Kids eating more processed foods are less physically fit, have poorer heart health

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that having a Pop-Tart for breakfast is not the best thing for your health. However, new research suggests children eating lots of ultra-processed foods also see drops in their physical fitness.

Previous research has linked ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of heart disease in adults. The current study adds to these findings by showing one of the first connections between eating these types of foods and lower physical fitness among kids.

“Healthy dietary and exercise behaviors are established at a very young age,” says Jacqueline Vernarelli, PhD, associate professor and director for the Master of Public Health program at Sacred Heart University, in a media release. “Our findings point to the need to educate families about cost-effective ways to reduce ultraprocessed food intake to help decrease the risk for cardiovascular health problems in adulthood.”

The team used data from 1,500 children between three and 15 as part of the 2012 National Youth Fitness Survey to look at the link between physical fitness and ultra-processed foods at multiple stages of childhood. Ultra-processed foods included packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, candies, soda, sweetened juices and yogurts, canned soups, and prepared foods like pizza, hotdogs, and burgers, as well as chicken nuggets.

More junk food leads to worsening heart health

Children five years and younger eating highly processed foods had low locomotor scores, meaning they did not move as swiftly from one point to another — like kids with higher scores. Those with the lowest scores also ate an extra 273 calories of ultra-processed foods, on average.

In older children, the team measured their cardiovascular fitness to give insight into their physical health. They found that teens and preteens who could do regular aerobic exercises ate less than 226 calories from ultra-processed foods than those in poor cardiovascular shape.

“Though highly processed convenience foods are easy to throw into a school bag, our research shows the importance of preparing healthy snacks and meals,” explains Vernarelli. “Think of it like saving for retirement: You’re making decisions now that will influence your child’s future.”

The team’s next step is to look at how children eat according to their age. For example, do children or teens tend to eat more highly processed foods during breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Understanding these nuances could help nutritionists and public health policy makers create successful interventions encouraging healthy eating habits.

The team presented their findings at Nutrition 2022 Live Online.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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