The Strong Links Between Europe’s Infertility and Junk Food

Health - February 29, 2024

Modernity and globalization have come around with a great number of perks. If asked to define the main characteristic of the times we live in, most people would often use the word “speed”. But such speed in our development as individuals and societies has come with major minuses to physical and mental health. This is especially true in the most developed parts of the world, specifically Europe and The Americas. The busy schedules of the most economically and technologically advanced people on Earth has resulted in nutritional setbacks.

It is not, by any means, a coincidence that one of the main effects of such a problem is reduced fertility in the civilized world. “Reduced” is a modest assessment. Some researchers and sociologists would even say that our fertility is “collapsing“. The causes, of course, vary. The emancipation of women and the constant evolution of the market could be named as some factors that led to smaller birth rates. But they are far from being the biggest ones. How do we know this? Almost half of millennials and Gen Z are (sociologically) anxious about their own fertility. These are people who want to reproduce but don’t know if they can.

One of the biggest problems about our current levels of fertility, scientists claim, is what we eat. And if we look at the data, we will find a strong correlation between the decline of our collective ability to procreate and the rise of high-processed foods.

What does high-processed mean? Anatomy of the colloquial “junk food”

Highly processed foods are a category of food products that have undergone extensive processing, often involving multiple steps and the addition of various artificial ingredients, with the aim of enhancing flavor, texture, shelf-life, and convenience. These foods typically undergo significant alterations from their original form, often stripping away nutritional value while adding calories, sugars, unhealthy fats, and synthetic additives. Understanding the characteristics and implications of highly processed foods is essential for making informed dietary choices and promoting overall health and well-being.

Firstly, highly processed foods are characterized by their extensive refinement and manipulation. They often start with whole ingredients, such as grains, fruits, or vegetables, which undergo refining processes to extract specific components or transform them into new forms. For example, grains may be milled into flour, stripped of their bran and germ, and then further processed into products like white bread or pasta. Similarly, fruits and vegetables may be juiced, concentrated, or dried to create fruit snacks or vegetable chips. These processes not only alter the physical structure of the food but also remove valuable nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Moreover, highly processed foods typically contain a plethora of added ingredients, including sugars, fats, salt, artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. These additives serve various purposes, such as enhancing taste, improving texture, prolonging shelf-life, and masking the flavor of low-quality ingredients. However, they also contribute to the overall nutritional profile of the food, often increasing its calorie content, sodium levels, and potential health risks. For example, added sugars are prevalent in many processed foods, contributing to excessive calorie intake, weight gain, and increased risk of chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

They wield influence over hormones and fertility

The consumption of highly-processed foods has the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of reproductive hormones, with possible implications for fertility. Researchers have found a link between excessive intake of refined sugars and unhealthy fats and issues such as insulin resistance and hormonal imbalances, which could disrupt ovulation in women and sperm quality in men. Additionally, additives and preservatives commonly found in processed foods may interfere with endocrine function, exacerbating concerns about reproductive health.

They impact the metabolic system too

Highly-processed food consumption is a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic gripping Europe. Obesity and metabolic syndrome are widely recognized as risk factors for infertility, as they can disrupt menstrual cycles, hormonal balance, and overall reproductive function. Studies have highlighted a correlation between high body mass index (BMI) and reduced fertility rates, shedding light on the detrimental effects of poor dietary choices on reproductive health.

They lack vital nutrients

Highly-processed foods often fall short in providing essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants crucial for reproductive health. Deficiencies in nutrients like folate, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants have been associated with decreased fertility and an increased risk of pregnancy complications. Moreover, the excessive consumption of processed foods may displace nutrient-rich whole foods from the diet, exacerbating deficiencies and compromising reproductive health further.

They’re prone to contamination during production

Highly-processed foods frequently retain residues of environmental contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Exposure to these contaminants has been linked to reproductive disorders, including infertility, miscarriage, and developmental abnormalities in offspring. Furthermore, packaging materials used for processed foods may contain harmful chemicals like bisphenol, which can leach into food and disrupt hormonal balance, thereby affecting reproductive health.

They’re a convenient option for the poor

Individuals with lower incomes often lean towards highly-processed foods due to several factors. Affordability is key here. Processed foods are typically cheaper and more accessible than fresh, whole foods. In economically challenged areas, access to affordable fresh produce may be limited, while convenience stores and fast-food outlets offering inexpensive processed options are many. Given constrained financial resources, individuals facing economic hardship often prioritize stretching their food budget, opting for calorie-dense processed foods that offer more bang for their buck.

Moreover, time constraints and convenience play significant roles in shaping food choices, particularly for those balancing multiple jobs or family responsibilities. Highly-processed foods are quick and easy to prepare, requiring minimal cooking skills and time investment. In contrast, fresh, whole foods may require more planning, preparation, and cooking time, which may be impractical for individuals with busy schedules or limited access to kitchen facilities. And, as it has always been, the economically encumbered strata’s of society represent a majority of population almost everywhere in Europe.

How do we fix this?

Addressing the impact of highly-processed food on fertility and birth rates requires a multifaceted approach involving public health interventions, policy initiatives, and individual behavior change. Strategies to promote healthy eating habits and reduce the consumption of processed foods should be implemented at the societal and cultural level. Guaranteeing a free market and promoting a healthy lifestyle are not mutually exclusive, but if we want to fix the drop in fertility and health we, as societies, need to promote and hold in high regards care and attention towards one’s diet and body. I dare say that “Fat Acceptance” movements did not have a great contribution towards this goal.

As far as economic measures go, the teachings of capitalist theorists and political successes of the past should be enough: incentivize the healthy, tax the unhealthy. Thankfully, there are already a number of states in the European Union who are taking serious actions and making significant strategies to combat this epidemic of junk food. France has implemented various measures to promote healthy eating habits, including restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children and taxes on sugary drinks. Norway is focusing on improving food labeling, promoting local and organic produce, and implementing taxes on unhealthy products. Portugal has launched public health campaigns and educational initiatives to raise awareness about the importance of nutrition and encourage the consumption of fresh, minimally processed foods.

And the examples could continue. It is up to us as citizens to support such initiatives and most importantly, vote with our wallets even on food.