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11 Diet Expert-Approved Processed Foods

Processed foods are the bad guys and gals on the block: You know they're no good, but you just can't stay away.
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As it turns out, people in the U.S. are seriously stocking up on highly processed foods—the health saboteurs make up more than 60 percent of the calories in the foods we purchase, according to research conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And that's a problem, considering these foods are generally higher in fat, sugar and salt. Plus, studies link the intake of processed foods with heart failure and high blood pressure. The (maraschino) cherry on top? The more processed the food (i.e. the higher in added fat or refined carbohydrates), the more addictive it is, a recent study out of the University of Michigan suggests.

But there's good news: Not all processed foods are going to make you tip the scale and put your health at serious risk. Here's how to find your healthiest options:

First of all, look at the ingredient list—the shorter this list, the better, says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. She also suggests sticking to foods that have wholesome foods listed as the first few ingredients (that means they're the main components of the finished product; if it has sugar listed as the first ingredient, stay far, far away). And speaking of ingredients, white processed flour and added sugars are two you'll want to avoid—they cause a rapid spike in blood sugar followed by a crash, which leaves you hungry and less able to control your appetite, says Molly Kimball, registered dietitian with Ochsner's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.

The bottom line: Your processed food picks should have some sort of nutritional value—like healthy fats and fiber, says Lisa Young, PhD, RD, author of The Portion Teller Plan. And if all else fails, add these nutritionist-approved processed foods to your grocery list:

Nut Butter

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Justin's Classic Almond Butter, 2 Tbsp

Calories 190
Fat 16 g
Saturated Fat 2 g
Sodium 0 g
Fiber 3 g
Sugar 2 g
Protein 7 g

With two ingredients (total!) in each of these jars, it's no wonder Kimball recommends them. Not only that, but two tablespoons clock in at 190 calories, with enough satiating fiber and protein to keep you full through until dinner.


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Mini Babybel cheeses, Original, 1 mini wheel

Calories 70
Fat 6 g
Saturated Fat 4 g
Sodium 160 mg
Fiber 0 g
Sugar 0 g
Protein 5 g

Proof that good things come in small packages: these little cheese rounds. Gans calls them a "wholesome snack" since they're made of 98 percent milk. Plus, the originals have a mere 70 calories, so they won't mess with your calorie count.

Frozen Entree

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Kashi Frozen Entrees Chicken Florentine, 1 entree

Calories 290
Fat 9 g
Saturated Fat 4.5 g
Sodium 550 mg
Fiber 5 g
Sugar 1 g
Protein 22 g

When it comes to freezer meals, Kimball sticks to Kashi because the company uses whole grains instead of white, processed carbs. Her favorite? This grilled-chicken-and-veggies combo that comes served over a bed of whole-grain pilaf. The finishing touches: a drizzle of white wine sauce and Parmesan cheese–and all that only sounds caloric.

Frozen Dessert

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Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt Bars, Chocolate Fudge, 1 bar

Calories 80
Fat 0 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Sodium 35 mg
Fiber 1 g
Sugar 11 g
Protein 6 g

When you opt-in to eating a dessert, upping your calorie intake is a given, says Gans. But that doesn't mean you have to derail an entire day's worth of eating just to satisfy your sweet tooth. Enter, these straight-from-the-freezer treats. One of Gans' go-tos, this bar from Yasso has nonfat milk and Greek yogurt listed as its first two ingredients, meaning two wholesome foods are the main components of this dessert. Plus, with 80 calories per pop, it's a guilt-free way to get your fix.


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Original Cheerios, 1 cup

Calories 100
Fat 2 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Sodium 160 mg
Fiber 3 g
Sugar 1 g
Protein 3 g

When it comes to cereal, nothing trumps a classic. One of Young's recommendations, plain Cheerios boast whole grains, low sugar counts and a respectable serving of belly-filling fiber per serving.

Salad Dressing

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Newman's Own Lite Caesar Dressing, 2 Tbsp

Calories 70
Fat 6 g
Saturated Fat 1 g
Sodium 420 mg
Fiber 0 g
Sugar 2 g
Protein 1 g

Normally, "Caesar dressing" is code for "don't you dare eat me." Not so with this dressing—Gans suggests turning to it when a DIY version just isn't in the cards. It has enough fat to help your body absorb important fat-soluble vitamins, but not enough to counteract your healthy salad selection.

Nutrition Bar

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Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond Kind bar, 1 bar

Calories 200
Fat 15 g
Saturated Fat 3 g
Sodium 15 mg
Fiber 7 g
Sugar 5 g
Protein 6 g

All three of the experts we talked to agreed that this is the way to go if you're reaching for a bar. And it's no wonder: If you're choosing from their Nut & Spices line, each one's a good source of fiber and low on sugar. A standout flavor to try? Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond—Gans grabs one of these when she's craving something sweet.


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Beanitos Original Black Bean chips, 12 chips

Calories 140
Fat 7 g
Saturated Fat 0.5 g
Sodium 55 mg
Fiber 5 g
Sugar 0 g
Protein 4 g

Who says you have to cut chips altogether? Keep the crispy snacks coming, just opt for these bean chips, suggests Kimball. Though they are fried, you get more protein and fiber than you would with a regular chip, she says.

Canned Foods

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Blue Runner Creole Cream-Style Red Beans (No Salt Added), 130 g

Calories 130
Fat 1 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Sodium 35 mg
Fiber 6 g
Sugar 2 g
Protein 9 g

Fact: Between the sifting and draining and actual cook-time, making fresh beans can be a bummer. That's where these guys come in. They're flavorful, high in fiber (6 grams per serving) and antioxidants and don't have added salt, says Kimball.


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Back to Nature Golden Honey Oat Graham Crackers, 8 crackers

Calories 110
Fat 2.5 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Sodium 130 mg
Fiber 2 g
Sugar 7 g
Protein 2 g

While those Double Stuf Oreos should probably be kept off the menu, not all cookies will wreak havoc on your waistline. One brand that offers a great variety? Back to Nature. Just stick to the ones that list whole grain flour as the first ingredient (like the Golden Honey Oat Graham Crackers and the Triple Ginger Cookies), suggests Kimball.


Eat This!

Fage 2% Greek Yogurt, 1 7-oz container

Calories 150
Fat 4 g
Saturated Fat 3 g
Sodium 65 mg
Fiber 0 g
Sugar 8 g
Protein 20 g

Practically a Holy Grail of healthy eating, yogurt certainly counts as a processed food. Stick to the variety with 2 percent fat and pair it with fresh fruit, recommends Gans. To find the best yogurt for your body, look for a container that has more protein than sugar, even for unflavored varieties.

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