News flash- the state of nutrition among many American children is bad…very bad. Obesity and metabolic disease are now common in children, largely due to the consumption of an abundance of processed food. And by the way, being obese, having hypertension, or an elevated blood sugar during childhood imparts a good chance of that child having long-term health consequences as you are about to see in today’s pedcast so stay tuned!
Image by Sarah Smolen
What is ultra-processed food?
There is a new buzzword floating around. You might have heard it – “ultra-processed foods”. The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ essentially means, just like as the name implies, foods that have been drastically altered in various ways from their original form in nature, like potatoes being made into potato chips or French fries, whole grains being made into breakfast cereals or donuts, or fruit being made into fruit gummies or fruit drinks. You get the idea. This is not cooking; this is fundamental changing the food through processing turning them into what your grandmother called “junk food” being full of “empty calories”. Ultra-Processed foods have been industrialized with added sugar, artificial colors and flavors, oils that are unnatural, preservative additives, lots of salt and chemically modified fats, and are often low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. We call these “foods of convenience” or “industrial foods” since many of their ingredients are artificially manufactured. And recent data shows that about 50% of American diets consist of ultra-processed foods. That is a crazy amount that we know can’t be good for children, especially their hearts!
What is the Evidence that Processed Food is Harmful to Your Children?
What is the evidence that processed food is harmful to your children? According to emerging science, there are direct negative health effects of ultra-processed foods on a child’s long-term heart health in particular. I’m sorry to say that might be your child if they eat a lot of fast food or convenience foods. But how can this be you ask? Well, we know that bad heart health can begin in infancy and childhood. The cascade toward heart disease is a slow insidious process that can begin very early in life due to various factors, one of which is obesity. But what is the link between obesity and ultra-processed foods you ask? The link comes from recent evidence pointing to the fact that when adults, and probably children as well, are given a diet of ultra-processed food versus a whole food diet, they consistently eat more calories and gain weight from the ultra-processed diet. Conclusion-processed food is more satisfying than whole food and given a choice, we eat more of it. And what is particularly scary is additional research showing that a diet of ultra-processed food has also been correlated with the thickening of the heart muscle in young children, possible your children! Thickened biceps are usually a sign of good health but a thick heart muscle is definitely not. We should not be seeing this kind of thickening in the hearts of our children. That’s adult stuff, but the objective evidence is that these highly processed diets are putting your kids at serious risk of heart disease and other long-term health problems like liver disease, diabetes, and allergies. The conclusion of many who study this issue is that children who are consuming a large amount of ultra-processed foods like packaged cookies, soda, chips, and fast foods, are getting too many calories and too few nutrients leading them toward being both malnourished and overweight children. An amazing combination.
Time for Action
So, what can you do to ensure that your children’s diets are healthy? I hope I have convinced you that we have more than enough evidence that a diet rich in ultra-processed food is harmful for your children. Of this, I think there is no doubt. But our grandmothers could have told us that without any NIH grant money being spent! And if I’ve made you feel bad about living in America, you shouldn’t. The obesity and an acceleration of heart and degenerative diseases is being seen all over the world where wealth has allowed the convenience of processed foods to be consumed by children.
Now for the important stuff, the actions you can take to ensure good health in your children as they age:
–Action 1: You should minimize providing sugar to your children. This a tough one since sugar comes in so many shapes and sizes – from sweetened cereals (which are often falsely marketed as healthy), to pasta sauces, to sweetened drinks, to Americans unhealthy habit of celebrating all positive events in children’s lives with sugar-laden foods! Consider minimizing how much sugar your children consume by reading labels, cooking more at home, and coming up with non-sugary ways of celebrating achievement.
–Action 2: Resist the convenience of buying fast food meals, convenience snack foods, and foods marketed toward your kids. As we just saw, buying these on a regular basis can have devastating effects on your child’s health.*** I know, this one is particularly hard considering that the fact that so many ultra-processed foods are directly marketed to kids via TV programming, and that children are hard-wired to prefer processed foods that are low in nutrients and fiber. Your children are likely to put up a fight if their comfort foods are being minimized. Resist the urge to give in! This is the best thing you can do for their long-term health. Remember this Doc Smo pearl: “You are the parent, so act like one.”
–Action 3: When your children get older, get in the habit of taking them to the grocery store and teaching them how to read labels and buy healthier options. It won’t be too long until they are making all of their own food decisions and they need to be ready to make them wisely.
–Action 4: Teach your children how to cook. This is a very positive way to minimize some of the damage of convenience consuming processed food! Hand them a wooden spoon and get them stirring, teach them the joy of turning whole fresh foods into a delicious meal and the satisfaction of preparing it yourself. Kids love to be involved and experience the sense of accomplishment from contributing to the family meal. It doesn’t need to be fancy make sure it is whole and nutritious.
–Action 5: Plant a garden. This can be a very rewarding experience for everyone. If you have the energy, try planting a garden and letting your children help grow some of their own food. Everyone in the family will benefit from this experience including your bank account.
–Action 6: Set a good example for them. This one is probably the most important of all. Your children mimic your behavior and when you make good food choices, you are likely to steer your kids toward healthy eating… Yes, by setting a good example for them to follow. Actions speak volumes to children. Remember, they are watching.
Well that’s it for today. I hope this pedcast helped provide you with knowledge of why limiting processed food in your children’s diet sooo important. I also hope I was able to give you some inspiration and practical tools for how to make some positive changes that can improve your children’s long-term heart health. This is Doc Smo, hoping it is no great feat, to ensure that your children get the right foods to eat. Until next time!
Written by Sonya Corina Williams and Dr. Paul Smolen