University of São Paulo: Children who consume ultra-processed foods become more obese adults

Art : Simone Gomes
For some time now, the scientific community has been warning the population about the health risks associated with the consumption of soft drinks, cookies, candies and any food product based almost solely on industrial ingredients, the so-called ‘ultra-processed’. For the first time, a study developed by researchers from the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health ( Nupens ) at USP, in partnership with Imperial College London, in the United Kingdom, evaluated the long-term consumption of ultra-processed products, from childhood to early childhood. of adult life, and its effect on obesity indicators. 9,025 7-year-old British children were studied until they were 24 years old. The results showed that individuals who consumed more ultra-processed foods in childhood had worse obesity patterns.

The unprecedented research points out that the greater the participation of ultra-processed foods in children’s diets, the greater and worse the weight gain, and denounces the definitive role of these products in childhood in the formation of preferences and eating habits. The research was supported by the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (Fapesp). The article , published in the medical journal Jama Network , on the 14th of this month, highlights the urgency of public health actions to regulate advertising and marketing in the sale of ultra-processed products and the importance of instructing the population about their health risks, to combat the growing obesity in the world.

“Today, it is clear that the consumption of ultra-processed foods is the main factor in the worsening of food quality, but until then there was no study like this, which allows us to assess the relationship between dietary patterns based on these products and obesity since childhood”, says Daniela Neri, nutritionist, postdoctoral researcher at Nupens and co-author of the study.

The group of 9,025 children born in the 1990s, in the city of Bristol, England, started to be studied in 1991. They were evaluated by anthropometric measures, such as body mass index (BMI), fat mass index (BMI), weight and waist circumference, collected from 7 to 24 years of age, within three years per assessment. These measurements made it possible to assess the evolution of growth and body composition, as well as the development of obesity from childhood to early adulthood.

To analyze food consumption at 7, 10 and 13 years of age, participants recorded in diaries everything they consumed in a 24-hour period for three non-consecutive days, including food and beverages, amount consumed, and place of meal. Data were categorized according to the NOVA classification , which describes foods, no longer by nutrient content, but by four groups that assess the degree of industrial processing. According to researcher Daniela Neri, who was one of those responsible for this analysis, the classification divides foods based on the extent and purpose of industrial processing to which the foods were submitted before being purchased by the individuals’ families.

In the first group are fresh foods or minimally processed, which include meat, milk, eggs, grains and a range of foods of animal or vegetable origin that, before reaching our tables, may have been packaged, cooled and/or frozen, but had no added ingredients, nor significant changes. The second group is culinary ingredients, which are olive oils, oils, salt and other products extracted from the previous group to season and make food attractive to the palate. Group three, on the other hand, includes processed foods, such as canned vegetables or fish and fruits in syrup. The big difference is in the fourth group, the ultra-processed ones, which characterize foods that, in reality, have nothing or almost nothing of real food, such as powdered juices – which were never fruits. It’s like what we mean by “astronaut food”, but that, according to the researcher, they are a mixture of unhealthy fats, starch, sugar and salt, plus dyes, flavorings, emulsifiers, thickeners and other additives, which give the appearance of food and have not been restricted to men and women in space for a long time. “Today they are packaged in a very attractive way and promoted by very sophisticated and super appealing marketing strategies, especially for children, which can explain the exaggerated consumption”, he adds.

In addition to being a good instrument for epidemiological studies on food consumption linked to health, NOVA is internationally recognized as a valid tool to support policies and actions in nutrition and public health, and was adopted by the Brazilian Food Guide in 2014.

At the end of the survey, participants, now in early adulthood at age 24, were evaluated. The data divided the 9,000 individuals into 5 groups, from the smallest to the largest consumption of ultra-processed foods (as a percentage of the total grams of food consumed), and the results showed that adults who consumed more ultra-processed foods in childhood weighed 4 kg more, had higher levels of Body Mass Index (BMI) and percentage of body fat and three centimeters more waist circumference, compared to those who consumed less ultra-processed foods.

that consume the least ultra-processed products, in orange, the most consume the most]

Children who consumed the most ultra-processed products not only gained more weight, but also had worse weight gain, with greater damage to health. This relationship, called the “dose-response effect”, can be exemplified with smoking and lung cancer. “The more people smoke, the greater their risk of developing lung cancer,” explains Daniela. With breastfeeding, but in reducing the risk of obesity: “The longer the child breastfeeds, the lower the risk of developing obesity in adulthood”
Daniela points out that the proportion of these “foods” in the diet of British children is very high: they constitute more than 60% of the calories in the diet, a number that reveals a substantial and worrying contribution. According to the researcher, there is a clear substitution of fresh or minimally processed foods for ultra-processed ones. Culinary preparations based on fresh foods should be the basis of healthy eating and essential to promote adequate child growth. For her, one of the main factors responsible for this replacement is advertising aimed at children, which, in her view, should be better regulated .

In childhood, the formation of eating habits has a lasting effect throughout an individual’s trajectory and, therefore, the preference of children for products that are not real foods worries scientists. In addition to the low nutritional value, with more calories and unhealthy fats and a smaller portion of fiber, vitamins and minerals, the mechanisms behind “astronaut food” promote a reduction in satiety, in addition to excessive and neglectful consumption. The chewing time of a sausage, for example, is much shorter than that of a piece of meat, which has better nutritional value, exemplifies the researcher


“These products are designed to be consumed quickly, they can lead to addiction, loss of control and enslavement of the taste, and, when consumed during the period of taste formation, the effect is harmful in the long term”, completes Daniela.

What’s behind infant feeding based on ultra-processed foods?

Daniela Neri points out that this issue is not an individual issue, but a collective issue, in which all children can be exposed and that requires government action at the public health level: “The food guides need to make the harms clear. food based on ultra-processed products, as Brazil did in the guide for the Brazilian population and in the guide for children under two years of age. The National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) approved, in October 2020, a model for the frontal labeling of processed and ultra-processed foods in Brazil, which adopts a warning seal for foods with excess of salt, sugar and saturated fats. “But it is also important for the country to advance in policies and actions to discourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as taxing these products and restricting marketing”,

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