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Cut it Out: Processed Foods

Processed foods are hard to avoid, but the fewer you eat, the better you’ll feel

By Bob Seebohar

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.

It seems like everywhere you look, there is another food transformed from its whole form and made into something “better,” according to the food industry.  Most athletes associate food processing with packaged foods, but it is important to understand that whenever a raw food is transformed into something else, it is defined as food processing. Some processing is more natural while some includes chemical alterations of non-food additives. There has been a movement recently among athletes to choose whole foods, but is it really worth trying to avoid processed foods?

foodInterestingly, food processing dates back well before the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until then that the alteration of food began to shape our society. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a significant goal of food processing was to serve military needs. Since then, it has expanded to cater to busy families, the food industry as a whole and athletes.

Processed foods likely make their way into your body in one shape or form and not all of them should be considered a health risk. I will note that it is extremely difficult, although not impossible, to avoid processed food; however, what may be important to note are the potential benefits and drawbacks associated with processed foods.


  • Increasing seasonal offerings of different foods
  • Improving safety by deactivating certain micro-organisms (think milk pasteurization)
  • Increasing shelf life thus preventing short spoilage time (think frozen fruits and vegetables)
  • Improving overall taste
  • Fortifying foods with additional nutrients
  • Decreasing food preparation time


  • Decreasing nutrient density (loss of certain nutrients)
  • Food additives may trigger allergic reactions or other detrimental health consequences
  • Potential cross contamination in the manufacturing process

In general, the food processing industry does have quality-control standards in place for safety, yet the take-home message is centered around the need to include processed foods in our daily nutrition plan. From a nutrition point of view, most health professionals agree that food obtained closer from the ground with as little processing as possible is the best choice. However, as athletes living in modern society, it is extremely difficult to not include some processed foods in our normal eating routines as you can see from the list below.

Processed Foods

  • White flour
  • White rice
  • Bread, pasta
  • Cakes, cookies
  • Canned fruit and vegetables
  • Pizza
  • Precooked foods and frozen dinners
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Lunch meat
  • Bacon
  • Refined oils
  • Margarine
  • Salad dressing
  • Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise
  • Soft drinks
  • Syrups and most sugars
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • To many an athlete’s dismay...chocolate
  • And yes, energy bars, gels and sport drinks 

The choice is yours and while it may be extremely difficult to follow a lifestyle that does not include any processed food, I typically recommend athletes reduce the use of these foods as much as possible.  When including processed foods in your nutrition plan, at least try to choose ones that are not filled with too many artificial flavors, colors, chemicals or additives.

How To Do It
Transform your meals to cut back on processed foods. 

You used to eat: Cereal
Try: Omelet with cheese, fruit smoothie with milk 

You used to eat: Ham and cheese sandwich from the deli
Try: Salad with fresh grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots 

You used to eat: Breaded chicken parmesan with pasta
Try: Grilled salmon, asparagus and small side of sweet potato wedges (seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper and cumin)

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. Bob’s book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, teaches athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body’s ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition. For more information and to order the books, visit or contact Bob at