Could you give up processed food for an entire year?

Megan Kimble

In 2012, Megan Kimble did something many twenty-something, city-dwellers would find unthinkable: she went a full year without eating processed food.

In her new book Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, the author and food policy advocate details her 12-month journey getting to know food—where it’s grown, processed, and everything it goes through before landing on grocery store shelves.

Her goal was to learn if it was possible (on a very tight budget) to redirect her purchasing away from big, highly processed food companies to local, sustainable farmers and producers.

“At first, my definition of unprocessed meant if I could theoretically make it at home,” explain Tucson-based Kimble. She ground flour from wheat berries, baked bread from scratch, and (after a few failed attempts) made her own chocolate. But she eventually realized it wasn’t so simple. “It became a really complex issue for me because of course all food is processed. So what makes food too processed?”

We chatted with Kimble to get the answer, and see what she learned from diving head first down the rabbit hole of the food system.

How did your definition of “processed” change throughout the year? I started the year looking at the foods themselves, honing in on the nutritional difference, like with refined and whole grain. By the end of the year, what actually became more important to me was the system around each food, the difference between a local grower and a large industrial system.

So what makes food too processed? Every individual has to decide for themselves. For me, buying flour milled locally, even if grains are being refined, seems so much more sensible than buying unprocessed and not knowing where it came from.Unprocessed

Were there any foods that were tough to decide if they fit? Wine was one where I had no clue. I was planning on making wine at home until I realized how expensive the equipment is. I interviewed winemakers and learned there are different scales of production for wine, just like anything else. The cheap wine you get at Trader Joe’s, which is what I had primarily been drinking, definitely undergoes a different level of processing than wine from a local winemaker.

So did you end up switching to local? I tried to buy local wine whenever possible, but that was a budget issue. A winemaker who’s making small batches of wine has to price it higher. Luckily, I was able to drink microbrews or local beers because that industry is much more mainstream.

What about local produce? Locally grown tomatoes aren’t actually that much more expensive than organic tomatoes at Safeway. For things like cheese and bread, it becomes more significant, but eating locally on a budget is possible. You end up spending a little more on the ingredients themselves, but you can make really delicious, simple, inexpensive meals with them.

How did eating simpler meals impact your appetite? Yeah, that was a huge revelation. I, like many women, had dieted and eaten processed diet food like low-fat cheese and low-carb tortillas. Once I started eating whole foods, I was constantly full, and I didn’t gain weight. It’s harder to overeat because your body gives you cues, whereas stuff like fake sugar makes it harder for your body to know when it’s full.

What foods were hardest to let go of? Chocolate was the hardest. Sugar, in general, was really hard. I have a huge sweet tooth. But the thing that I missed the most wasn’t a specific food, but the social aspect of eating.

Yeah, I bet. Did your social life suffer at all? I was lucky to have a really great, patient group of friends who knew my project and were on board with it. If they were going out for pizza, I’d eat at home and join them for a beer, or I’d find something unprocessed on the menu. I didn’t want to say “I ate unprocessed but I didn’t go out all year.” I wanted to prove the opposite.

What unprocessed rules do you still follow? I still eat about 90 percent unprocessed. When I’m at home, I cook, also because I’m still very much on a budget. It’s been awesome to maintain the habits I’ve created, like making food in bulk and being able to use it for lunches all week. Just that ability to throw together unprocessed meals, knowing how to make stuff quickly that tastes good and that’s really simple.

What rules have you stopped following? It’s really nice to have the option to go out and be spontaneous, and to go to brunch with friends, or have a cookie in a coffee shop. But for everything else, I feel better and I like the way it tastes, so why would I go back?

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(Photos: Headshot by Stephen Meckler; book cover, Harper Collins)

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