Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods by U.S. Children at All-Time High

american children get 67% of their caloric intake from processed foods

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Most people live in countries where obesity kills more than malnutrition. The global overnutrition epidemic carries numerous consequences, including health problems like heart disease. U.S. children eat more processed foods now than ever.

Family grabbing pizza slices at the dinner table
As portion sizes have become super-sized and caloric intake increasingly comes from processed foods, one in three American children are overweight or obese. Photo By Africa Studio / Shutterstock

In the diets of American children, the amount of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods, like frozen pizzas and takeout, has jumped significantly in the last 20 years. Now, processed foods make up more than two-thirds of their caloric intake, contributing to the obesity epidemic. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped matters either, with a notable rise in child obesity occurring in the last 12 months or so. An overabundance of eating, especially ultra-processed foods, is linked to several health problems, some of them fatal.

How bad is the overnutrition epidemic? In her video series Food, Science, and the Human Body, Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the statistics are staggering and diet shares plenty of the responsibility.

Adolescent and Teen Overnutrition Health Risks

“In the past 30 years, rates of obesity in children have doubled and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),” Dr. Crittenden said. “A recent estimate on their website fact sheet suggests that more than one-third of kids and teenagers in the U.S. are currently overweight or obese.

“In addition to the same risk factors seen in overweight and obese adults, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer, kids and teenagers also exhibit higher risk for type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, which is a condition where blood glucose levels suggest a higher risk for the development of diabetes.”

According to Dr. Crittenden, our cardiovascular health is linked to our physical activity and is likely a key factor in the evolution of human physiology. In the United States, sedentism—or a lifestyle of frequent inactivity—contributes to higher rates of obesity and heart disease. The lack of physical activity, she said, appears to be at a mismatch with the conditions in which we evolved. However, that’s only one piece of the puzzle.

The Candy Crush

We’re now eating three times the amount of sugar that we ate 30 years ago,” Dr. Crittenden said. “According to several estimates, the average American eats over 60 pounds of sugar a year, not including fruits and fruit juices. We all seem to have a love-hate relationship with sugar—we love the taste of it but we hate its consequences.”

Sugar has glucose, and our brains are glucose consumers, using it to fuel billions of neuronal nerve cells. Any time that we ingest glucose, it gets absorbed from our intestines into our blood streams and distributed throughout our bodies. Dr. Crittenden said that our brains need an almost constant supply of glucose because they can’t store it themselves.

“The sweet tooth may not only be part of our evolutionary heritage, but it’s also a characteristic of development,” she said. “Research has suggested that infants and children like sweet tastes more than their adult counterparts, and interestingly, our brains respond differently to different types of sugar.”

Glucose can help suppress the part of the brain that makes us want to eat, she said, while fructose does the opposite. Lowering our intake of high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in sodas and many other places, could help us get back on track and burn some of the excess fat.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily