Taking Back Our Plates: October Unprocessed | Civil Eats

Taking Back Our Plates: October Unprocessed

Last year, I was struck by a simple idea: What would happen if I went for an entire month without eating any processed foods? I had recently started on a personal journey of eating healthier, getting more exercise, and losing that extra 30 pounds. As I became more aware of the foods I was eating, I began to realize that almost every processed food—nearly anything that comes with an ingredient list—is likely to be laden with extra sugar, fat, and salt.  And preservatives, flavorings, and artificial colors.

Not all “processed” foods are bad, of course, but I realized that if I could define this nebulous term in some sort of meaningful way, I would have a short-hand way of choosing healthier foods. I wanted to find that sweet-spot where processing increases, rather than decreases, the healthfulness of food.  My current working definition became:

Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.

Said another way, if you pick up something with a label and find an ingredient you’d never use in your kitchen, it’s processed. I call it the “Kitchen Test.” If you could, at least theoretically, make it in your kitchen, then you’re good to go. There are other words we can use, of course.  Real, Whole, and Slow all come to mind, and if you prefer any of those then that’s great, too. Last Fall I convinced a few good friends to try it with me, and it was revelatory.

My expectations and sense of taste were “recalibrated,” so to speak. I started to identify individual ingredients in the foods I ate.  I didn’t crave those salty snacks. I found myself often in the kitchen, excited to see what I could cook next. I felt better, too. My friends and I took turns hosting small dinner parties, and shared our stories and experiences.  It brought us closer together.  Funny how real food does that.

A year later, I decided to try it again. This time, however, I wanted to share this experience not just with a couple of friends, but with as many people as possible. In early September I asked all the food bloggers I could find if they’d accept the October: Unprocessed challenge. The response was overwhelming.  Dozens of people—from a fabulous baker to a wedding photographer to a poor girl—enthusiastically came onboard.

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I set up a simple “pledge” page on my blog, asking people to sign their names.  I figured it would be impressive if we got maybe 50 people to sign up.  By the time the first of October came around, we passed 200. Even the Los Angeles Times and New York Times took notice!
This humble idea clearly struck a chord.  On the first day I asked people to share their reasons why they decided to participate.  Here are some of my favorite responses:
“Eating wholesome, unprocessed, local foods is good for our bodies, good for the environment, and it brings us back to a valuable connection with our food that we have lost in this age of convenience, waste and overindulgence.”

“I often suffer with the blues come Fall and Winter. I’m aware that diet affects mood, and I want to start this season right!”

“It’s time to fight back against the big businesses that push this processed junk on us.”
“I’m taking the pledge for my kids.”

“I took the pledge to prove to myself what I already know: Eating better will help me feel better.”

And here’s one bonus comment that actually made me cry:
“Already on the first day I made bread for the very first time in my life.”

Here we are, half-way through October, and nearly 400 people have taken the pledge. Through a variety of guest posts on my site, we’ve already discussed simple strategies for “eating unprocessed,” recommended a variety of easy and delicious recipes, and shared our personal experiences and expertise.
People are also coming clean about their missteps on their own blogs, whether that’s succumbing to temptation at a family potluck or mindlessly drinking a Diet Coke. As we proceed through the rest of the month, we’ll be looking at some of the bigger issues surrounding processed foods: Sustainability, artificial ingredients, food deserts, challenges facing manufacturers who want to provide unprocessed foods, and of course some delicious, unprocessed Halloween recipes.

A passionate community is building around this project, and I invite you to join us.  Don’t worry if you missed the first few days—you can start your own 30 day (or more!) challenge today, or just follow along with us through the end of the month. I firmly believe that we can improve our lives—and the world—through the foods we choose to eat.  October: Unprocessed is just the beginning, and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

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Andrew Wilder is a healthy foodie who likes to eat deliberately. He thinks Eating Rules, and writes about three of them—and everything in between. Follow Andrew on Twitter @eatingrules. Read more >

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  1. Meister @ Eat This Neighborhood
    Good for you, Andrew! I cut most processed stuff from my diet at the very beginning of 2010 and I've never felt stronger, healthier, or more in-tune with the good, real food the world has to offer. I've also been almost entirely headache- and illness-free all year, which was revolutionary!

    Incredibly commendable project; I hope millions follow your lead.
  2. GoneWithTheWind
    Salt is necessary for life. If you do not have a genetic predisposition to retain salt your body simply excretes excess salt. Sugar is essential for life. Your body turns 100% of carbohydrates into sugar which is what your body burns for energy. It makes no difference to your body if the sugar comes from fresh fruit and vegetables or "prepared food".
    Some people may indeed be allergic to certain foods and additives. If this is the case then of course you would be wise to avoid those things in your food.
  3. Meister -

    Thanks for the kind words! It seems we've struck a chord, and I hope many people will continue on this unprocessed journey long after the end of the Month. If you haven't done so already, would you please do me a favor and sign the pledge?

    GoneWithTheWind - You're absolutely right. We do need sodium and carbohydrates (sugar). However, we certainly don't need them in the quantities typically found in our modern diets!

    It does make a difference where the sugar comes from, though -- because of the various other nutrients and food elements that can come with it (naturally-occurring fiber, for example). Our bodies process a can of Coke very differently than eating a large handful of whole fruit, even if the sugar content may actually be about the same.

    There is also increasing evidence that not all calories are "equal" -- that we may actually get more energy out of the calories in processed foods than in unprocessed, whole, natural foods.

    Similarly, in this project I'm not specifically advocating against consumption of either salt or sugar, in their purest forms. I am, however, suggesting looking at the more "raw" versions -- those that haven't been bleached and/or chemically-processed.

    In general, I believe that when it comes to our foods, the closer to nature, the better -- which is just another way of applying the Kitchen Test.
  4. GoneWithTheWind
    It will suprise you to hear I don't disagree with what you said in your response (most of it anyway). What I object to generally is misinformation which is occassionally unintentional but often a result of a bias (ie. belief that salt is dangerous or meat or dairy will kill you, etc.).

    If by "we may actually get more energy out of the calories in processed foods than in unprocessed" you are referring to the well known fact that it takes more calories to digest lettuce then you get from it then I agree. If on the other hand you are implying some conspiracy by big food to put something nefarious in processed food I would disagree.

    I 100% agree with your last statement. I enjoy preparing a meal from raw ingredients although my pleasure comes from satisfaction that I can make a great meal for pennies more then any belief that there is substantial nutritional difference between my homemade spaghetti sauce and store bought. I do concede that store bought sauce isn't as tasty as homemade

    Sugar is the most maligned food in the world. It has been investigated extensively and the result of all these studies is that the only negative health effect they could identify from sugar is the possibility of increased dental cavities. Your body turns 100% of all carbohydrates into glucose. It doesn't matter if the carbohydrate comes from the sugar in a soda, the starch in an organic vegetable or the fructose from an apple. Yes the sugar from a soda will get into your bloodstream in less time then the starch turned to sugar from a vegetable but it is also true for the starch turned to sugar from a prepared food which you disapprove of. It can be difficult to sort myth from fact and bias from reality when it comes to food. There are plenty of web sites out there each pushing their own version of food superstition.

    Lastly there are certainly considerations for people who have health conditions that require specific foods or need to exclude specific foods. Clearly if you are diabetic for example you should follow a diabetic diet. There are many good reasons for people to choose their diet wisely. I simply want the information available to us to be as accurate as possible.
  5. What a wonderfully simple description of unprocessed food 'any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.'
    I love the concept of an 'unprocessed month' and although I'm a little late in joining in I'm really excited to get involved!!

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