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Children and teens' diets primarily consist of ultra-processed foods, study finds

Experts worry about the long-term health outcomes for young consumers

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Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Tufts University explored what young people across the country are eating. Unfortunately, they found that children's and teens’ diets consist primarily of ultra-processed foods

This is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is the increase in calories that young people are consuming and the health risks associated with processed foods.  

“Some whole grain breads and dairy foods are ultra-processed, and they’re healthier than other ultra-processed foods,” said researcher Fang Fang Zhang. “Processing can keep food fresher longer, allows for food fortification and enrichment, and enhances consumer convenience. But many ultra-processed foods are less healthy, with more sugar and salt, and less fiber, than unprocessed and minimally-processed foods, and the increase in their consumption by children and teenagers is concerning.” 

The diet breakdown

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 34,000 people between the ages of two and 19 enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2018. The team interviewed the children about their diets to determine what types of foods they ate the most. 

The researchers learned that the percentage of kids’ total calories that came from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% in 1999 to 67% in 2018. Additionally, the percentage of calories that came from healthier or less processed foods decreased over the course of the study. In 1999, healthier foods made up nearly 30% of kids’ diets. By 2018, that number dropped to 23.5%. 

The researchers say there were two primary food groups that contributed to the biggest increase in calorie intake: packaged meals and packaged sweets and desserts. If this trend persists, the researchers worry about how children’s health will be impacted long term. 

“Food processing is an often-overlooked dimension in nutrition research,” Zhang said. “We may need to consider that ultra-processing of some foods may be associated with health risks, independent of the poor nutrient profile of ultra-processed foods generally.” 

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