According to a new 17-year study looking at 9,000 British children born in the ’90s, children with higher ultra-processed diets are more likely to gain weight faster and be overweight or obese adults, CNN reported. The research found that 60% of children’s diets consist of ultra-processed food like pizza, soda, and low-quality bread. 

Dr. Eszter Vamos, a senior clinical lecturer in public health medicine at Imperial College London and one author of the study in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, says there is a “dose-response relationship.” This means that the more processed food the children eat, the worse the weight gain gets. So what makes this food so palatable and appealing? Food processing changes the taste, consistency, and color of food. It also gives it a longer shelf life and is cheaper, incredibly convenient, energy-dense, and nutritionally poor compared to unprocessed or whole foods. 

It’s impossible to talk about ultra-processed diets in children and ignore the social-economic factors attached to these cheap and convenient ways of eating. 

According to Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition and food science professor at the University of Reading, “The outcome of the study is heavily confounded by socio-economic factors: children living in more deprived areas and from families with lower educational attainment and lower socio-economic status had the highest intake of ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately, these children are also at highest risk of obesity and poor health, as there are still considerable health-inequalities in the UK and socio-economic status is an important determinant of health.”

The 9,000 children were followed from ages 7 to 24 with periodical food diaries. Their body-mass index, waist circumference, body fat were recorded during this time. The study found that children with a higher ultra-processed diet had a higher increase in their weight, BMI, waist circumference, and body fat as they grew up. By the time the children reached 24, the highest group had “a higher level of BMI by 1.2 kg/m2, higher body fat by 1.5%, weight by 3.7 kg (8 pounds) and increased waist circumference by 3.1 cm (1.2 inches).” 

The researchers acknowledge there are other factors to consider for children to eat higher ultra-processed food, so statistical adjustments were made during the study. However, they are increasingly confident in the link between over-processed diets and progressive weight gain in children.

Read more about health in One Green Planet, including this report on processed food and sugar and the global nutrition report.

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