Why It's OK to Eat Processed Foods, According to a Registered Dietitian
I'm going on vacation soon with my toddler. And while I'm worried about the flight and how he'll sleep in a new place (please, please sleep), one thing that isn't giving me anxiety is what he'll eat while we are there.
I recently saw Food Babe post on Facebook that she gets anxiety about having access to, "healthy and clean food" when she travels to a new place. Now, if she's going somewhere with an unsafe food supply or limited access to food, that's one thing. But she explains, "I have found the only thing that keeps me from losing my mind is knowing that there is real food everywhere, you just have to look and ask for what you want. It doesn't need to be perfectly organic or always cooked with the exact right oils - but it's gotta be real and from the earth vs. a factory. If processed food is not even a choice, we all win!"
Now, before you come at me—I believe that a diet full of fruits and vegetables and whole grains and healthy fats and proteins, and lower in processed foods—is a very healthy diet. But, I also think that processed foods have a place in a healthy diet and stressing out about them shouldn't be part of your travel planning (whether you have kids or not).
What exactly is processed food?
You may automatically think of Doritos and Twinkies but a processed food is any food that's been fortified, preserved or prepared in any way before it reaches you. Some foods are minimally processed—like yogurt, pre-cut veggies, frozen fruits—and some are more processed—think deli meat or salad dressing (get our picks for healthy packaged foods we love like whole-grain bread, crackers and veggie burgers).
There are plenty of benefits of eating processed food, like a safer food supply (processing helps preserve foods), an increased intake of nutrients we don't often get enough of (from fortified foods like milk and cereals) and easier access to healthy foods (like canned vegetables).
Let's assume that Food Babe wasn't talking about frozen vegetables and pasta sauce, and she just meant the processed foods we typically think of—potato chips and cookies—that can be higher in sodium and added sugar.
Here's why I think it's OK to eat them on vacation and in real life
Parents have enough to stress about without worrying if it's OK they gave their child food from a factory (as if that's the most terrible thing you could do as a parent). I am a parent and I've worked with new parents and taught them how to feed their kids. Basically all the parents I've met, want to feed their kids nourishing foods and help them grow up to be healthy adults.
You know what can help kids eat more fruits and vegetables and get more nutrients in their diet? Processing! That's right. Applesauce pouches are processed (and what young child doesn't love those?) Cereal? Processed and a source of whole grains and iron in kids' diets. Ketchup and ranch dressing? Only the best dipping vehicles for all vegetables.
And it's not just kids, adults can take advantages of these too. If anything when I'm traveling, I'm on the hunt for healthier packaged foods because you often need portable snacks and are eating on the go. I know foods with protein and fiber are going to help fill me up, so I'm not hangry all the time, and that means eating more than lettuce and carrots (here are some of our favorite snacks for kids).
I've also looked up the place with the best cinnamon rolls and tacos where I'm going and I can't wait to share bites of those with my son. He'll be eating lots of snacks on the plane and will probably eat lots more convenience and packaged foods when we get to where we're going. I'm OK with that. Gives me a break from cooking, it's one week—not forever—and I'll continue to offer him fruits and vegetables too. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
Privilege of eating real food
I want to also address what a privilege it is to have choices when it comes to feeding myself and my family. To eliminate processed foods as a choice, which is what Food Babe is suggesting would be the best possible outcome, would take away healthy food options for a lot of people. We don't all have the money or resources to choose organic all the time or never eat fast food. Shaming people and fear mongering doesn't help anyone actually eat healthier.
Experiencing new foods and trying local specialties is one of my favorite things about traveling and is something I hope to share with my son. Processed food can actually help people eat healthier, including kids. If you want to try and seek out healthier options while you're traveling, go for it. I try to keep up my water, fiber and veggie intake, so I feel good while I'm on a trip. But if you indulge or eat more processed food than you might otherwise, your body will probably crave some healthier foods when you get home and it will all balance out. Stressing out about food, shouldn't be part of your vacation planning process.
Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.