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Conversations about childhood obesity call a lot of attention to how the average American family eats — and the truth is that most of us know we could be doing at least a little better when we’re putting food on the table.
Processed food has a bad reputation, and for the most part, it deserves that reputation. Here’s what you need to know about processed food and what you can do to help your family make healthier choices.
Processed food is any food that isn’t a whole food. Blueberries and broccoli are whole foods, while blueberry toaster tarts and hot dogs are processed foods.
Not all processed foods are unhealthy, though — for example, cheese is a processed food, but it started as milk before it was combined with cultures and turned into cheese. Low-fat cheese is a wonderful addition to your family’s diet, and in fact, many minimally processed foods can be easily (and healthfully) incorporated into a balanced meal.
Instead, it’s highly processed foods that can pose problems.
Highly processed foods often contain sweeteners and additives used to keep them shelf stable, improve their flavor, and change the way they look. These foods aren’t prepared, but manufactured — and they’re full of things you’d never find in nature.
It’s important not to moralize food. It’s not that processed food is evil — processed food simply doesn’t offer your body anything it needs to thrive. Your body can work better when you choose whole, real food instead of ultra-processed food.
Processed food isn’t made with nutrition in mind, meaning it can throw a wrench in any healthy eating plans. Companies that make processed meals and snacks aren’t thinking about the macronutrients and micronutrients of what they’re making; they’re only concerned with how good it looks and tastes.
Processed foods aren’t designed to be well-rounded meals that supply your body with the necessary components of nutrition. They’re more like novelty items that you can eat when you feel like it. If your diet is composed mostly of processed foods, your family may be lacking a variety of key vitamins and minerals.
While processed foods may contain some vitamins, minerals, and protein, they’re hidden in the mix of saturated fat and added sugar. Fat and sugar will make anything objectively taste better — they add flavor to a dish, but they also contribute empty calories that can contribute to pediatric weight gain.
Empty calories are calories that don’t supply your body with anything valuable. A surplus of empty calories from unhealthy fats and added sugars, especially if consumed regularly, can contribute to obesity and diabetes, and can have a significant effect on your cardiovascular health.
The good news is that there are plenty of other ways to make foods taste good without refined sugar and added fat. Think of the sweet and tangy flavor of a whole strawberry, or the rich and creamy flavor of a roasted pistachio.
Fruit is naturally sweet, and nuts are naturally fatty. If you want to make the most of those flavors, you can enjoy them straight from a natural source.
Highly processed foods are often low in fiber and high in sodium. Sodium contributes to bloating and water retention, and a low-fiber diet can make digestion difficult, which can have an overall negative effect on gut health.
If your family is experiencing gut health issues from a diet heavy in processed foods, consider incorporating probiotic supplements into your new and improved wellness plan. Probiotics can help restore the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, making it easier for the body to digest food.
You’ll often hear that cutting out processed foods is a difficult and massive undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s as simple as buying some different stuff at the grocery store and allowing your family reasonable room in their healthy diet for the occasional treat.
If you take a slow and sensible approach, you’ll barely notice the lack of processed food in your house. You and your children will feel healthier without much additional effort.
If your children see you toss their favorite foods in the trash, they’ll more than likely have a few things to say about it.
If they see their favorite chips hit the trash can and they’re told they can never have them again, they’re definitely going to rebel, and will probably want to eat processed snacks even more.
Use a delicate touch to phase processed foods out of your house.
If you have processed food in your home, don’t waste it — just don’t repurchase it the next time you run out. Substitute processed snacks for options like air-popped popcorn, dried fruit with no added sugar, pita bread and hummus, and low-fat yogurt, and replace sugary drinks with sparkling water or 100% fruit juice.
Let your kids decide which of these snacks they like the best, and make sure you keep them stocked. They’re more likely to get on board if they feel like they’re part of the process. It’s also a great teaching opportunity. Your child can learn to make balanced choices when they’re able to express what healthy snacks they prefer.
Your kid is going to have a cupcake again at some point in the future, and they’ll probably eat a chicken nugget eventually, too — and everything is going to be okay.
It’s hard to set a goal like “cut out all processed foods forever” and stick to it. It just isn’t feasible in the real world.
Your children will have friends to share snacks with, and they’ll sleep over at their houses. You’ll find yourself in a situation where you don’t have easy access to a healthy meal. There will be brief moments where processed food creeps its way back in. And all of that is okay.
If you’re making the right choices at least 80% of the time, having the occasional bit of “junk food” isn’t the end of the world. Make your target goal almost always cutting out processed foods. It’s a sustainable goal that won’t drive you or your children crazy.
The center aisles of the grocery store are where you’ll find most of the processed food. The perimeter of the store, on the other hand, is where you’ll generally find produce, meats, eggs, and dairy. Spend as little time as possible in the center aisles.
However, there are still some processed foods hiding out in the frozen section. Walk right past the frozen pizza until you spot the frozen produce. Frozen vegetables are a simple solution for families who find that fresh fruits and veggies go bad before they have a chance to use them.
If you build a freezer stash, you’ll always have fruits and vegetables on hand.
When shopping for bread and grains, keep a watchful eye. Bulk rice and quinoa won’t have any additives, while anything that comes with a flavor or seasoning packet may contain ingredients you’d prefer to avoid. When you buy bread, stick to sprouted grain and seeded breads.
You may be baffled to learn that many types of bread contain ingredients like corn syrup to make it taste better. Your best bet is to double-check the ingredient list before you toss a loaf in your cart.
You’re really busy, and some days, it feels impossible to find the time to cook a healthy meal, clean up, put the kids to bed, and get enough sleep for yourself.
That’s why meal prepping with fresh ingredients can be a lifesaver! You won’t need to reach for quick, processed food on a busy day when you have a healthy meal waiting to be tossed in the oven or the slow cooker.
Prepare and store a few meals when you have the time. You can store marinated or seasoned meat and vegetable combos in the fridge for the short term or the freezer for the long term. All you need to do is throw them into your slow cooker or roast them in the oven.
You can also add some broth and turn your prepped blends into soup. Need to add a healthy carb? Toss some quinoa in the rice cooker. Keep things nice and simple.
Processed foods will always be a part of our life. Making a conscious decision to limit them as much as reasonably possible will help to improve your family’s health. Just be mindful of how you discuss healthy swaps with children.
Teach moderation and explain the value of balanced nutrition. Hiya Health is always here to support the nutritional needs of your youngsters while they’re learning to make healthy choices.
Processed foods: What you should know | Mayo Clinic Health System
Empty Calories: What Are They & Which Foods Are They Hiding In? | Houston Methodist On Health