Your Plant-Based Unprocessed Foods List

Ready to eat more whole foods? Use this dietitian-approved, plant-based unprocessed foods list to jump on the real food bandwagon!

a variety of whole foods arranged in bowls such as peas, basil, parsley, mushrooms, rice

What does it actually mean to eat off of an unprocessed food list? What is a real food diet, and what are unprocessed foods?

These are some of the most common questions I get as a dietitian. We’re also going to discuss the top foods to add to your plant-based, unprocessed foods list.

Woman holding a bunch of oranges

What’s a whole-foods, plant-based diet?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of plant-based eating. But we’re only getting started with this health trend.

This year, you’ll want to embrace diets and eating styles focused on whole foods—and turn to nature’s bounty instead of relying solely on pre-packaged snacks and meals.

Following a plant-based, whole-foods diet means that you’re relying mostly on foods that are minimally processed or not processed at all.

So this includes reaching for items on your unprocessed foods list, such as beans, avocados, berries, and olives.

This also means that you’re relying less on processed foods like veggie burgers, pre-packaged French fries, and even pasta.

What’s a processed food?

To be totally straightforward, I eat processed foods. Most of them are minimally processed.

Processed foods aren’t the horrible-for-you foods you necessarily think they are. Sure, the category includes baked goods with trans fats (please skip!), but it also includes frozen veggies and canned beans.

Simply put, processed foods are food items that have been altered in any way. Even fruits and vegetables can be processed.

An apple that’s been sliced and packaged is processed, and so is a bakery item that combines a dozen ingredients.

Obviously, there’s a big range of processed foods out there, and whether you should be cutting out a processed food depends on what that food is.

Examples of processed foods include salad dressings, wheat and white bread, brown rice, and even olive oil.

Some processed foods contain ingredients like artificial colors and flavors. While your taste buds may like these, I recommend reading a food’s ingredient list to avoid them.

If you’re wondering if cutting out processed foods can help with weight loss and also lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases, the answer is yes. You can definitely get health benefits by doing so.

But again, it depends on what you are cutting out of your diet exactly. Plus, many processed foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals that are nutrients of concern for Americans, such as iron and vitamin D.

Eating from a minimally processed foods list can make healthy eating easier, budget friendly, and help reduce food waste.

a paper bag containing churros with sugar on top

Ingredients to avoid

When it comes to reducing your intake of processed foods and creating your unprocessed foods list, it helps to know about ingredients to eat less of.

Added sugar

Sugar is often added to processed foods as a preservative. There’s a big difference between the amount of sugar and the amount of added sugar on a product’s nutrition label. 

It’s easy to get confused by which sugars you should limit. Thankfully, a new labeling requirement will help you decipher the difference between natural sugar and added sugar.

When talking about added sugars such as maple syrup, it’s important to note that The American Heart Association recommends limiting them to 2 Tablespoons (6 teaspoons) per day for women and 3 Tablespoons (9 teaspoons) for men.

While I don’t use a lot of added sugars in my recipes, this daily amount leaves some wiggle room for adding a little sweetness to recipes, such as in a morning smoothieovernight barley breakfast bowl, or in a baked good like muffins or mini cakes.

Trans fats

Many packaged foods used to contain trans fats, which we’ve long known are detrimental to our health.

These days, less foods contain them but you should still watch out for trans fats keywords on nutrition labels, including partially hydrogenated oil and shortening.

Trans fats raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body and increase risk of heart disease. They may also contribute to obesity and memory loss. Here’s a brief primer on why you should avoid trans fats. 

Research in the Journal of Health Psychology reveals another way trans fats can cause harm. Eating them may mess with your mood. In the study, San Diego researchers analyzed the trans fat intake of 4,992 subjects.

People taking in more trans fats had a harder time with emotional awareness and clarity.

The study authors didn’t note why the finds were such—but other research linking trans fat intake with higher risk of depression notes that the fats may alter mood by increasing inflammation in the body.

Sodium

This sodium allowance is no more than 2,300 milligrams daily for most Americans and less than 1,500 milligrams daily for people ages 51 and older or people who are African-American or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. 

Sodium is added to many processed foods as a preservative, so you should shop for lower-sodium packaged foods.

a plate filled with cooked salmon, veggies, rice and apple slices

10 unprocessed foods to reach for

When you think of an unprocessed foods list, you probably think of ditching crunchy chips in favor of crisp veggies. But don’t forget about these ideas.

1. Apple

Wholesome and tasty fruit are minimally processed healthy foods that provide you with the nourishment you need to get by.

Apples have multiple health benefits. At just 95 calories per medium apple, they contain antioxidants that may help protect against cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and liver cancer, per a review study in Nutrition Journal.

2. Oranges

Oranges are wonderful to add to your unprocessed foods list.

They boast an excellent amount of vitamin C—a nutrient we could all use more of right now. Oranges will stay good in your fridge for weeks or more. Oranges are great in an orange strawberry smoothie.

two tomatoes, one cut in half, on a wooden surface

3. Tomatoes

A surprising benefit of tomatoes? These red gems of a vegetable supply melatonin, which helps regulate your internal clock and is helpful in promoting sleep.

I enjoy slicing cherry or grape tomatoes in half, then drizzling them with extra-virgin olive oil. Guess what? The oil also provides melatonin!

4. Kale

Just one cup of cooked kale provides 23.8 milligrams (mg) lutein and zeaxanthin. Kale is a great food to add to your unprocessed foods list.

The average American gets between just 1.4 milligrams (mg) and 1.9 mg of combined lutein and zeaxanthin daily, per the study.

While there’s no daily recommendation for these vitamins, recent research shows a benefit to taking in 10 mg lutein and 2 mg zeaxanthin daily.

Cook kale when you can, since you’ll pack in a lot more veggies and nutrients. One cup of cooked kale, for instance, is equivalent to about eight cups of raw kale.

orange lentils in a large bowl

5. Lentils

Lentils are super nutritious: In one cup cooked, you get 18 grams of protein, making them an excellent source of the nutrient. You also get an excellent amount of fiber, 16 grams.

I find lentils to be super tasty when paired with eggs, such as in an egg toast recipe.

6. Edamame

Aka soybeans, edamame makes a meal truly filling. You can steam and salt them as an appetizer, or you can add them to a salad.

7. Chickpeas

This food is an excellent source of zinc and are one of the best vegetarian sources of zinc.

Zinc is a mineral that’s important for the development of some of the cells that are in charge of defending your body against toxins or foreign substances that threaten your immunity.

I love to roast chickpeas and either eat them as a snack or as a salad topper in lieu of croutons.

8. Avocado

I advise my clients to have a healthy fat—for example, a quarter of an avocado, with each meal. Avocado contains healthy mono- and  polyunsaturated fats that may help to keep you full and feeling satisfied.

a person's hands holding a bunch of almonds

9. Almonds

Almonds supply protein, healthy fat, and fiber—all nutrients that help you stay fuller for longer. You can have a Tablespoon or two of almonds, or mix almond butter into almond butter protein balls.

10. Pistachios

Nuts are great to include in a plant-based diet, and many people don’t know that pistachios are among the highest-protein snack nuts. In fact, they’re a good source of plant protein and provide 6 grams of protein per 1-ounce serving!

Final Thoughts

When it comes to your plant-based unprocessed foods list, you have many items to include, such as apples, kale, avocado, chickpeas, and edamame.

Sources

I’d love to hear from you! What do you think of this unprocessed foods list?

Ready to eat more whole foods? Use this dietitian-approved, plant-based unprocessed foods list to jump on the real food bandwagon!
Plant-Based Eating |

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