Ultra-Processed Foods, Impossible to Avoid, Make Up Nearly 70% of Kid Diets

A new study reveals kids are primarily eating food that contains high amounts of fat and sugar. But what can parents do?

A kid eats a cheeseburger

Letting your kid occasionally indulge in a sweet treat or some fast food is just a part of normal life, but a new study suggests that you may want to dial back the amount of junk food you’re giving your kid, because it appears to be a lot.

The study, which was published in the medical journal JAMA, has found that two-thirds (67 percent, to be exact) of calories that kids and teens are consuming come from ultra-processed foods. This represents a substantial jump from 61 percent and suggests that the number might only continue to increase.

Of course, it’s also important to define what exactly ultra-processed foods are. Simply put, ultra-processed foods include added ingredients which usually include fats, starches, and added sugars.

This helps keep food fresh for longer periods of time, but just because a food is ultra-processed does not mean it’s automatically unhealthy. Healthier ultra-processed foods can include cereal, for example. But cereal can be laden with extra added sugar, for example.

Fang Fang Zhang, the study’s senior author, said that these numbers are “particularly worrisome for children and adolescents” because it is a critical stage where people often develop the dietary habits they carry into adulthood. She explained that this “may negatively influence children’s dietary quality and contribute to adverse health outcomes in the long term.”

The increase in calories came mostly from “ready-to-eat” meals, which include takeout and frozen meals like pizza or burgers. The convenience of ultra-processed food makes it difficult for parents, who are often overworked by the time they need to feed their kids, to resist.

But according to Zhang, the reality is that “many ultraprocessed foods are less healthy, with more sugar and salt, and less fiber, than unprocessed and minimally processed foods, and the increase in their consumption by children and teenagers is concerning.”

So parents may want to be slightly more conscious of what they feed their kids, though it is always important to remember that putting too much emphasis on a kid’s diet can easily turn into fat-shaming or disordered-eating which has been shown to have long-term negative effects of its own, including eating disorders and increased risk of obesity. In other words, just put the healthiest food on the plate that you can, and don’t make a big deal about it. Your kids will thank you later.