than aid it. Now, does that mean you can never have a TV dinner or frozen pizza again? No – it is ok to have some flexibility in your diet, however, it is important to keep these items to a minimum, opting for the least amount of processing most of the time.

keri layton


Keri Layton RD, CSO, LD has a strong background in providing medical nutrition therapy for many nutrition-related health issues, including diabetes, renal disease, heart health, nutrition support, as well as general nutrition and weight loss. For the past three years, Keri does private nutrition consulting as well as bariatric consulting with Bariatric Dietitian Services.

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