Instead of asking ourselves which foods we should eat to be healthy, the more important question is, “are we eating food at all?” As a population, we are over-fed and under-nourished, due in part to processed or “fake” foods. These quick, cheap and convenient impostors have edged out “real” or natural foods in our diets.

So what is fake food? It’s food pretending to be something it’s not. For example, American “cheese” may not be legally sold as “cheese” in the United States, and must be labeled as “processed cheese”, “cheese product”, or “cheese food.” At times, even the word “cheese” is missing in the name on the label, as in “American Singles.” Pancake syrup made with caramel coloring and chemicals does not come from anywhere near a maple tree. Most “strawberry” flavored convenience foods and drinks contain a list of chemicals but not a single strawberry. Theater popcorn “butter” is actually butter-flavored hydrogenated soy bean oil. A large popcorn with this pseudo-butter has as much saturated fat as eight Big Macs!

Real food is exactly what it appears – and most real foods don’t come with packaging, instructions or any health claims. They don’t need to because their list of ingredients contains one word: Carrot, strawberry, lettuce, milk, chicken, fish. These are whole, natural foods that have not been highly processed and that don’t contain hidden additives and chemicals. One other clue: they’re perishable! Foods with extended shelf lives are more likely to be fake.

PARENTS: Use your  purse power

We’ve all been there.
 One intended bite of a donut turns into inhaling the whole thing; a couple of chips becomes an empty bag. This is not just about will power; it’s about products designed to create intense cravings from your brain, not necessarily your stomach.

For survival, our brains are wired to like fat, salt and sugar. Most processed or “fake” foods contain unhealthy amounts of these items and entice us with hyper-fatty, salty or sweet flavors – or worse, a powerful combination of all three. Add highly “craveable” (industry code word for addictive) chemical flavors to the mix, and we fall into a food trance.

Chemicals in your shopping cart

Almost all busy families buy convenience foods, mainly to save money and time. But you may be loading up your grocery cart with fewer nutrients and more chemicals than you realize. The more wrappers, cans and boxes you buy, the higher the chance you have fake food in your pantry.

Get to know common food additives, and for optimum health, eliminate these fat, salt and sugar substitutes from your list:

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
These are “trans fats” associated with heart disease. You’ll find them in margarine, crackers, baked goods, icing, and microwave popcorn.

Sodium Nitrite, Sodium Nitrate

A preservative, coloring and flavoring found in bacon, ham, hot dogs, deli meats, and associated with various forms of cancer.

Acesulfame-K, Aspartame

Artificial sweeteners that are 200 times sweeter than sugar and found in sugar-free baked goods, chewing gum and diet soda. Animal studies have associated these two with cancer.

Once you start reading labels, you’ll make a real difference in your family’s overall health. Remember – you can use the power of your purse! If a product doesn’t support health, don’t let it into the house. Your kids are bombarded with plenty of fake foods and nutrient-poor treats when they’re away from home, so there’s no need to pay for and stock unhealthy items for them when they return!

To make healthy foods more convenient for both you and your kids, and to avoid costly produce waste, include the whole family in planning your shopping list. When possible, wash, chop and store fruits and veggies before tossing them in the fridge. Post a menu of healthy snack ideas based on what’s actually available in the refrigerator and pantry so kids can literally look, grab and go.

Take small steps to reconnect yourself and your family with real food by reaching out for agricultural activities near home. Visit the farmers market and talk to the farmers about their produce and meats; plan for part of your weekly shopping to come from those local producers. 

Plant herbs in your kitchen and add them to your recipes. Talk to the principal about building a school garden or developing a healthy culinary curriculum. Work with neighbors to create a community garden with shared responsibilities. Whatever you do, get the kids involved with real food and watch them wise up and rise up against fake foods!

If you feel confused about which foods to eat, look to a few basic rules from Michael Pollan, a “real food” guru and author of bestsellers Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules. We’ve briefly listed a few here that are easy to follow. You may want to stick this list on the fridge! 

•    Eat Food (not “edible food-like substances”)
•    Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother
     Wouldn’t Recognize as Food
•    Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients
     That a Third-Grader Cannot Pronounce
•    Avoid Foods That Are Pretending to Be
     Something They’re Not (i.e. imitation butter)
•    Eat Only Foods That Will
     Eventually Rot (vs. shelf-stable items impervious to nature)
•    If It Came from a Plant, Eat It; If it was Made in a Plant, Don’t
•    When You Eat Real Food, You Don’t Need Rules

Doesn’t it seem a little weird that you can order chicken wings without bones, eat pasta from a bowl made of pizza crust, and chow down on crispy beef tacos wrapped in an orange powder-coated fried tortilla chip?  

“We’re living in a food carnival. These flavors are so stimulating, they hijack our brain,” says Dr. David Kessler, former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating. Indeed, our food choices are a circus of flavors, textures and colors. And eating fake food has never been easier because manufacturers have made it that way. Sometimes eating healthy takes so much more work, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

It’s the “Most Addictive Show on Earth!” 

Here’s the deal: the more fake food we eat, the more we crave the super intense flavor combinations only a machine can create. Think about it. If all we eat is fake food, then how will we ever recognize or eventually crave real food? It’s like
walking out of a laser light show into the night sky and not being impressed with the stars. Instead, treat yourself to the real thing and you’ll find fake food just doesn’t compare. The flavor, nutrition and texture of “real” really is better. 

If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!

“Food” manufacturers have loaded convenience snacks and meals with chemicals like PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL, SODIUM NITRITE, SODIUM NITRATE, ACESULFAME-K, ASPARTAME – all associated with long-term health problems – and all with addictive qualities. And if you can hardly pronounce those additives, isn’t that warning sign too? After all, it’s a lot easier to spell and pronounce “apple,” “banana,” “avocado,” “chicken,” and “lettuce” isn’t it? Let that be part of what guides you to what’s healthy.

A lot of teens find it’s easy to eat healthy foods at home, but have a really hard time once they’re at the mall or out with friends. But with some planning, you can find healthy options at the places you go. Try one of these tricks the next time you’re out with friends:
  • Order a single slice of veggie pizza instead of pepperoni
  • Get a grilled chicken breast or deli-sliced turkey sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Instead of a crispy beef taco, order a soft bean taco or burrito
  • Top your baked potato with veggies and low-fat cheese instead of butter and sour cream
  • Ask for your salad dressing on the side, or use a squeeze of lemon, a little olive oil and some pepper instead of creamy dressings
  • Scoop up lower fat frozen yogurt instead of high-fat-and-sugar ice cream
Now that you have a few tips, think about how the food you’re about to order is prepared. Is it baked or fried, real (a natural color and perishable) or fake (bright red/orange/green with an extended shelf life). As always, choose smaller portions or share a less healthy option with a friend. Plan a time to eat, take a break, sit down, and savor the food you are eating. Don’t wait until you’re so hungry you want to eat those really convenient fake foods lining the food court at the mall!

Only you can keep tabs on what you’re eating.

You can choose to drive past that drive-thru. You can get involved in making meals at home. You can go to the store and make healthy choices. You can read labels before you select what to eat. You can choose to be educated about your choices. You can compare your healthy choices with other teens who blog about it, or create your own blog. No matter what, you can get real about how and what you eat now – and for life.

Not only is it important to understand ingredients, learning to read labels helps you decide whether or not you should eat something!

Ever wonder if some diets are really safe? Or how you can excel at sports? Get the lowdown on healthy eats, dieting, strength training, eating disorders, steroids, and more. Visit TeensHealth to learn more.

Shopping was easy when most food came from farms. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet. Visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest to learn about food additives and which ones to avoid.


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