What really is the harm in eating processed foods?

To help understand why sometimes foods should only be consumed sometimes, it is important to know what makes them different from foods that should be consumed all the time. All the time foods generally are natural and have not been processed or have been minimally processed (such as meat, if your family consumes animal protein). These natural foods contain elements in their original format – protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and/or fiber. Some examples of all the time foods are: fruits, vegetables, lean cuts of meat, fish and seafood, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

Sometimes foods have been processed mechanically or chemically to change the state of the natural foods they were derived from. Most often the flavor, texture, color, smell, and/or nutritional content have been modified to create a product that is not normally found in nature. To do this, hidden fat, salt, and/or sugar, along with other chemicals are often added to the food for stability. Some examples of sometimes food are: fast food, most chain restaurant food, industrial made chips, cookies, and baked goods, candy, sodas, chemically enhanced meats and fish, frozen dinners, and partially prepared foods (heat-and-eat).

By law, all of the alterations to sometimes foods must have passed safety standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States if the product is sold in the United States. The same will be true for the foods sold in other nations; they will have passed the safety standards of that country.

Current research is showing that when sometimes foods are consumed too frequently, they can have a negative effect on health.

Some recent research can give you new information to help you decide what is right for your family:

  1. Babies who are fed lower amounts of processed foods, and higher amounts of fruits and vegetables, have a lower likelihood of developing food allergies. (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, August 2013).
  2. Children who eat less processed foods and consume a healthy diet before age 2 are more likely to have a higher IQ at age 8 than children who consumed a less healthy diet. The researchers found that children who were breastfed at 6 months and who ate a healthy diet of mostly natural foods at age 15 and 24 months had an IQ that was up to two points higher at age 8 than those who had a diet high in junk food. (European Journal of Epidemiology, August 2012).
  3. The risk of elevated blood pressure in children and adolescents has risen 27% over the past 13-years and has been linked to the over-consumption of salt. Researchers concluded that the dependence on processed foods was a major contributor. If high blood pressure is not controlled, children are at risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney failure. (National Institute of Health, August 2013).
  4. Eating fast food frequently (3 or more times per week) has been linked to higher risk of severe asthma and eczema in children. Teens were 39% more likely to develop severe asthma and children were 27% more likely to develop severe asthma or eczema. (Thorax, January 2013).
  5. Children and teens who ate their main meals at restaurants consumed too much sugar, saturated fat, and sodium as well as calories. Children who ate at home and ate home prepared meals consumed less calories as well as sugar, saturated fat and sodium. (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, November 2012)

Based on this current research, the take away information to help you choose what is the right balance for your child between “sometimes” foods and “all the time” foods includes:

  1. Infants and Toddlers (0-3 years): IQ may be linked to nutrition. Providing optimal nutrition in the early years of life may positively influence intelligence. If possible, breastfeed exclusively for 6 months. Also, increased consumption of natural foods and reduced consumption of processed foods may reduce the risk of allergies.
  2. Pre-school (3-5 years): Pre-schoolers are learning to explore their world and should be served a wide variety of healthy foods to help them develop a varied diet. Providing a diet rich in natural foods while limiting processed foods may reduce the risk of allergies and eczema as well as helping to maximize the child’s IQ.
  3. Children and Teens (5-19 years): Providing natural foods at the majority of meals and snacks may reduce your child’s risk of heart disease and may assist in weight management. Preparing simple meals containing natural foods at home may help balance calories and limit unhealthy fat, salt and sugar. Keeping restaurant meals, whether sit-down or fast food, to occasional events may also lower the risk of allergies and eczema.

The truth is sometimes foods are part of our modern life – for convenience, time savings, taste preference, or logistics. Families that have decided to ban them from their diets have made a decision that is right for them. However, some families rely on sometimes foods to help out in a pinch. Knowing what makes sometimes food different from all the time foods and knowing what the research is showing about overconsumption of sometimes foods can help parents know what the right balance is for their family.

Knowledge is Power

What new information did you learn from this posting? Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.

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