Unhealthy teen eating influenced by certain ultra-processed foods

September 12, 2022
Unhealthy teen eating influenced by certain ultra-processed foods

Candy, pastries and frozen desserts may be “gateway” foods for adolescents that prompts them to eat more ultra-processed food. Ultra-processed foods are high in sugar, salt, unhealthy trans fats and artificial flavours and colours – research by the American Heart Association has suggested that reducing consumption of key gateway foods may impact in overall consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods such as bread, cereals, desserts, sodas and processed meats, engineered to be as palatable as possible, comprise more than 60% of the calories Americans eat each day. High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with hypertension, weight gain, increased risk of heart disease, and premature death.

Research lead Maria Balhara, a student at Broward College in Florida, said ultra-processed foods are “also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist” and that most people ate much more of these foods than realised.

Balhara and her team gathered data on how frequently adolescents consumed 12 kinds of ultra-processed food products over 8 weeks. Ultra-processed foods included prepackaged cookies, candy, chips, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, soda, store-bought pastries, store-bought smoothies, syrup-sweetened coffee or tea, white bread, and processed meat.

Through a customised survey with 315 study participants, the researchers discovered that candy, prepackaged pastries and frozen desserts drove the consumption of other processed food products, as much as 31%, 12% and 11%, respectively. Teenagers who changed their consumption of these gateway foods were more likely to change their consumption of all other ultra-processed foods as well.

Among other foods in the survey, decreased consumption of processed meats among study participants was associated with an 8% decrease in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods; decreased consumption of white bread was associated with a 9% decrease in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods; and decreased consumption of prepackaged cookies was associated with a 10% decrease in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

The report also found that 43% of the adolescents estimated that they increased how frequently they consumed ultra-processed foods after pandemic restrictions were lifted compared with their consumption before the pandemic, while 57% estimated a decrease in consumption.

“For teenagers whose consumption of ultra-processed foods has not yet been established, certain gateway foods such as candy, store-bought pastries and frozen desserts should be avoided, since increased consumption of these foods appears to lead to increased consumption of other processed foods,” Balhara said.

“The good news,” she added, “is that even small changes, such as reducing how often you eat a few gateway foods, may reduce overall consumption of unhealthy foods and have a big impact on your overall health.”

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Category: Features, Health alert

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