Between the sugar-loaded yoghurts and the refined oil-laden chips, kids are taking in more ultra-processed foods than ever. With ingredients that we can’t even pronounce, these products are teeming with preservatives and artificial additives. Here’s what it’s doing to kids’ health.
Whether it’s that so-called “healthy” cereal with added sugars, pasta sauces packed with a scarily-long ingredient list or the foods the kids are snacking on between meals – cured meats, crisps and muesli bars – these common household staples are loaded with inflammatory added nasties. These might include:
- Refined oils
- Added sugars
- Excess salt
- Artificial flavours
- Anticaking agents
While these foods might be palatable and help keep the wolf from the door, they can cause inflammation in the body, throwing kids’ gut microbiome out of order and leaving them vulnerable to disease and infection. One study found that kids are taking in the bulk of their daily calories from these highly-processed foods. The data followed around 30, 000 children between the ages of 2 and 17, finding that a whopping 67% of their intake came from the ultra-processed category. Whole fruits and veggies were found to be on a downward trajectory, which is of great concern considering it’s the fibre, vitamins and minerals which play a role in keeping kids feeling fuller for longer, along with boosting mental clarity and staving off sugar cravings.
But it’s not just the kids – research shows Aussies are taking in highly-processed foods at soaring rates, making a sizeable contribution to the global obesity epidemic. Studies have revealed this rapid rise in sales and consumption of these foods are part of what's driving mass cases of preventable diseases. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 67% of us are overweight or obese, a rise of around 4% since 2015. If we don’t make a change, there’ll be around 18 million Aussies overweight or obese before 2030. Let’s take a look at what these processed foods actually entail – they are generally loaded with preservatives and sugar, often processed into an unrecognisable form, for instance, turning corn into corn chips. But one of the most dangerous ingredients in these foods is the sugar – specifically the fructose. This stuff has been directly linked to the development of obesity, due to the way our bodies metabolise it. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be further broken down in our bodies and instead requires the liver to metabolise it. When we overdo it on the fructose – without the sugar-slowing fibre – our livers are put under the gun. The result is visceral fat, which, unlike subcutaneous fat, is the dangerous kind which wraps around the abdominal organs and leads to diseases like obesity, heart disease and liver disease. But that’s not the only danger – researchers have found excess fructose can lead to leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that signals our fullness to the brain, and without it our appetite will be out of whack.
This effect on appetite regulation is especially dangerous for kids while they’re developing, as it sets them up for a host of metabolic conditions in the future – not to mention, kids are more susceptible to sugar addiction due to their stronger taste for the sweet stuff. But those aren’t the only risks that come with eating highly-processed foods, they were also found to spike the risk for dementia, with studies showing people who spend just 20% of their daily calories on ultra-processed meals have a higher risk for cognitive decline. Along with increasing our risk for obesity, these highly-processed foods also throw the gut microbiome out of whack, which is especially concerning for kids who are still building up a healthy balance. This is because of the excess sugars that are synonymous with these foods which lead to changes to the balance of gut bacteria, with research finding it lowers microbial diversity. The result is a higher risk for inflammation, infection, diabetes and, you guessed it, obesity.
What to watch out for
Along with added sugars, there are a number of inflammatory additives slipped into countless household staples, from highly-processed breads to cereals and chips. Let's take a look at a few of the worst offenders to steer clear of:
Refined oils: These oils are inflammatory and, in some cases, loaded with toxic compounds when heated. Sunflower oil is a popular option for chips and pre-made meals, but this commercially-favoured oil contains what are known as aldehydes, which have been linked to an increased risk for cancer. Refined corn and soy oils are a few other common ingredients you'll find in a range of household staples which can do a number on your kid's gut. Unrefined oils like extra virgin olive oil and hemp oil, however, are a different ballgame. These provide a number of heart, gut and brain benefits – just don't overheat them!
Food colouring: Added colours in your kids' food are worth avoiding, and this is because they come with a host of health risks. In fact, recent research revealed that they can encourage the onset of inflammatory bowel disease, which is characterised by bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Red and yellow dyes were found most likely to trigger inflammation, though it's worth leaving most dyed foods on the shelf. From jelly to cereal and flavoured yoghurt, you'll find these additives in some of the more popular household buys.
Artificial preservatives: Common preservatives like emulsifiers are found in everything from meats, breads and sauces to baked goods and chocolate. You'll often read "emulsifier" or "E" followed by a 3-digit number on the ingredient list, and if you google this number, you'll unveil its origin. For most of these confusing names, the verdict on its nutrition status will likely be unsatisfactory. This is because a number of emulsifiers, including common ones like carboxymethylcellulose (E466) and polysorbate-80 (E433), have been linked to the development of inflammation, obesity and gut dysbiosis as a result of the chemical changes they cause in the body. Like food colouring, studies have also shown these emulsifiers can trigger inflammatory bowel disease.
What to eat instead
While it can be difficult finding snack foods that aren't overloaded with additives, preservatives and chemicals, the safest option is to make your child's food from scratch. Take a look at some of our favourite snack options that the kids will love:
- Veggies sticks with yoghurt or peanut butter
- Strawberries and cheese
- Apple slices and yoghurt
- Roasted nuts – add spices like paprika for extra flavour!
For some creative lunchbox snack ideas, check out our Kids' Mini Lunchbox eBook, along with our Healthy Family Meals Cookbook to get your child eating healthily, and enjoying it too. The first step to protecting your kids’ – and your own – health is to swap out those ultra-processed foods for whole, real foods and minimally-processed foods.
Take a look at some of the foods that will reduce your risk for obesity:
- Whole fruits and veggies: Go for whole fruits and veggies as opposed to juices, highly-processed veggie chips and fruit-flavoured confectionery. The real stuff is loaded with fibre to slow the absorption of sugars. This makes for a balanced snack that won’t spike your blood sugar levels.
- Whole grains: Ditch the white bread, white rice and sugary cereals and go for the minimally-processed grains instead. These include quinoa, wholemeal bread, buckwheat and oats.
- Legumes: If you’re looking for a satiating snack for kids, try roasting up some chickpeas at home. Instead of ultra-processed meats, legumes like lentils and mung beans make for hearty, sugar-free alternatives that hit the spot, not the blood sugars!
- Nuts and seeds: Instead of chips and biscuits, get the kids to snack on a handful of cashews, almonds or walnuts. Nuts and seeds are packed with healthy fats which keep us feeling fuller for long, in fact, studies show these fats decrease our appetite and lower our blood sugar levels.
- Dairy and eggs: Minimally-processed dairy sources like plain or Greek yoghurt, cheese and milk make for healthy dietary additions, but be sure to avoid sugar-laden, highly-processed versions.
- Fermented foods: These foods are loaded with good bacteria which promote a healthy gut. Go for tempeh, miso, kimchi and yoghurt for a dose of probiotics.
Eating healthily doesn’t have to be a chore – try our Supercharged Peanut Butter Fudge recipe HERE. The kids won’t believe these tasty morsels are healthy. Plus, the adults will love them too! They make for the perfect lunchbox addition, with the gut-boosting benefits of healthy fats and protein.
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