I am gravely concerned with childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Today, about one-third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association. However, that is not my only concern when it comes to fake, processed food. The problem with putting all the attention on obesity is that we tend to ignore the diets of all the kids who aren’t overweight. We do this at our peril. High-fat, high-sugar, high-starch processed food also puts our slimmer kids at a terrible risk for behavior problems.
We all make excuses for it. It’s faster. It’s easier. It takes less effort and thought. Yet, this argument doesn’t really make sense at all. What could be easier to eat, faster to prepare, and take less thought than an apple or a bowl of baby carrots or a handful of raw almonds? The planet provides us with plenty of beautiful real whole food, so why do we feel like we must mess with a working system? The answer is more than a little frightening: Processed food is addictive.
Is it the 21st century gateway drug?
According to a 2009 issue of Science News, a study conducted by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute (a non-profit) and presented at the 2009 Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, explored the addictive qualities of junk food, and the results were pretty disturbing.
In the study, one group of rats was offered nutritionally complete low-fat rat chow. The other group of rats was offered a diet of processed food containing things like bacon, cheesecake, and packaged snack cakes. The group of rats eating the junk food quickly developed compulsive eating habits, eating twice as many calories as the rats eating the rat chow. They became obese.
Those poor rats, forced to eat what Americans eat! After less than a week on the junk food diet, the rats also showed much less activation of their pleasure centers, so they kept seeking more food to get the same “high.” The results were eerily similar to what happens to drug addicts on,
for example, heroin. I wouldn’t give such food to a rat, let alone a child.
Even more startling, the rats on the junk food diet endured electrical shocks to be able to keep eating the junk food. Horrible! The rats on the control diet were briefly introduced to junk food, but when shocked, avoided the junk food. They weren’t addicted.
Adam, a handsome, strapping teenage boy and the son of one of my clients once told me, “I feel sick every time I eat fast food, but I just can’t stop. I always want to go back because it tastes so good.” To me, this is exactly like the poor rats enduring electric shocks just to get their junk food fix. This is what is happening to our kids when they eat processed food. The study concluded that junk food was, in many ways, as addictive as heroin.
So yes, processed food may taste good to your kids. It may look delicious. It may be convenient and cheap. And may refuse to rot in your pantry. But when it goes into your child’s body, you must know what it is doing! I believe most parents don’t really recognize what this kind of food does to kids.
Perhaps you’ve heard of S.A.D., the acronym that stands for Standard American Diet. Health-foodies often use the term to describe a diet high in processed foods, meat, dairy, and sugar. If you ask me, what the standard American diet does to children is our nation’s dirtiest little secret. Our bodies want fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains in their original packaging, but we can’t feel those natural impulses anymore because we are too polluted with junk food. All that salt and fat and sugar has dulled our taste buds and brains so we’ve forgotten not just how to eat but how to recognize when we are really truly hungry and really truly full.
Every child is different and different people do better or worse on different kinds of diets. Some do better eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some do better eating more protein, but the one diet that nobody seems to thrive on is a diet of packaged, processed “food.” Our bodies don’t know what to do with all those chemicals and modified ingredients. What our bodies understand is the food Mother Nature made for us. But it’s not too late. We can turn around and go the other way, even if we are swimming against the tide. If you and your kids are used to processed food, if they are addicted to these chemicals and de-natured ingredients and woefully modified products of industrial agriculture and food science, you can slowly but surely coax your body—and theirs—back into balance. Nothing drastic. Nothing too radical. Just a slow shift back in the right direction, for the health and life of your family.