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How Those Processed Snack Foods Can Affect Your Kid's Health

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.


In this fast-paced world of convenience, it's so much easier to grab the bag of pre-made snack chips and the box of granola bars rather than prepare your own food. Many couples both work to pay the bills. The kids are going to school or daycare. Who has the time or energy to make snacks by hand or be incredibly creative with lunches? And when the kids are home, they want their familiar snacks. They don't want celery or homemade granola.

Why Do We Love Fast Food?

Good food is too expensive and takes way too much time to make, especially if the kids aren't going to eat it anyway.

Isn't this how just about everyone feels about food right now? I'm only writing what I hear all the time from parent after parent. I talk about making our own snack foods and parents laugh.

"I could never do anything like that!"

"I would love to do that, but my kids wouldn't eat it."

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Just last night I was doing some research and happened upon this: Processed food is designed to capture you and get you hooked. Have you ever wondered why when you eat chips, you can't seem to stop? There is a perfectly good explanation for this. Processed food is full of refined sugar and is designed to be addictive to keep you coming back for more.

Processed food stimulates dopamine production, a neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel pleasure. Many food companies take advantage of this fact. Some even take to the next level by studying how the brain reacts when people eat their food. The effect these foods have on dopamine production is very similar to what happens when taking cocaine. It triggers the reward system, making you crave their food and want to buy more.


Preparing Your Own Food Can Be Easy

Our brains are being wired to like artificially flavored foods and to dislike more subtle, nutritious flavors like a fresh carrot or juicy apple. But the real kicker here is what all of that artificial stuff is doing to our bodies. I know it tastes good, and you know for sure that you and your kids will like what you are eating if you just get the easy stuff pre-packaged at the grocery store. When I was single, I said the same thing about the frozen dinner packages. At the time, I didn’t know how to cook much of anything, and it was good enough.

No, I wasn’t loving dinner, but it sure was easier than having to figure out how to make my own. Oh, how my life has changed since then… Just tonight, I had about 15 minutes to have dinner on the table. I tossed cooked chicken, homemade veggie broth, some salt, and some celery salt in the Instant Pot on sauté. Once hot, I tossed in homemade sliced up tortillas and stirred until they were puffy and soft. Voilá! Chicken and dumplings! On the side, I chopped home-grown zucchinis and tossed them in a steamer basket on the stove. I had a healthy dinner of chicken and dumplings and steamed zucchini for my family and me ready in just 15 minutes.

Now, I know the difference between processed food and real, authentic, healthy food, and I know how to cook for myself quite efficiently without a heck of a lot of effort on my part. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll be thinking a little differently about your meals at home as well.

In this article, we will be discussing the following topics:

  1. What Exactly Is Processed Food?
  2. How It Affects Brain Development
  3. How It Affects IQ
  4. How It Affects Learning
  5. How It Affects Behavior
  6. How It Affects Overall Health

What Exactly Is Processed Food?

The word "processed" often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what I mean. Foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances are what are generally referred to as processed. These are all of the pre-packaged items you’ll find on the shelves of conventional grocery stores like Walmart.

When you walk in, you can instantly find anything you are looking for. Chips, granola bars, frozen dinners, cereal, frozen veggies, canned fruits, veggies, and meals, instant oatmeal, containers of nuts and dried fruits, sodas, flavored water, American cheese, lunch meat, hot dogs, bread, milk, fruit and vegetable juices, soups… I could go on and on. Generally, anything in a bag, box, can, or carton that you find at the store can be considered processed.

Why Are Processed Foods Bad?

Just so we’re clear, processed foods are very bad. They are a major contributor to obesity and other diseases and illnesses around the world. And if they weren’t destructive enough to the adult body, they are even more harmful to the smaller child's body.

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Many studies have shown that a diet high in processed foods has significant effects on overall health during childhood and adolescence—not to mention adulthood. Unfortunately, most kids have diets that are nothing but processed foods. They wake up and have a bowl of cereal and 2% milk. For lunch, they have a Lunchable or sandwich with American cheese and lunch meat, chips, a dessert snack cake on the side, and maybe a juice box. Then at home, it’s fast food, or something pre-packaged for dinner; let’s just say spaghetti and pasta sauce.

It sounds healthy. It does. But what you don’t realize is that your kids are getting more chemicals and fake food than they are real, nutritious food in their diets. And the effects are disastrous.


How It Affects Brain Development

The problem with fake or processed foods is that they are laden with refined sugars, refined flour, trans fats (healthy fats that have been transformed), chemicals, and preservatives. Each of these ingredients causes its own host of problems.

A diet high in refined sugar (sugar that has had all of its good properties and nutrients processed out) overworks your body’s insulin regulator, causing it to give out all together. In children, this leads to early onset diabetes, hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, and an overall bad relationship with food for the rest of their lives.

It also damages the brain in a number of other ways, including a reduction in brain function, memory, learning, and the formation of new connections in the brain. Excess consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is especially harmful, causing brain inflammation that leads to impaired memory and learning as well as altered responsiveness to hunger and fullness cues.

Inflammation is recognized as a risk factor for degenerative diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer's disease and dementia. For example, one study looked at elderly people who consumed more than 58% of their daily calories in the form of refined sugars and flours. The study found they had almost double the risk of mental impairment and dementia.

Refined sugars and flours have many other effects on the brain too. Another study found that children aged six to seven who consumed diets high in refined carbs also scored lower on nonverbal intelligence tests in which they had to show the examiner how to solve different problems rather than tell them.


How It Affects IQ

Eating habits among children—especially those three years of age and under—shape their cognitive performance even as they get older. A predominantly processed-food diet at the age of three is directly associated with a lower IQ at the age of eight and a half.

In addition, long-term consumption of refined sugars can create a wealth of neurological problems, and it can also interfere with your memory and ability to learn, which is why it many health professionals recommend avoiding pre-baked goods, refined sugars, and corn syrup.

A recent study performed at the University of Montreal revealed that processed food can change the chemicals in the brains, thus leading to symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, especially in children. These foods can also trigger withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming them. As mentioned before, they increase the production of dopamine, which also decreases your sensitivity to it. Over time, this can have a negative impact on cognitive function, learning capacity, alertness, motivation, and memory—brain processes regulated by dopamine.

When their little bodies are subjected to all of the manufactured ingredients in their everyday processed foods, such as chips, snack bars, fruit gummies, goldfish crackers, hamburgers, and white bread, children’s brains take the biggest hit. As their brains are still developing, they are never actually able to reach their potential functional capacity because either development is stopped or because their bodies are working hard to protect them from harm rather than focusing on development.


How It Affects Learning

Behavior, memory, and learning disabilities are on the rise. One in six children now suffers from a disability that affects their behavior, memory, or ability to learn. One reason is that they are no longer consuming the vital nutrients they need.

Numerous studies show that children with symptoms related to hyperactivity and learning disorders have low levels of DHA, an essential fatty acid. If a child is deficient in DHA, the brain does not function optimally. DHA is not found in processed breakfast bars, energy drinks, or in fast food. It’s also not found in sugary cereals, processed snack foods, or soda. It can only be found in real, authentic foods like wild-caught fish, fresh dark, leafy greens, and fresh fruits.

Another reason linked to the change in our children’s behavior, memory and learning is that they are being given foods that chemically alter their behavior. Many studies support the damaging effects artificial colors and preservatives have on children. French fries, sugary desserts, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and other cafeteria staples are filling kids with food that actually lower their brain power (lack of energy and focus).

While the intake of food is vital for proper performance, many of the widely available foods in schools today are actually hindering children’s abilities to learn. Loaded with sugars, caffeine, chemicals, and sodium, many popular menu items are leaving kids tired, unfocused, jittery, and sick. Not only does this impact students’ grades and performance, but it also influences their behavior and moods.

When they don’t have the energy or focus they need to learn, they drastically fall behind their potential for learning. Next to proper sleep, getting enough exercise, and decreasing stress levels at home, a proper diet ranks as the number one factor in academic achievement for children. And this is just saying that they need the proper foods to have the energy to stay awake and focus. It doesn’t even begin to touch on the topic of brain-damaging chemicals that are attacking their abilities.

How It Affects Behavior

Child behavior and food have been found to be closely linked. Studies show that certain foods can cause or at least worsen behavioral issues like ADHD and other learning disorders. More and more evidence is pointing to artificial food dyes as a major cause of ADHD in children. Food dyes are found in most processed foods, including cereal, juice, and candy. The dyes that are known for causing the most symptoms include Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, and Red 40. That's probably why synthetic food dyes are actually banned in some countries, such as the UK. However, most of the processed foods in the US still include them.

It’s a widely known fact that the amount of sugar a child consumes will affect his or her behavior. Refined sugars in children’s food is not limited to candy and sweet treats? There’s also lots of sugar in flavored yogurts and chocolate milk—not so surprising. But did you know that there is also lots of sugar in savory foods, such as ketchup, bread, milk, sausages, and barbecue sauce?

Your child can consume a considerable amount of sugar even before you let him or her eat candy, and high sugar levels definitely contribute to hyperactivity. All of these extra ingredients are taking the place of honest-to-goodness nutrients in food. In fact, all of the chemicals added, and the way the ingredients are processed, actually burns off all of the natural vitamins and nutrients, leaving huge nutritional deficiencies in children and adults alike.

Serious nutritional deficiencies early on in life can lead to deficits in brain function that puts your child at risk of behavioral problems—from hyperactivity to aggression—that can last into the teenage years and beyond. Obviously, moms and dads certainly intend to do the best for their children, and part of this can mean feeding them “regular food” that won’t set their children apart from their friends. But in doing so, our children are being sabotaged in ways that make it difficult for them to perform everyday tasks successfully, not to mention academic ones that take more cognitive effort.

Processed foods can make children more aggressive and difficult to control. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, they’re penalized for their inability to learn and their out-of-control behavior. While changing a child's diet might seem like a daunting task at first, many parents end up feeling relieved when they see positive changes in their child's behavior because it could reduce the need for medication and other treatment.


How It Affects Overall Health

Overall, there is a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that many chemicals in our foods even interfere with the body’s natural hormones in ways that may affect long-term growth and development. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable hormonal changes due to the chemicals in processed foods. And because they're still developing, the hormonal imbalance can have lasting effects. In adulthood, hormone disruptions cause infertility, sterility, and a host of reproductive diseases and issues.

Most of the leading diseases plaguing the US are diet-related. Even the conservative National Institutes of Health (NIH) admits that four of the six leading causes of death in the US are linked to unhealthy diets with an excess of processed foods. There are a variety of substances used in our foods under the guise of protecting them from bugs or diseases, keeping them fresh and appealing longer, and keeping them bacteria-free so they are “safe” when they reach us at our dinner tables. However, research is showing us just how harmful all of these substances are for our health and well-being.

Food additives are generally used either to prevent foods spoiling or to enhance flavor. They include substances such as chemical purifiers, preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavorings, and acidifiers. A great number of synthetic food additives remain in use that have been linked to asthma, allergies, migraines, cancer and hyperactivity in children, just to name a few. Isn’t it interesting that the food we are providing our children to keep them healthy are the things that are costing them their health the most?


It's Not Too Late to Start Making Changes

All hope is not lost. You may not be able to change the past, but you can start making small changes now that can benefit you and your whole family from here on out. Real foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, full-fat dairy products, healthy fats and oils, and real meat like fish, beef, chicken, and pork from reliable sources can not only help your body fight back against all of the toxins, they can even prevent further illness and disease in the future.

Nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach their fullest potential. Unfortunately, many kids are not getting the nutrients they need, especially in the US, where nearly 40 percent of children's diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.

Only 21 percent of youth aged 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. This is a recipe for chronic poor health throughout their lives and is a primary reason why many of today's kids are arguably heavier and more disease-ridden than previous generations.

If you want to avoid feeding your children processed food, you really have to shift the way you look at food and food preparation as a whole. Next time you're about to grab a sugary processed snack for your child, ask yourself why you're making that choice. If it's because you're in a hurry or you're looking for a bribery token, take a minute to consider that motivation. You are the parent, and you are responsible for your child's health.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Victoria Van Ness


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 05, 2019:

Victoria I came back as there needs to be a re-calibration around here.

Thanks again.

Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on August 16, 2018:

Pamela, I really don't think foods used to be quite this bad, but they have "improved" their processes to be cheaper and more efficient for them, meaning worse for us, over time.

Eric, lol. Love it! We like to make carrot cake pancakes, waffles, muffins, bread, and even cookies. You can do the same thing with zucchini and many other veggies like sweet potato and greens without all of the sugar. Good luck! I feel pretty strongly about processed foods and GMOs as well, as you can see in my article.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 15, 2018:

Danged it is hard when they are off to school to get those veggies and fruit at that level in them. So we had the big talk a "you are not getting out of this car without a pinky contract, talk". We are going to sick a lunch leader on you if you do not go to fruit and salad bar and eat - and I mean eat!!! It will be embarrassing.

And we do grains and dairy and protein in the morning but how do you sqeeze at least a carrot?

Notice that I am avoiding the processed and GMO as my comment would be vulgar.

Great work here.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 15, 2018:

I would like to have had this information when my boys were young, although I fed them fairly healthy food. We always had fruit and vegetables, but I didn't realize the processed food was so unhealthy. This is a good article, especially for young parents.

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