A recent study found that American children and teenagers get two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods (1). 67% of calories now come from sources like packaged snacks, microwave meals, and frozen food, up from 61% in 1999.
Convenience at a cost
It’s hard to find food at the grocery store that hasn’t undergone industrial processing these days. That’s because food manufacturers rely on procedures that make their food taste better and last longer. Often, processed food is also cheaper than fresher varieties.
However, convenience comes at a cost. Heavily processed foods often contain high levels of sugar, sodium, and fat, all of which can lead to issues like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Not all processed foods are created equal
While consumers should try their best to steer clear of heavily processed foods (or at least control how much of them they eat), it’s important to recognize that not all processed foods are the same.
For instance, dairy products like Greek yogurt and whole-grain products like bread go through different levels of processing before making their way to supermarket shelves. They, however, are much healthier than many of the other processed foods around them.
Consuming these foods along with fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins isn’t unhealthy—it’s part of a balanced diet.
The consumption of takeout, frozen food, and other processed alternatives may have increased, but the study did unearth some good news. After years of soda taxes and other programs meant to decrease sugary beverage consumption, efforts seem to be paying off. Calories from sodas dropped from 10.8% to 5.3% (2).
As these beverages contain vast amounts of sugar and calories, a decline in consumption is a sight for sore eyes.
Many people rely on processed foods for their convenience and taste. That said, healthier alternatives are easier to find than consumers often realize.
If you find yourself turning to processed foods on account of their convenience, consider meal prepping. Doing so gives you control over the foods you eat and allows you to save time later on. Whether you’re heating up lunch at the office or warming up dinner at home, meal prepping is excellent for your health, your schedule, and your wallet.
If you can’t resist the taste, understand that there are ways to get great-tasting food without pumping it full of sugar and sodium. For instance, you can substitute a bowl of ice cream for frozen yogurt with fruit. Likewise, instead of grabbing a bag of standard potato chips, try a multigrain option made from simple ingredients.
A balanced lifestyle
Remember that a healthy diet is only part of a healthy lifestyle. In addition to being aware of what you eat, it’s essential to find time to get active. From going for a walk around the block to swimming laps at a local pool, any exercise is better than none.
In conjunction with a solid diet, exercise can help you look and feel better than you ever knew possible.
Nutrition matters at all ages
While children and teenagers may have faster metabolisms, the nutrition practices they have early on will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Because of that, paying attention to what you eat and where your food comes from is important for people of all ages.