Eating ultra-processed foods linked to lower physical fitness in kids, study finds

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Prioritizing healthy foods at home can benefit kids in several ways

A new study conducted by researchers from the American Society for Nutrition explored some of the risks associated with kids’ eating ultra-processed foods. They learned that kids who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods from a young age were more likely to have poorer physical fitness and cardiovascular health in their teens and beyond. 

“Healthy dietary and exercise behaviors are established at a very young age,” said researcher Jacqueline Vernarelli, Ph.D. “Our findings point to the need to educate families about cost-effective ways to reduce ultra-processed food intake to help decrease the risk for cardiovascular health problems in adulthood.” 

Long-term health risks

The researchers analyzed data from over 1,500 U.S. kids between the ages of three and 15 who were enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey/National Youth Fitness Survey. The kids were interviewed about their typical diets and exercise habits, and they also completed physical tests to gauge their fitness levels.

For kids under the age of five, the researchers measured locomotor development; older kids were measured by their cardiovascular fitness.

The study showed that children who ate more ultra-processed foods were more likely to have poorer physical fitness, regardless of their age. Older kids who had the poorest cardiovascular fitness were more likely to eat an average of nearly 230 more calories per day of ultra-processed foods. Similarly, the younger kids who struggled the most with locomotor development were eating an average of more than 270 calories per day of ultra-processed foods. 

Kids who ate the most ultra-processed foods reported regularly eating things like hotdogs, pizza, candy, packaged snacks, and chicken nuggets, among several others. While there are health risks for adults who follow this kind of diet, this study shows that there are similar risks for younger people. 

Moving forward, the researchers plan to get a better understanding of which types of processed foods kids are most drawn to and what meals tend to include these unhealthier options.

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

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