A new study has been published in the journal JAMA showing that consumption of ultra-processed foods by children aged 2 – 19 has continued to increase in the US and has now reached a staggering 67% of their total calories. This has been accompanied by a steadily rising rate of childhood obesity over the last 20 years, which puts them at higher risk for various illnesses. These include high blood pressure and high cholesterol which can lead to heart disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, breathing problems like asthma and sleep apnea, joint problems, and fatty liver disease. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, with adult obesity being linked with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The study analyzed the diets of children and adolescents from 1999 to 2018 and found that overall, their consumption of ultra-processed foods rose from 61.4% to 67% while their intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. When broken down by ethnicity, the consumption among Black youths rose from 62.2% to 72.5%, among Mexican American kids it increased from 55.8% to 63.5%, and among White youths the increase was from 63.4% to 68.6%.
Ultra-processed foods are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat industrially processed foods that are made mainly from refined foods. They are typically high in added sugar, fat, salt, and refined starch but low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These include the fast food and packaged snacks that kids love to eat, and which have been formulated to appeal to their tastes. Portion sizes have also continued to increase as another contributing factor to obesity.
It can’t be stressed enough how important family involvement is in influencing what children eat. The study found that Mexican American children consume ultra-processed foods at a consistently lower rate, which they believe could be a reflection of more home cooked meals among Hispanic families. Healthy eating habits must start when children are infants who are ideally breastfed, and then establishing eating patterns that include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, moderate amounts of lean proteins, and few if any processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Establishing good eating habits when your children are young, when you have more control over what they eat, will increase the likelihood that they will continue those patterns as they get older. Even if you are not able to control what your teenager eats when he or she is out with friends, it will make a difference if their meals at home are home cooked and focused on whole, plant-based foods. These can include delicious kid-friendly options like tacos, burritos, and home-made pizzas using whole-grains crusts and wraps as well as extra veggies, beans, and fresh sauces and salsas. You’ll be amazed how many dishes will adapt to added spinach or kale without anyone complaining, like whole grain veggie lasagna or homemade soup. Instead of buying chips and cookies, let your children snack on fruits, nuts, and popcorn. On-the-go breakfasts can consist of smoothies, home-made whole grain and berry muffins, or low-sugar yogurt parfaits. Cooking extra on the weekends and freezing individual servings will come in handy when you’re tired after a long workday, or even when you’re not home and your teenager is looking for something to eat. If there is no junk food for them to find, they will eat something nutritious.