With nearly one-fifth of U.S. residents aged 20 and over on a diet at any given time, countless adults are hyper-aware of what they're eating on a daily basis. However, during childhood, many people give little thought to what they're consuming, relying on the adults around them to make sound nutritional choices on their behalf. Unfortunately, this may be a riskier proposition than you might imagine, as new research suggests that eating certain types of food as a child may have lifelong repercussions for your health.
A June 2021 investigation published in JAMA Pediatrics studied 9,025 British children who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) between Sept. 1, 1998 and Oct. 31, 2017, starting at age 7 and ending at age 24. Over this period of time, researchers tracked the children's weight, waist circumference, fat mass index, and body mass index (BMI). The researchers then analyzed these data points and study subjects' food diaries during a three-month period after the study had concluded.
Researchers discovered that ultra-processed foods (UPFs)—including frozen pizza, soda, packaged bread, cakes, and pre-packaged meals—made up between 23.2% and 67.8% of total food grams consumed, on average, in the lowest and highest quintiles, respectively. On a yearly basis, study subjects in the highest quintile for UPF consumption saw their weight trajectory increase by an additional 0.2 kg (approximately 0.44 pounds), their waist circumference increase by an additional 0.17 cm, their fat mass index increase by an additional 3%, and their BMI increase by an additional 6% compared to those in the lowest quintile for UPF consumption. By age 24, those in the highest UPF consumption quintile weighed 3.7 kg (8.16 pounds) more, had 3.1 cm larger waist circumference, 1.5% greater body fat, and 1.2 kg/m2 higher BMI on average.
"Through a lack of regulation, and enabling the low cost and ready availability of these foods, we are damaging our children's long-term health. We urgently need effective policy change to redress the balance, to protect the health of children and reduce the proportion of these foods in their diet," said Christopher Millett, Ph.D., NIHR professor of public health at Imperial College London and one of the study's authors, in a statement.
"One of the key things we uncover here is a dose-response relationship. This means that it's not only the children who eat the most ultra-processed foods have the worst weight gain, but also the more they eat, the worse this gets," added co-author Eszter Vamos, Ph.D., a senior clinical lecturer in public health medicine at Imperial College London.
So, while you may not be able to rewrite the past, you can help the kids in your life start on a healthier path by keeping the processed foods in their diet to a minimum.