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Your kids' ultraprocessed food consumption may put them at higher risk, study shows


The ultraprocessed foods your kids eat now may be putting them at greater risk for cardiometabolic problems – like heart attack, stroke and diabetes – in adulthood, a new study suggests.

“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,” said Dr. Stuart Berger, a pediatric cardiologist and chair of the section of cardiology and cardiac surgery for the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was not involved in the research.

The study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, analyzed data from more than 1,400 children ages 3 to 6 recruited from schools across seven cities in Spain.

The children’s caregivers met with researchers in person and completed questionnaires at home on physical activity, food consumption and demographics from 2019 to 2022, according to the study.

Researchers divided the data from the children into three groups based on the amount of ultraprocessed food they ate. Children who consumed the most ultraprocessed foods were more likely to have risk factors like a higher body mass index, systolic blood pressure and waist-to-height ratio, the study showed.

Ultraprocessed foods are those that contain ingredients “never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Those ingredients — found in things such as sodas, chips, packaged soups, chicken nuggets and ice cream — can include preservatives against mould or bacteria, artificial colouring, emulsifiers to stop separation, and added or altered sugar, salt and fats to make food more appealing.

“Americans eat ultraprocessed foods every day,” said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver. He was not involved in the research.

A group of Americans in a study published on May 8 ate at least three servings of ultraprocessed food a day, with one group eating an average of seven daily servings, the study showed.

Many studies have shown the negative health effects of ultraprocessed foods in adults, but Friday’s study is among the first to show the impact they can have on the cardiometabolic health of young children, said Berger, who is also a professor of pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

“This particular topic, ultraprocessed food consumptions and risk, is a very important topic in kids,” he said.

Starting young

The study is observational, meaning that while researchers can identify an association between how much ultraprocessed foods children eat and their health, they cannot say that one causes the other, Berger said.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to be mindful of ultraprocessed foods for young children, because how they eat for the rest of their lives is greatly impact by their early nutrition, he said.

“What we know is people who eat a certain way, even moms who eat in utero, set up baby’s preferences,” Freeman 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.”

Shifting your child’s diet away from ultraprocessed foods and toward more fresh options is easier to do when they are very young, Berger said.


The problem is that avoiding ultraprocessed foods is not equally easy for everyone.

The study found that the children with the highest amount of ultraprocessed foods in their diet had mothers who were younger, had a higher BMI and had lower levels of education and employment.

In places where fresh food might be harder to obtain, ultraprocessed foods are more accessible and inexpensive, Freeman said.

“Ultraprocessed foods are also ultra-convenient,” he said. “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.”

Freeman stressed that giving kids ultraprocessed foods without also providing fresh fruits and vegetables sets them up for problems down the road.

Adding in more nutritious foods and encouraging physical activity as much as possible is critical, Berger added.

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

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