Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fast foodIt breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

Let me explain. The human brain is hardwired to crave sweets, salt, and fat. In prehistoric times each of these cravings had a survival benefit. For example:

  • Mother’s milk is naturally sweet. It only makes sense that babies should crave the nutrition source that is essential for their early growth and development.
  • Fruits provide a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. But fruits were scarce and seasonal in prehistoric times. Their sweetness provided an incentive for early man to seek them out.
  • Some salt is essential for life. Yet in early history it was scare. It was worth its weight in gold.
  • In prehistoric times it was feast or famine. The human body has an unlimited capacity to store fat in times of plenty, and those fat stores carried early man through times of famine.

Today most Americans live in a time of food abundance. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and in every shopping mall. We think of famine as the days we skipped lunch because we were busy.

Yet these cravings remain, and the food industry has weaponized them. They are churning out an endless supply highly processed foods and beverages. These foods are not being designed to improve their nutritional value. They are designed to satisfy our cravings and lure us and our children into consuming more of them every year.

Scientists have developed a classification system that assigns foods in the American diet to different groups based on the degree of processing of that food. As you might expect, the best classification is unprocessed foods. The worst classification is called “ultraprocessed foods”. [I will describe this classification system in more detail in the next section.]

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. That is the topic of the study (L Wang et al, JAMA, 326: 519-530, 2021) I will discuss today.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) dietary data collected from 33,795 American children (ages 2-19, average age = 10) between 1999 and 2018.

NHANES is a program conducted by the CDC to survey the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. The survey has been conducted on a continuous, yearly basis since 1999.

The dietary data are collected via 24-hour dietary recalls conducted by trained interviewers, with a second recall administered over the phone 3-10 days later to improve the accuracy of the data.

  • Children aged 12-19 completed the dietary survey on their own.
  • For children aged 6-11, a parent or guardian assisted them in filling out the survey.
  • For children aged 2-5, a parent or guardian filled out the survey for them.

The foods and beverages consumed by the children were divided into 4 major groups based on the extent of processing using a well-established classification system called NOVA. The 4 groups are:

1) Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods.

  • This includes whole foods and foods that are minimally processed without the addition of oils, fats, sugar, salt, or other ingredients to the food.
  • Examples of minimally processed foods include things like oatmeal, nut butters, dried fruit, frozen fruits or vegetables, and dried beans.

2) Processed Culinary Ingredients.

  • This includes recipes from restaurants or in-home cooking that add small amounts of oils, fats, sugar, salt, and seasonings to whole foods.

3) Processed Foods

  • This includes foods made in factories by the addition of salt, sugar, oil, or other substances added to whole or minimally processed foods.
  • Examples include tomato paste, canned fruits packed in sugar syrup, cheese, smoked or cured meat.

4) Ultraprocessed Foods

  • These are industrial formulations created in factories mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories (flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives).
  • Examples include sugar sweetened beverages; sweet or savory packaged snacks; chocolates and candies; burgers, hot dogs, and sausages; poultry and fish nuggets, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes.

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

Obese ChildAs I said above, the important question is, “Are we killing our children with kindness when we give them the sugary drinks, sweets, convenience foods, and fast foods they crave?” After all, the foods we give them when they are young are the ones they are most likely to select when they get older.

Let’s start by looking at how pervasive these foods have become. That was the purpose of the study I am discussing today, and the results of this study are alarming. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!
  • Ultraprocessed foods were more likely to be consumed away from home and at fast food restaurants.

When the investigators looked at individual categories of ultraprocessed foods:

  • The percentage of calories coming from ready to heat and eat dishes like frozen pizzas and other frozen meals or snacks increased from 2.2% to 11.2%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sweet snacks and desserts increased from 10.7% to 12.9%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sugar sweetened beverages decreased from 10.8% to 5.3%.
    • This is potentially the only good news from this study.

The authors concluded. “Based on NHANES data from 1999 to 2018, the estimated energy intake from consumption of ultraprocessed foods has increased among youths in the US and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake.”

“These results suggest that food processing may need to be considered as a food dimension in addition to nutrients and food groups in future dietary recommendations and food policies.”

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods

Fast Food DangersThis study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

#1: Their nutrition suffers. When the investigators divided the children into 5 groups based on the percentage of calories coming from ultraprocessed foods, the children consuming the most ultraprocessed food had:

  • Significantly higher intakes of carbohydrates (mostly refined carbohydrates); total fats; polyunsaturated fats (mostly highly processed omega-6-rich vegetable oils); and added sugars.
  • Significantly lower intakes of fiber; protein; omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; calcium; magnesium; potassium; zinc; vitamins A, C, D, and folate.
    • The low intake of fiber means our children will be less likely to have health-promoting friendly bacteria and more likely to have disease-promoting bad bacteria in their guts.
    • The low intake of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D means they will be less likely to achieve maximum bone density as young adults and will be more likely to suffer from osteoporosis as they age.

#2: They are more likely to become obese. Remember, these are foods that are made in a factory, not grown on a farm.

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • As I said earlier, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled (5% to 18.5%) in the last 40 years.

#3: They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

  • Obesity; high intake of fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates; and low intake of fiber, omega-3s, and essential nutrients all contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and premature death in adults.
    • It is also no wonder a recent study found that type 2 diabetes in children has almost doubled between 2001 and 2017.

The data are clear. When we allow our children to subsist on a diet mostly made up of the ultraprocessed foods they crave, we may be giving them, not love, but a lifetime of obesity and declining health instead. And yes, we may be killing them with kindness.

Instead, my recommendations are:

  • expose your children to a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods at an early age.
  • They will reject some of them, and that’s OK. Introduce others until you find whole, minimally processed foods they like. Reintroduce them to some of the foods they initially rejected as they get older.
  • Don’t keep tempting ultraprocessed foods in your house.
  • You may just succeed in putting your children on the path to a healthier diet and a healthier, longer life.

The Bottom Line

It breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. A recent study did just that. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!

This study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

  • Their nutrition suffers.
  • They are more likely to become obese.
  • They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

For more details about this study, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast Food DangersUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 20 years you probably know that the highly processed foods in the typical American diet are bad for your health. But perhaps you didn’t realize just how bad they were.

But first, let’s start with a bit of perspective. Scientists like to be precise. Even healthy foods go through some processing.

  • The oatmeal you ate this morning was either steel-cut or ground. That is processing.
  • The almond butter you put on your whole grain toast this morning was made by roasting and grinding. That is processing.

So, scientists have developed the term “ultra-processed food” to describe the worst of the worse. In short, ultra-processed foods:

  • Usually go through several physical and chemical processes, such as extruding, molding, prefrying, and hydrogenation that can lead to the formation of toxic contaminants. One example you may have heard about recently would be acrylamide in French fries.
  • Typically contain ingredients of no or little nutritive value, such as refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, thickening agents, and artificial colors. Some of these ingredients have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
  • Have long shelf-lives because of added preservatives. This allows migration of chemicals such as bisphenol A from the packaging materials into the food.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sodas
  • Chips
  • Candy and packages of cookies or crackers
  • Most breakfast cereals
  • Boxed cake, cookie, and pancake mix
  • Chicken nuggets and fish sticks
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs and other processed meats
  • Infant formula
  • Instant noodles
  • Most store-bought ice cream
  • Flavored yogurt

In short, ultra-processed foods include sodas and the junk and convenience foods Americans hold so dear. Even things like infant formula and flavored yogurt make the list.

Evidence of the ill effects of ultra-processed foods on our health is becoming overwhelming. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared recent studies that have shown that heavy consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to increased risk of obesity and cancer. Other studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption with increased risk of depression, heart disease, and premature death.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I:

  • Ask the important question, “If we know these foods are so bad for us, why do we still keep eating them?”

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data from this study were taken from an ongoing study in France (the NutriNet-Sante study) looking at associations between nutrition and health. This study began enrolling French adults 18 and older in 2009.

This is a web-based study. Participants are prompted to go to a dedicated website and fill out questionnaires related to things like sex, age, height, weight, smoking status, physical activity, health status, and diet.

With respect to diet, participants filled out a series of 3 nonconsecutive 24-hour dietary records at the time of enrollment and every 6 months. This is a particularly strong feature of this study. Many studies of this type only analyze participant’s diets at the beginning of the study. Those studies have no way of knowing how the participant’s diets may have changed during the study.

Diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for study participants was obtained from the French centralized health records.

The study enrolled 104,708 participants, 20% men and 80% women, and followed them for an average of 6 years. The average age of the participants was 43 years.

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

High Blood SugarIn this study the range of ultra-processed foods in the French diet ranged from 7% to 27% (average = 17%). High intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with:

  • Younger participants. Simply put, young people were more likely to drink sodas and eat junk food than older adults.
  • Increased caloric intake. Ultra-processed foods have a higher caloric density than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No surprise here. Previous studies have shown that ultra-processed food consumption increases the risk of obesity.
  • Poorer diet quality. Again, no surprise. Junk foods tend to crowd healthier foods out of the dirt. Specifically, ultra-processed food consumption was associated with:
    • Higher intake of sugar and salt.
    • Lower intake of fiber.
    • Higher intake of sugary drinks, red and processed meats.
    • Lower intake of whole grains, yogurt, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

However, even after statistically correcting for all these factors, there was a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and the onset of type 2 diabetes in the 6-year follow-up period.

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

The authors concluded:

“In this large observational prospective study, a higher proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Even though these results need to be confirmed in other populations and settings, they provide evidence to support efforts by public health authorities to recommend limiting ultra-processed food consumption.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanYou might be tempted to say that a 15% increase in the risk of developing diabetes is a small price to pay for continuing to eat the foods you enjoy. However, you should be alarmed by this study. Here is why.

The French diet is much healthier than the American. Remember that ultra-processed foods only comprised 17% of the French Diet. In contrast, a recent survey found that:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

It is no wonder that obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions in our country.

You might also be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. These are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast FoodsWe all know that ultra-processed foods are bad for us. Study after study show that they make us sick. They kill us prematurely. And, unlike most topics in the field of nutrition, this is not controversial.

For example, there have been lots of bizarre diets that have come and gone over the years. There have been books written on “The Steak Lover’s Diet” and “The Drinking Man’s Diet”. But nobody has written a book on “The Junk Food Lover’s Diet”. It simply would not be believable.

So why do we Americans keep eating such unhealthy foods. Part of the answer is physiological. A preference for sweet, salty, and fatty foods is hardwired into our brain. That’s because they had great survival value in prehistoric times.

If we think back to the time when we were hunters and gatherers:

  • Fruits are healthy foods. They are a great source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, but there were no orchards or grocery stores back then. We had to search for fruits in the wild. Our desire for sweet tasting foods provided the motivation to seek them out.
  • Game was seasonal and sometimes scarce. We had to be prepared to go for days or weeks without eating except for the leaves and roots we could gather. Our bodies are designed to store fat as the primary energy source to get us through the lean times. Our preference for fatty foods encouraged us to store as much fat as possible in times of plenty so we would be prepared for times of scarcity.
  • If we fast forward to our early recorded history, salt was scarce. It was worth its weight in gold. Yet some salt is essential for life. Our preference for salty foods encouraged us to search out supplies of salt.

Unfortunately, the food industry has weaponized these food preferences to create the ultra-processed foods we know today. Their ads entice us by associating these foods with youth and good times. And ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and shopping mall in the country.

Fortunately, we do not have to let the food industry destroy our health. We can retrain our taste buds to appreciate the sweetness of fresh fruits and vegetables. We can substitute healthy fats for the kinds of fat found in most ultra-processed foods. We can also retrain our taste buds to appreciate herbs and spices with just a pinch of salt.

The Bottom Line

Ultra-processed foods, such as sodas, junk foods, and convenience foods have become the biggest food group in the American diet. A recent study found:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

That is scary because ultra-processed foods are deadly. Previous studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study discussed this week looked at the association between ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes. It showed:

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

You might be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. This are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

For more details and a discussion of why Americans continue to eat ultra-processed food even though we know it is bad for us, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor