Ultra-Processed Foods As A Reward?


I recently received an email from my son’s school about an upcoming standardized test.


There was something on the agenda about “parent treat” hour. Growing up when active parent involvement was not the norm, I honestly had no idea what they were talking about.


So of course, I asked.


They were kind and responded quickly: Parents are organizing a snack and appreciation for the kids after they finish their exam.


My, how things have changed. I’m pretty sure my parents had no idea when I took a standardized test. And, I don’t recall special snacks waiting for me when I finished a PSAT.


The sign-up list for “parent treats” was full. I had missed the chance to sign up, but I was curious to see what was on the menu. I had a strong feeling, but checked anyway.


My suspicion was correct. The list consisted of donuts and chips (or crisps, depending on which side of the pond you sit).


Junk Food Isn’t Special – It’s Everywhere!


I appreciate the new generations of active parent involvement. I like to celebrate our kids’ hard work and milestones, but why do we keep celebrating with ultra-processed foods?


Junk food is no longer a treat TBH. Children in the developed world have access to junk food all the time. Many kids and families eat it daily.


The Reality of What’s in Ultra-Processed Foods (and what’s missing)


Ultra-processed foods are generally high in unhealthy carbohydrates, saturated fat, and energy, and low in protein and fiber. They contain very few micronutrients.


Ultra-processed foods are edible, yes, but they do not have the integrity of whole-food ingredients that our bodies need to grow and function. Nor do they have the macro and micronutrients that a young mind needs to focus and perform cognitive functions – like taking an exam.


Ultra-Processed Foods and Mental Health


October is depression and mental health awareness month.


As a coach who focuses on health, nutrition, and lifestyle medicine, it would be an oversight not to highlight the many recent studies that have shown how ultra-processed foods are linked to increased inflammation, increased depression, and other mental issues. (View many more studies here.)


At “best”, many studies linked processed foods to “elevated psychological distress” which is a marker for depression.


We Need A Systemic Change in Attitudes to Ultra-Processed Foods


We are far from perfect. But how long can we just sign it off as the one-off (when it’s not)? Do we keep looking the other way? For how long does one look the other way?


If a school has the goal to build successful human beings, why doesn’t that include their physical and mental health, too?


What Do Parents Think About Rewarding With Junk Food?


Parents, what are your thoughts? We ate a lot of junk back in the day, but it wasn’t typically a daily thing, and we were not facing anywhere near the amount of additives we face now.


How do you celebrate your children’s milestones, exams, and other events?


How do you celebrate your own milestones? Is it with processed foods? If so, I challenge you to try celebrating with whole, plant-based food for a change. I’d love to hear how you feel when you do this.


Healthy food is celebratory, too!


If you need some help getting started, I’ve got a free guide to help you set up your kitchen for success. Grab it instantly in the form below.