A new study shows that children aged between 3 and 5 who consume more ultra-processed foods have poorer locomotor skills than children who consumed less of these foods. Likewise, children aged between 12 and 15 who consume more ultra-processed foods have lower cardiovascular fitness.

Previous studies have shown that consuming ultra-processed foods is linked with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease in adults, this is one of the first studies to show a link between consumption of these foods and lower levels of physical fitness in children.

These new findings were presented at NUTRITION 2022 LIVE ONLINE, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held June 14-16.

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Ultra-processed food: really bad for kids

In this study, ultra-processed foods included packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, candy, soda, sweetened juices and yogurts, canned soups and prepared meals like pizza, hotdogs, burgers and chicken nuggets.

“Healthy dietary and exercise behaviors are established at a very young age,” said research team leader Jacqueline Vernarelli, PhD, associate professor and director for the Master of Public Health program at Sacred Heart University.

“Our findings point to the need to educate families about cost-effective ways to reduce ultraprocessed food intake to help decrease the risk for cardiovascular health problems in adulthood.”

To examine the association between physical fitness and consumption of ultra-processed foods during various stages of childhood, the researchers used data taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) National Youth Fitness Survey, which was conducted in 2012.

The survey used interviews and fitness tests to collect data on physical activity, fitness levels and food intake for more than 1,500 U.S. children aged between 3 and 15. Ultra-processed foods were identified using NOVA, a system which categorizes food and beverage items according to the level of food processing.

For children 5 years old and under, the researchers used locomotor development as a measure of their physical fitness. The researchers showed that children with the lowest locomotor development scores consumed almost 300 calories more per day of ultra-processed foods than children with the highest locomotor development scores.

Cardiovascular fitness was used as a physical fitness measure in the older children. The study showed that the healthiest teens and preteens consumed just over 200 fewer calories per day from ultra-processed foods than the unhealthiest.

Ultra-processed foods now make up 2/3 of calories for children and teens in the US

ultra-processed foods

In light of all the shocking evidence for the serious negative health consequences of processed food consumption, it should be serious cause for alarm that children and adolescents in the US are now consuming more than 2/3 of their calories in this form, according to a new study from Tufts

The study analysed nutritional intake from 33,795 children and adolescents (2-19 years of age) across the US, overall and in population subgroups, between 1999 and 2018. The study used data from 10 consecutive cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). 

The average age of participants was 10.7 years and was roughly equally divided between boys and girls. It relied on 24-hour dietary recall interviews conducted by trained personnel; older children and teens directly reported on the foods they ate while parents and caregivers did so for younger children.


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“Though highly processed convenience foods are easy to throw into a school bag, our research shows the importance of preparing healthy snacks and meals,” said Vernarelli.

“Think of it like saving for retirement: You’re making decisions now that will influence your child’s future.”

To follow on from this new research, the researchers plan to look more closely at consumption patterns for ultra-processed food by age group., including when children are most likely to consume them.

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