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To Optimize Your Child’s Health, Learn to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

Article contributed by Zest Pediatrics – The Nest Schools Medical Education Partner

To Optimize Your Child’s Health, Learn to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

As the saying goes, we are what we eat. A healthy diet in childhood is not just a key to optimal growth and development but also to instilling life-long healthy eating habits. As parents, we have the power to significantly reduce our children’s risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes through the food choices we make for them.

In recent years, we have done a great job decreasing childhood consumption of some unhealthy foods (sugary drink consumption is way down), but we are still challenged by the extremely unhealthy ultra-processed foods, which now make up as much as two-thirds of the calorie’s children eat. Let’s explore ultra-processed foods, why they are bad for children, and some healthy ways to avoid them. 

What Are Ultra-processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods contain few natural or whole-food substances and have been extensively altered through industrial processing. They contain preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and other additives. They are often high in processed sugars and unhealthy fats and are a poor source of healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

A quick search of ultra-processed foods provides examples and the likely reason that children now consume up to two-thirds of their calories from these unhealthy products. 

  1. Sugary cereals: Many breakfast cereals marketed towards children are highly processed and packed with added sugars, artificial flavors, and colors.
  2. Fruit-flavored snacks: These snacks are often marketed as containing fruit flavors but are typically made with little to no natural fruit and are high in sugars and additives.
  3. Packaged snacks: Items like chips, cookies, crackers, and snack bars are convenient options for children but tend to be high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium.
  4. Fast food: Hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and other fast-food items are popular among children but are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium.
  5. Processed meats: Hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats are standard components of children’s diets but are often high in saturated fats, sodium, and preservatives.
  6. Sweetened beverages: Fruit juices, flavored milk, soda, and sports drinks are frequently consumed by children but can be high in added sugars and empty calories.
  7. Frozen meals: Many frozen meals marketed towards children are highly processed and contain high levels of sodium, unhealthy fats, and preservatives.

How to Identify Ultra-processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods rarely contain whole, recognizable ingredients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or lean proteins. They often have long lists of ingredients, many of which are unfamiliar, artificial, or highly processed. Ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives are all signs of ultra-processed foods. Next time you buy something as simple and familiar as peanut butter, look at the labels of a few brands.

Why are Ultra-processed Foods Bad for Children

Ultra-processed foods, which are incredibly convenient and tasty, present many challenges for a child’s health, growth, and development. These foods are low in nutrients essential for early brain development and bone/muscle strength. They are also high in unhealthy fats and have added sugars—key leading factors in obesity.

Ultra-processed foods satisfy a child’s caloric needs with empty calories (calories with no nutritional value) and suppress their appetite for more healthy foods. Foods high in added sugars, fats, and salt can be highly satisfying to children, creating an unhealthy “comfort” food that is hard to resist during stress.

Children who eat ultra-processed foods will be less likely to learn to eat healthy whole, unprocessed foods, making it harder to adopt a balanced diet later in life. Afterall, healthy habits begin in early childhood.

Suggestions on How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

The best strategy is prevention. Simply do not make ultra-processed foods a part of a child’s regular routine. Indeed, it is not reasonable to expect no exposure but to keep it limited. Likewise, parents must avoid consuming these foods since children want what their parents have.

If ultra-processed foods are already in the home food pantry, consider buying them less frequently and replacing them with healthier options. As usual, help your child shop with you for nutritious foods, give them choices of healthy foods, and model healthy eating.

Stay Healthy