Chicken Nuggets, Bacon, Apples and Our Kids

Children’s diets are very important! As kids grow, it’s important for them to eat healthy food so they can use the vitamins and minerals in these foods to build a strong brain, bones, teeth, and more. A very interesting new study compared the average diet of 30,000 kids and teens in 1999 vs. 2018. It turns out that in 2018, ultra-processed foods made up two-thirds (67%) of a child’s diet! This is an increase from 61% in 1999. Yikes!

The term “processed food” is thrown around a lot but my bet is that many people don’t know its definition. According to the NOVA food classification system:

  • Minimally processed food is food in its natural form (eggs, whole carrots, whole apples, rice) that may have had things subtracted from it, like water from dried fruit, but nothing added to it, like salt, sugar, or additives.
    • The new study showed kids’ intake of these foods decreased by 5% over the 20-year period 🙁
  • Processed food is defined as industrially produced food with added salt, sugar, fat, or other substances. Some examples include: bacon (!), fruit cups packed in syrup, and most canned veggies and canned fish.
  • Ultra-processed food is industrially produced food that contains mostly refined ingredients with additives like soy protein, whey, casein, maltodextrin that we would not use at home to prepare food. These foods are therefore high in sugar, fat, and salt and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Examples include: Most ready-to-eat frozen foods (pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets), both sweetened drinks and energy drinks, packaged bread/buns, and most cereals.
    • Kids intake of ready-to-eat foods jumped nearly 10%.
    • Sweets intake (pastries, sugary snacks, candy, etc.) also increased, jumping by over 2%
    • Interestingly, there was an increase in intake of ultra-processed foods by race/ethnicity (10% increase in black children, 8% in Mexican-American children and 5% in white children), but NOT based off of income or education!

Some good news from the study is that kids’ intake of sugary beverages (soda, Kool-Aid, juices with added sugar, etc.) dropped by half (from 10% to 5%). As an FYI, the current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for fruit juice intake for children is below:

  • < 1 years old: No juice
  • 1-3 years –No more than 4 oz. (½ cup) juice per day
  • 4-6 years –No more than 6 oz. juice per day
  • 7-18 years – No more than 8 oz. (1 cup) juice per day

My thoughts: Looking back on my own childhood, I can’t be too surprised that ultra-processed food intake was already high in 1999. The fact though that intake of ultra-processed food has increased during a time when there has been an increased awareness of the health impacts of food, and when farmer’s markets have become more popular is surprising to me. You could be tempted to blame socioeconomic factors (i.e. saying families with lower incomes likely eat more ultra-processed food) but this study shows the same results regardless of how much money a family makes or their educational level. I hope a follow up study is done to find out what is driving this trend. Advertising? Our packed schedules? Parents work schedules? I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

It would be very difficult to get rid of all of the ultra-processed foods we eat. However, my adult patients frequently talk about how they grew up eating certain unhealthy foods, and now it is difficult to make a change. I encourage you to seek out ways to teach your kids and grandkids about healthy foods from when they are young, so they can carry these lessons with them over their lifetime.

  • Introduce them to new foods.
  • Take them to a farm.
  • Plant a garden with them.
  • Look into Foodshare as an affordable way to bring whole fruits and veggies into your home.

Send me an email or leave a comment on Facebook/Instagram with any additional ideas you have.

These changes will benefit your health too!

Here’s the original research study from JAMA.

Have a good week! Feel free to contact me with any questions.
Melissa Boylan, MD, FAAFP
Family Physician and Owner of Noreta Family Medicine