Consuming ultra-processed foods at a young age is linked to sustained weight gain into adulthood, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Researchers in Britain looked at a group of 9,025 children, whose diets and growth trajectories were tracked from ages 7 to 24. They were interested in the effects of a diet consisting of mostly ultra-processed foods, defined as “industrial formulations of ingredients that undergo a series of physical, chemical, and biological processes.” These foods typically contain many additives and lack healthy components such as fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. They also tend to be high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, and total calories. Of course, these foods also also fairly inexpensive and convenient, and are heavily promoted by food manufacturers.
To get cutting-edge diabetes news, strategies for blood glucose management, nutrition tips, healthy recipes, and more delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our free newsletters!
The researchers noted that previous has research has found that ultra-processed foods make up 65.4% of the caloric intake of school-aged children in Britain, and 66.2% in the United States. Since it appears that a transition to ultra-processed foods has taken place at the same time as childhood obesity has become an epidemic, they wanted to know what lasting effect on body weight this type of diet might have into adulthood.
Based on food intake over three days as reported by children or their parents, the researchers calculated the percentage of ultra-processed foods in participants’ diets. The entire group of participants was then divided into five groups of equal size, from the lowest to the highest intake of ultra-processed foods. In each of these groups from the lowest to the highest intake, the average proportion of calories from ultra-processed foods was 23.2%, 34.7%, 43.4%, 52.7%, and 67.8%.
Ultra-processed foods linked to increases in body-mass index
The researchers found that in the group with the highest intake of ultra-processed foods, compared with the group with the lowest intake, participants’ body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) increased by an average of 0.06 more each year, and they gained an average of 0.20 kilograms (0.44 pounds) more each year. They also gained an average of 0.17 centimeters (0.07 inches) more in waist circumference each year. While these differences are fairly small, they add up over time, and suggest that ultra-processed foods are linked to higher levels of unhealthy body fat throughout childhood and into early adulthood.
“The increasing availability and variety of [ultra-processed foods] have reshaped global food systems by displacing dietary patterns previously based on fresh and minimally processed foods,” the researchers wrote. “These findings have major public health implications, with higher [ultra-processed food] consumption associated with excess calorie intake and elevated risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality.”
Want to learn more about the impact of ultra-processed foods on health? Read “Study Links Type 2 Diabetes to Ultra-Processed Foods” and “Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Hypertension in Black Adults.”
Living with type 2 diabetes? Check out our free type 2 e-course!