According to the CDC, as of 2018, 19% of children aged 2 – 19 are considered obese, with the percentage of children 12 – 19 (just coming into adulthood) even higher at 21.2%. Childhood obesity was also higher among Hispanic children (25.6%) and non-Hispanic Black children (24.2%).
What could be contributing to such an unhealthy condition in American children?
In a recently published research report tracking dietary behaviors of children ages 2 – 19, the percentage of total energy intake from ultra-processed foods is 67%, while the percentage of total energy intake from unprocessed or minimally processed foods is 23.5%. The study compares the dietary behaviors from 1999 – 2018, and shows a disturbing trend of increased ultra-processed food consumption (61.4% to 67%) and a decrease in the low/no processed food from 28.8% to 23.5%.
What is Ultra-processed?
According to the NOVA food classification system, there are four groups of foods.
- Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed
- Group 2: Oils, fats, salts or sugar
- Group 3: Processed
- Group 4: Ultra-processed
An ultra-processed food is defined as follows:
Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, moulding and preprocessing by frying. Beverages may be ultra-processed. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of, or are even absent from, ultra-processed products.
Examples of Ultra-processed foods, from dietdoctor.com
We are already seeing the results of poor dietary choices on childhood obesity rates, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ultra-processed foods are filled with unhealthy fats, inflammatory seed oils, nitrates, sugar, fillers, and poor quality ingredients that are linked to obesity, insulin resistance, T2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive issues such as ADHD and depression. While food companies continue to champion exercise as the “solution” for obesity (burn more calories than you consume), you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. Growing children need quality macronutrients to help them develop and stay focused, and so many of the ultra-processed foods sacrifice ingredient quality for addictive and metabolically poor options that are cheap & unhealthy. Macronutrients have different effects on hormones, inflammation and fat storage, and a diet high in carbohydrates, seed oils, sugars & poor-quality fats has been shown to lead to metabolic syndrome in adults, including obesity.
Did you know Pizza and French Fries are classified as a “vegetable” within subsidized school meals? Processed flour, poor quality cheese, potatoes fried in vegetable oils that are inflammatory and can be GMO (ie, soy) and full of salt, make up these stellar foods our children are eating daily. Break the cycle with natural & minimally-processed foods, and here are four much better options that will require some preparation and label reading next time you’re at the store:
- Yogurt. Instead of buying pre-packaged, sugar-laden yogurts that are ultra-processed, buy a good-quality Greek yogurt that is not-sweetened (ie, Fage 5%), and then add some low-sugar berries like blueberries or raspberries and some cinnamon into the plain yogurt for taste.
- Drinks. Instead of sugary, sweetened juices or sports drinks, make a good-quality electrolyte drink with a no-sugar powder and water. Below are two great options for electrolyte powders. Or, simply add lemon or lime to water for flavor.
- Meat. Instead of buying pre-packaged lunchmeat, which is typically filled with nitrates, salts and sugar, and can be made with poor quality meat, go for grass-fed/grass-finished meats. Cooking a pound of grass-fed beef into burgers for a child on the weekend, in preparation for the week, can easily provide part of a lunch for a week, and offer excellent protein without the processing. Just avoid covering that quality meat with condiments loaded with poor quality ingredients!
- Vegetables. While kids may not be looking for vegetables, they are very important for a healthy diet, especially non-starchy varieties. Make them more tasty by combining them with organic peanut butter (only peanuts & sea salt), cream cheese, cottage cheese or other additions that are clean and without vegetable oils, sugars & fillers. If you’re looking for an easy-cook vegetable option, go with frozen vegetables vs. canned, as freezing preserves the quality and eliminates the need for added preservatives.