I quit processed foods for a month. It was time consuming and expensive, but it forced me into some healthier habits.

Left: Me having an extremely processed coffee drink after the month of 100% unprocessed foods was over. Right: a typical unprocessed dinner at home. Hilary Brueck / Insider
As a public health reporter, I've read countless studies on the dangers of processed foods.
Processed foods have been linked to bad health outcomes, including cancer, weight gain, and early death.
I eliminated ultra-processed foods from my diet entirely for a month, and here is what happened.
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Scientists have slammed processed foods for years because they are linked to some dire health outcomes, including cancer, weight gain, heart disease, and early death.
My regular "processed" diet included packaged yogurt, fruit, chips, dip, and frozen pizza, and salads. Do not judge me! Hilary Brueck / Insider
Scientists still aren't entirely sure what exactly has to do with the mechanics of ultra-processed foods that are so bad for us, but these products are not only looked down on for being cheap, sugary, and easy to eat.
There really seems to be something worse about the way the food is designed and made that makes us eat more of it and get sicker than if we were to eat fresh produce.
Any food that is mass produced in a factory with added color, preservatives, or additives to add flavor or texture is a processed food (I'm looking at you, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas).
For a month during the pandemic, I decided to cut all processed foods out of my diet and see what happened.
Fresh fruit is expensive, but I didn't actually make anything to take away during the experiment. Hilary Brueck / Insider
I was pretty much always home anyway, so I figured I'd try cooking more fresh food while I was locked up and see how the changes affected my weight and mental health.
Before starting my experiment, I tracked my usual mood and caloric intake with smartphone apps to develop a baseline.
Dark colors indicate a better mood. Hilary Brueck / Insider
I planned to use a food tracking app during my unprocessed food experiment to keep track of my nutrient intake.
I usually don't use an app to track my food. Knowing that this could affect what I ate, I spent two weeks tracking my normal caloric intake and recording how I was feeling.
I've learned that I eat around 2,000 calories a day and my mood is generally upbeat.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
I used Moody to report how I was feeling three times a day, and keep a log of what I ate and how much I exercised on MyFitnessPal.
Now it was time for the month-long experiment. Sometimes it is obvious that a food is being processed. But sometimes it can be difficult to choose a “processed” food.
So long, processed foods! Hilary Brueck / Insider
If you think about it too much, you will find that whatever you put in your mouth has been processed in one way or another to get to you, even if that process was just yourself and it was plucked from a tree Has.
When it comes to some kitchen staples like oats, the rules aren't that clear.
For this experiment, I cut out what nutritionists call "ultra-processed" foods.
Not the cheapest grocery store I've ever bought. Hilary Brueck / Insider
The NOVA food rating system used by nutritionists divides foods into four categories, from least processed to most. For the most part, I only ate within the first two groups during this experiment.
It wasn't cheap. That table of food cost me about $ 110.
I stuck to Group 1 and 2 foods, which means they were barely processed.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
In general, I was allowed to eat unprocessed foods like plants, animal meat, eggs and milk, mushrooms and seaweed, and some minimally processed staples like butter, sugar, oil, and salt.
According to the NOVA classification system, "unprocessed or minimally processed" Group 1 foods include edible parts of plants and animals. It's okay to freeze, boil, ferment, dry, mash, pasteurize, or refrigerate these ingredients so they don't spoil too quickly.
For example, coffee beans can be roasted (thank goodness), grains can be ground into flour, and milk can be fermented to make yogurt.
Group 2 foods are cooking ingredients derived from Group 1 foods, such as vegetable oils, butter, sugar, honey, and salt. I also included these in my diet.
I tried to limit the amount of "processed" Group 3 foods I ate, but I didn't cut them out entirely.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
Group 3 is considered "processed" because the foods it contains mix Group 2 elements with Group 1 elements to make them taste better and last longer. I allowed myself cheese, beer, wine and freshly baked bread from this group.
In Group 4 NOVA foods called "ultra-processed" products, researchers identify most of the worrying health trends. I've stayed away from these foods for the entire month.
For example, the tomato sauce in my fridge didn't make the cut. Granulated garlic, citric acid, and calcium chloride were banned from the new diet. Hilary Brueck / Insider
Ultra-processed foods are usually made in a factory and contain many ingredients to keep them shelf-stable.
So, flavored yogurt, chocolate, hard alcohol, energy bars, most sauces and, to be honest, almost everything you find in the supermarket that is not in the aisles of the products has been banned.
A few things that I had hanging in the kitchen had to be thrown away: a box of biscuits, some tomato sauce in the fridge, a pre-packaged muffin, and some tortilla chips. Goodbye!
I had to get rid of my usual peanut butter. It can say it has "no preservatives" on the label, but I would still consider it ultra-processed.
It's processed. Hilary Brueck / Insider
A lot of peanut butter contains hydrogenated vegetable oil "to prevent separation". That is a red flag that the food is made in such a way that it lasts on the shelf for a long time. Ultra-processed!
Since peanut butter was a staple for my breakfast (and is essentially just crushed nuts), I replaced my Skippy with a more expensive brand of fancy peanut butter that didn't contain any anti-separation ingredients.
The new peanut butter only had two ingredients: peanuts and salt. Hilary Brueck / Insider
When I opened the lid I could definitely tell that there weren't any extra ingredients in here to prevent separation.
Other changes to breakfast were also on the agenda. My processed, sweetened, one-serving packets of oatmeal had to be dumped for the old-fashioned whole oat variety.
Quaker oats are unprocessed, but the small instant packages are not. Hilary Brueck / Insider
Instant oats have been made into chopped up chunks to make them cook faster and have a softer texture. They can also contain colors and preservatives, which were both banned for me, and they usually have lots and lots of ingredients on the back of the pack (while oats is just one).
When I wanted oatmeal for breakfast in the unprocessed month, I opted for the whole variety of oats. As a result, I didn't add any sugar (just a spoonful of honey and some milk) which definitely made breakfast healthier than it would have been if I had just opted for what was convenient.
When I started eating an unprocessed diet, I realized that classification isn't necessarily about nutrition itself, but rather about figuring out where your food is coming from - make sure there aren't any hidden ingredients in it .
I mixed butter and sugar for oatmeal cookies. No processed foods here! Hilary Brueck / Insider
Most of the things I ate had to be made in my own kitchen with just a few simple ingredients.
I baked oatcakes during the experiment, which may not be the healthiest snack, but were decidedly unprocessed.
When I had doubts about whether something was approved on the diet, I tried to follow a basic rule of thumb: could I do this in my home kitchen with only unprocessed ingredients?
Zucchini biscuits. Hilary Brueck / Insider
I made my own vegetarian treats (like these zucchini oat cookies) instead of eating candy.
Due to the restrictions, I ate more fresh food by default. A good thing because plants are great for your body in many ways.
Vegetables, tomatoes and avocado were often served for lunch. Hilary Brueck / Insider
Part of the problem with processed foods is not so much what they are as what they are not.
They're not nutrient-dense like fresh produce.
In general, plants are a good staple food because they are high in fiber and contain disease-fighting phytochemicals that can reduce inflammation. They're also loaded with vitamins and minerals that can help fight off disease.
"Good nutrition leads to a better immune system," said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's health emergencies program, during a 2020 COVID-19 press conference.
Dinner usually consisted of some version of vegetables or other vegetables with a protein.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
When I first started cooking, I noticed how similar so many of the best diets are in practice.
Whether people swear by the Mediterranean diet, high fat keto, or some other fad, if they do it well they'll eat lots of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, and maybe a few beans and a little meat.
"Your unrefined carbohydrates, your fruits, your vegetables, your whole grains, beans, lentils, things like that. These are some of the healthiest foods on the planet," said Dr. Shivam Joshi, who teaches medicine at NYU, previously told Insider and sums it up.
When you eliminate space in your diet that was taken up by processed foods, there is a lot more room for the good products to flow in.
Smoothies were my friend over the month as well. Hilary Brueck / Insider
Raspberries and chia seeds, like oats, are good sources of fiber.
I ended up using the slow cooker more than usual. Eating fresh every day was a chore, and some foods were spoiled during my experiment before I could handle them.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
It was nice to control how much sugar and salt went into each meal, but sometimes it felt like a second job to have so much fresh food on hand.
Meal planning was essential and I didn't always do it perfectly. For example, I had to throw away some chicken breasts that were badly performing.
Eggs became a household staple, both jumbled and hard-boiled.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
I often had them for lunch. Otherwise I would conjure up a salad, smoothie or leftover food from the night before noon.
Fortunately, I worked from home during the pandemic and was able to cook for a few minutes around noon. It would have been a lot harder if I had tried to make meals this fresh in an office.
The diet made it almost impossible to eat out. If I got hungry on the go, I usually just went home. I indulged myself with braised vegetables, cheese and homemade bread from a local eatery one night. None of this was ultra-processed (I think).
Hilary Brueck / Insider
Every takeaway menu item had to be examined for hidden ingredients, and I wasn't up to the task. I pretty much avoided ordering takeout or dining out all month because it was just too hard to find out if things were freshly made or not.
"Does the cheese on this pizza have emulsifiers?"
This is just not a level of detail that I really want to get into with a stranger.
While on a road trip, I stopped at a gas station and found a box of pineapples. Hooray!
Hilary Brueck / Insider
It was several dollars more expensive than the 99-cent peanut butter crackers or sugary iced coffee I might have bought otherwise, but it was tasty. It's also loaded with vitamin C and manganese and can even aid digestion. Result.
I admit that I gave in on the diet a couple of times as well.
Marla Dawn Studio / Shutterstock
I had a piece of biscuit cake for a friend's birthday. It tasted so sweet that my tongue tingled. Didn't really enjoy it because I haven't had anything that sugary in all month. It was annoying and uncomfortably cute.
At the last dinner (fennel salad) it felt perfectly normal to eat this way, but daily preparation of fresh food was still taking a long time and on busy days I was very frustrated with the plan.
Last dinner felt natural to eat this way, but it was still taking a long time to cook. Hilary Brueck / Insider
Most of the time I had fun with the diet, but after a few long days I would have given anything to just toss a frozen pizza in the oven.
In theory, that's a great idea, but a lot of Americans don't have time for it.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
Ultimately, eating an unprocessed diet for a month was a nice reminder of some essential nutritional principles.
However, it's important to remember that not everyone has the time, budget, or access to fresh food that makes this type of eating plan sustainable.
"Ultra-processed foods have many convenience benefits. They're cheap. They last a while," National Institutes of Health food researcher Kevin Hall previously told me.
"You don't have to have all the fresh ingredients on hand that could spoil. You don't have to have all of the equipment to prepare these meals from scratch."
Even he's a busy dad who sometimes feeds his kids chicken nuggets.
"You have to be aware of the fact that people lead their daily lives," said Hall.
Unprocessed Eating Month was a nice reinterpretation of some of the junk food habits I picked up at the start of the pandemic. But as for my mood, I've found it fluctuates more than my diet in terms of exercise and stress.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
At the end of the month, I weighed four pounds less than when I started this experiment (although my weight is fluctuating two or three pounds anyway). I have now maintained this lower weight with my normal diet.
I wonder how much of the difference could be in just tracking what I've been eating all day and eliminating sugary snacks.
Eating really sugary foods after the experiment gave me a terrible stomach ache. It was a nice reminder to keep avoiding them. It's not like they're doing me a favor anyway.
I almost didn't feel like quitting this diet! But I don't want to have to calculate every little meal pull I take every day. However, many of the cooking habits and food excretions I've picked up on here are worth maintaining.
Hilary Brueck / Insider
I really missed mayonnaise, soy sauce, hot sauce, mustard, and every other number of multi-ingredient flavor enhancers.
I'm so excited to have my spices back. And to be able to eat with friends.
I love you, processed sauces. Hilary Brueck / Insider
It would be really socially isolating to go on this diet over the long term. But eating fresh for a month was a great rewrite.
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