The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Eating Well During Quarantine: Are Processed Foods Really That Bad?

Posted in

Monday, Apr 13, 2020

Eating healthy has never been more important. But for those of us with a pantry full of processed foods, how do we make sure what we are eating is healthy?

As the world hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are cooking at home more than ever before. The task of cooking several meals per day for the entire family during quarantine can be daunting and exhausting. It can be easy to fall into a routine of constant snacking or cooking comfort foods to pass the time.  

By making healthy eating and exercise a priority, we can make a positive impact on both our physical and mental health. For those of us with a pantry full of processed foods, how do we make sure what we are eating is healthy?

When it comes to deciding what we should consume more or less of, it’s always best to stick with science. 

What are processed foods?

The term “processed food” instinctively conjures up a negative reaction for most people. Processed food gets blamed for a number of chronic health conditions such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, and some cancers. While there is no question that some processed foods are not the best choice, not all processed food is bad.  

The technical definition of processed food is quite broad: any food product that has undergone a mechanical or chemical transformation from the raw form to extend shelf-life, improve taste, or fortify with added nutrients. With such a broad definition, it’s no wonder why there is confusion. 

Minimally processed foods

Bagged spinach and salads, pre-cut vegetables, or bags of pre-shelled nuts all qualify as ‘processed’ even though they are healthy. Reduced-fat milk is considered processed because it is pasteurized and fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Nutritious and fiber-rich whole-grain cereal or bread that has vitamins and minerals added are all processed. Beans, tuna, and frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are all processed. Even though canned beans, vegetables, and soups typically have added sodium (which is used as a preservative), they are still generally healthy. If you are watching your sodium intake, simply rinse canned beans and vegetables to reduce the sodium content. 

While the examples above are considered minimally processed, there is another side to this story. Heavily processed foods are the ones we need to avoid or consume only in small quantities. 

Heavily processed foods

Most heavily processed foods often contain added sugars, sodium, and nitrites. These foods are often found in the center of the grocery store amid all of the boxes and bags of chips, cookies, crackers, donuts, cereals, boxed meals, and other pantry staples. These foods are often low in fiber and lacking in key nutrients, another disadvantage of consuming a diet with excessive amounts of highly processed foods.

Packaged meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, bologna, pastrami, and smoked meats are also heavily processed and should be consumed sparingly. Not only are these meats full of sodium and saturated fat, but they also produce chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCA) when cooked at high temperatures. HCAs have been linked to increased cancer risk in a number of animal studies. The nitrates in these meats can be converted to nitrosamines, which are also carcinogenic according to the American Cancer Society.  

The take-home message is that it’s not necessary to remove all processed foods from your diet. In fact, an increased intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans (processed or not) and fresh, lean meats are strongly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

If good health is your goal, then cutting back on heavily processed or smoked meats and snack foods is a very good idea. 

Don’t forget exercise

Daily physical activity is also very important during this difficult time. Staying active can have a very positive impact on our mental health. It’s perfectly okay to take a daily brisk walk or a bike ride around your neighborhood - just remember to keep practicing social distancing of at least six feet. Click on ‘Fit Tips’ at the top of our blog page for lots of information on at-home exercises that require little to no equipment. You can also see our fitness videos on YouTube or follow us on social media. Share your fitness and health stories with us by tagging @cooperinstitute or using the hashtag #GetActiveStayHealthy!