Ultra-processed Foods Increase Cardiometabolic Risk in Children

A new study has shown that the high consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with higher cardiometabolic risk in young children.

According to the study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, ultra-processed foods can put children to a greater risk of cardiometabolic problems, such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes, in adulthood. This underscores the need for public health initiatives to promote the replacement of ultra-processed foods with processed or minimally processed foods.

High Risk Factors

The study examined 1426 children aged between 3 and 6 years old recruited from schools and centers in 7 cities in Spain. The study was conducted between March 22, 2019 and June 30, 2022. Researchers met children’s parents and caregivers, who completed questionnaires on physical activity, food consumption, and demographics.

Based on the amount of ultra-processed foods consumed, researchers divided children into three categories. The study found that children who ate the most ultra-processed foods were more likely to have cardiometabolic risk factors including a higher body mass index (BMI), systolic blood pressure and waist-to-height ratio.

Dr. Stuart Berger, a pediatric cardiologist and chair of the section of cardiology and cardiac surgery for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CNN: “One of the important things to learn is that some of the things that we deal with in the adult world, more likely than not start very early in life.”

Although several studies have shown the negative impacts of ultra-processed foods on adults’ health, the new study is among the first to reveal their effect on children health. Berger said: “This particular topic, ultra-processed food consumptions and risk, is a very important topic in kids.”

Ultra-processed Foods

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), ultra-processed foods are “formulations of ingredients, mostly of industrial use, created by a series of industrial techniques and ingredients.”

Those ingredients, rarely used in kitchens, include additives that prolong product duration, or make it palatable or more appealing. Sodas, chips, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, ice cream and other products contain those ingredients.

The study showed that children who consume the largest amount of ultra-processed foods had younger mothers, with a higher BMI and lower levels of education and employment.

We Are What We Eat

Berger highlighted the importance of watching what young children eat because early nutrition will have a great impact on their nutritional habits for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, said: “There are a ton of publications that have shown that what we eat early in life … actually sets the stage for what happens in the future.”

However, the problem is that not everyone can abandon ultra-processed foods. Freeman noted that ultra-processed foods can be more accessible and cheaper where fresh foods are harder to obtain. But this can put children at risk in the future.

He said: “Ultra-processed foods are also ultra-convenient. As a result, people reach for them when they feed their kids, and their kids aren’t hungry, but they’re filled with all these different chemicals and substances and seasonings and salts of sugars and whatever that they become very addicted to.”

Berger and Freeman did not take part in the study.

How to Protect Children?

According to Berger, replacing ultra-processed foods with more healthy and fresh options is much easier to do when children are younger.

Berger, who is also a professor of pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, stressed the importance of adding in more nutritious foods and encouraging physical exercise.

He said: “If you can do something to create a healthy lifestyle early, there’s a reasonable chance that you can eliminate metabolic syndromes later in life like diabetes, obesity, and all the complications associated with diabetes and obesity.”

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