- Researchers say young children who have diets with ultra-processed foods can experience weight issues into early adulthood.
- That weight gain can produce a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Experts say a diet of ultra-processed foods can cause damage at the cellular level and lead to unhealthy eating habits.
- They note that ultra-processed foods are generally cheaper and easier to serve than more nutritious meals.
Children as young as 7 years old who eat large amounts of ultra-processed food experience steady weight gain into adulthood, leading many to be categorized as having obesity.
High-processed foods are made primarily from substances extracted from food, including fats, starches, and sugars. Typically, those products include fast food, soft drinks, frozen meals, candy, and salty snacks.
Until 24 years old, the subjects in the “high consumption” category saw an average extra weight gain of about a half-pound and more than a half-inch waist circumference per year over the 10-year study period.
Those consuming high amounts of ultra-processed foods face a greater chance of not only obesity but related issues, including diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
“The increasing availability and variety of ultra-processed foods have reshaped global food systems by displacing dietary patterns previously based on fresh and minimally processed foods,” the researchers from the Imperial College of London said in a statement.
“Of particular concern is the growing consumption of these foods among children and adolescents, who are leading consumers,” they added.
Michelle Tierney, a registered dietician and certified personal trainer specializing in weight management, told Healthline that the study is “rather unsurprising,” but it’s still an important message to reinforce.
“Ultra-processed foods are one of the worst offenders to health,” Tierney said. “They negatively affect metabolism at a cellular level, damaging the functions and abilities of cells. It’s like a vicious cycle because processed foods cause things like atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, and weak mitochondria, which in turn cause fatigue, foggy brains, mood disorders, decreased productivity, and more.”
Developing such eating habits early in life sets the stage for later problems, Tierney said. Young cells are resilient, which changes as a person ages.
“The body is certainly keeping score, and eventually, the build up of these processed foods and their toxic effects accumulate and wreak havoc,” Tierney said. “The human body is quite adaptable, but it can go either way. In this case, it adapts to poor nutrition by inducing disease such as fat storage (obesity), decreased insulin secretion (diabetes), and build up of plaque in the arteries (cardiovascular disease), among others.”
Experts say ultra-processed foods are generally cheaper and easier to access, which means children of lower-income families are affected disproportionately.
“Minimally processed foods are often more expensive and harder to obtain, especially in ‘food deserts’ (urban areas where nutritious food is harder to find),” Julie Miller Jones, a professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, told Healthline. “So many groups with limited funds or time, due to working two jobs, child or family care responsibilities, cannot either easily obtain or afford the fresh fruits or vegetables or have little time to bake bread at home.”
Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t done much to advance the cause of fresh, nutritious food.
“(People) are now much closer to their refrigerators and pantries,” Ganjian said. “As a result, they have far too easy of access to food. Many children have gained weight during the pandemic, and the obesity rates have increased.
“Since people are working from home and having to take care of their kids all at the same time, there is less time for obtaining and cooking nutrient-rich foods,” he said. “As a result, people are eating more processed foods.”
Jones said food isn’t bad simply because it’s considered “processed.” It’s the kind of food that counts.
“Consumers need help choosing processed foods that fit into their dietary patterns,” she said. “Studies showed that children – and adults – who chose the right mix of foods from all levels of processing had the best diets. The real problem is that only 3 to 8 percent of the population follow all the dietary guidance. We eat too few fruits and vegetables and too many servings for non-recommended foods.”