Are processed foods causing child obesity?
Childhood obesity is at an all-time high in the UK, the latest figures show that almost 1/3 of children at primary school are either overweight or obese.
The World Health Organisation considers childhood obesity as a serious global public health challenge, as overweight children have an increasing risk of developing health issues with age and are much more likely to stay overweight or obese in their adulthood (1).
What are the health risks?
Health risks associated with childhood obesity include complications such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. There is also an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus, as obese children are more likely to develop impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance.
Many studies associate the rapid rise of processed food and drink consumption, as the main dietary cause of obesity. One Latin American study even found that the steady increase of fast food and beverages correlated with increased obesity rates in not one, but thirteen Latin American countries (2).
So what actually is processed food?
The term processed food applies to any food which has been altered from its natural state. Food can be processed for a number of reasons but mainly it will be for safety reasons to remove bacteria or for consumer convenience such as a longer shelf life.
However processed foods will most likely contain added salt, sugar and fat. This is usually to make the product more appealing in terms of flavour or structure. Due to these extra additives, consumers are likely to eat more than the recommended amount as they are usually unaware of what has been added to the food they are buying. Such foods are also higher in calories as a result of added sugar, and can lead to excessive weight gain.
Ultra processed foods such as ready-meals, cakes and biscuits, or fast foods have a minimal preparation time or are ready to eat, which makes them an easy meal choice for many parents. Packaged foods such as crisps and sweets can be easily handed to children as a quick and filling snack and are often used as means to calm down temper tantrums or as treats. Although ultra-processed foods are tempting in terms of their easy availability, as calorie packed meals and through heavy advertising, they disturb our body’s natural appetite and hunger mechanisms; which all adds up to the unnatural growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
Where does the problem lie?
Children are heavily exposed to attractive and fun advertisements of highly processed and sweet foods which naturally tempt the child. Children who are under the age of six are generally unable to distinguish between programming and advertisements, or even grasp the persuasive intent behind advertising. As young children can easily recall content from such advertisements, they will develop product preferences. Therefore children’s requests to parents will usually influence a parents purchasing decision.
However, childhood obesity cannot be solely blamed on processed foods - children today are more heavily dependent on technology for personal entertainment on devices such as mobiles, televisions, computers and gaming consoles. This results in less physical activity from sports and games and less opportunities to partake in healthy exercise and activities.
Families and caregivers must give adequate attention and importance to not only what their child is consuming but how much (or how little) time they are spending inactive. Many nutritionists also recommend that families learn how to cook and prepare their own fresh meals at home, as there is clear evidence from several studies that regularly eating meals away from home decreases the quality of diet in terms of nutrients and also has clear links to increased body mass index (3).
Learn more in our Childhood Nutrition & Obesity Prevention course