“What you put at the end of your fork is more powerful medicine than anything you will find at the bottom of a pill bottle.” – Dr. Mark Hyman, MD
One of the most important ways to support children’s health is through the foods they eat. From when your baby starts eating solids to toddlerhood when they can start to participate in making (and eating!) rainbow salads, every day of every stage of development presents new opportunities–and challenges–to eating real, nourishing food.
Making the consistent choice to eat real, whole foods can be challenging. Real food may not always feel as appealing as ultra-processed, prepackaged items. Gummies, puffs, cereal, and “healthy” bars, for example, are so easy to “grab and go,” and kids love them. However, these ultra-processed items have serious downsides. Not only do they offer little to no nutritional value, but they can also cause significant harm thanks to the additives they contain. For example, a recent study showed that a common food dye, FD&C Red 40 (also known as Food Red 17 and Allura Red), used to add color and texture to ultra-processed foods like candy, soft drinks, and some cereals, can lead to significant harmful effects on gut health, including inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease, among others. It can also affect allergies, immune disorders, and behavioral problems in children.
Eating real food, not ultra-processed frankenfood, is vital. In this article, I provide some background on real food, discuss some of the dangers of ultra-processed items, and address ways to support children in forming a strong relationship with real foods and healthy eating.
What Is Real Food?
“Real food” is unprocessed, or minimally processed food: edible parts of plants, animals (including eggs and milk), mushrooms, and water. These natural foods can be altered in various ways (for example by drying, crushing, filtering, or cooking or even freezing). Usually, these kinds of foods are prepared at home or in restaurant kitchens, using culinary ingredients like oils, butter, sugar, and salt. The cooking, fermenting, combining, or “processing” of these real foods in the kitchen to make other foods like cheese, bread, and canned fruit, for example, helps to keep these foods from spoiling, creates variety, and makes them more enjoyable to eat.
Ultra-processed items, or “frankenfoods,” on the other hand, such as soft drinks, sweet or salty packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified “real foods.” They are instead industrial creations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from substances and additives with little if any intact real food. They include ingredients not normally used in home or restaurant kitchens. Some ingredients are directly extracted from real foods, like casein, lactose, whey and gluten. while others are created through further processing, like hydrolyzed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, and high-fructose corn syrup. Ultra-processed items also include additives like preservatives, antioxidants, and stabilizers to increase shelf life.
Real Food Is Vital
We all know that eating food gives us energy. But research shows that our bodies react differently to ultra-processed foods as compared to more natural foods. A 2019 study compared a group of adults who, for two weeks, ate an ultra-processed diet to a group who ate foods made mostly from scratch. Both groups of adults consumed diets that contained similar amounts of fat, sugar, sodium and fiber, and everyone was allowed to eat until they were satisfied. The adults who ate ultra-processed foods consumed more calories and gained weight and body fat; the adults who ate less processed foods lost weight, had a reduction in cholesterol, and experienced an increase in a hormone that suppresses appetite.
While researchers are still trying to determine the reasons behind these differences in the groups, it’s clear that eating real food results in better health. Real food contains macro and micro nutrients that our cells use for growth and repair, and what we eat feeds our microbiome helping to keep a good mix of the right organisms, which will in turn help to keep us healthy. In short, food is medicine! “Every bite of food regulates your gene expression, hormones, immune system, brain chemistry and even your microbiome. What you eat programs your body with messages of health or illness.”
Dangers of Ultra-processed Frankenfoods
Even though ultra-processed foods may taste good, the research is clear: consuming ultra-processed foods compromises the health of adults and children results in obesity, metabolic risk markers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, asthma, depression, frailty, gastrointestinal diseases, and more. Unfortunately, more than ever, children’s diets consist of ultra-processed foods. “According to data from more than 30,000 kids ages 2-17, their total daily calories from ultra-processed foods jumped in the last two decades to 67 percent.”
When we consume ultra-processed items, we’re taking in high levels of sugar and starch, which leads to inflammation in the body and can result in immune reactions. We are also consuming additives that may not be safe. “The Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory approach to food additives does not consider the latest science on the health harms caused by additives that may be legally added to processed foods manufactured in the U.S.” For example, some additives that are legal in the U.S. are not permitted in the European Union because they can harm the nervous system in children. I mentioned red dye earlier, but all synthetic food dyes should be avoided because of their potential effect on the nervous system.
In addition, ultra-processed items, including fast food, can include chemicals like plasticizers from packaging and handling. These chemicals, which include phthalates, are harmful and can cause endocrine disruption as well as other disorders.
More Real Food, Less Frankenfood
One of the simplest ways to get rid of ultra-processed foods in your family’s diet is to buy fewer prepared and packaged foods and instead eat more whole, minimally processed real food. Easier said than done, right?! But take it product by product, and know that each small change you make is a step towards better health.
Here are a few tips:
- Eat fruits and vegetables with the seasons. You’ll enjoy fresher produce that way. And remember frozen fruits and vegetables! They are also high quality and very nutritious.
- Instead of buying sweetened yogurts, buy plain yogurt and berries. If it’s not berry season, you can buy frozen berries and cook them into a simple sauce, adding spices if you wish.
- Choose water and skip the sodas and sports drinks that are full of additives and provide nearly no nutritional value. Flavor water with lemon, lime, or other fruit if you’d like.
- Read labels for everything packaged. Choose the products with the fewest ingredients. Try this website tech that may help you deduce the least processed brand of packaged foods. The site uses machine learning to rank foods on a scale of 1 to 100 based on factors such as how many additives they contain and their degree of processing. The lower the score the better.
- Involve the whole family in preparing real food. Children take cues and draw conclusions from how each of their parents approach healthy eating.
- Short on time or inspiration? Food preparation and delivery services like Methodology, Thistle, and Factor all deliver a wide variety of meals made from high-quality, real food ingredients. Plentiful Kitchen, whose chef also sees food as medicine, offers everything from individualized meal planning services and cooking classes to delivery of fully cooked meals in the San Francisco Bay Area. And if you’re looking to pick something up on short notice, Bi-Rite has a delicious array of prepared real food for take-out.
Every bite of food offers an opportunity for better health. If you have questions about real food options or are looking for support or inspiration, be sure to contact us at GetzWell.