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

By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer

Most people live in countries where obesity is more deadly than malnutrition. The global overnutrition epidemic has many consequences, including health problems such as heart disease. American children are now eating more processed foods than ever.

As portion sizes have become super-sized and calorie intake increasingly comes from processed foods, one in three American children is overweight or obese. Photo by Africa Studio / Shutterstock

In the diets of American children, the amount of ready-to-eat and ready-to-eat foods, such as frozen pizzas and takeaway meals, has increased significantly over the past 20 years. Now processed foods make up more than two-thirds of their calorie intake, contributing to the obesity epidemic. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped matters either, with a notable increase in childhood obesity over the past 12 months or so. An overabundance of food, especially ultra-processed foods, has been linked to several health problems, some of which can be fatal.

How bad is the overfeeding epidemic? In her video series Food, Science, and the Human Body, Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the statistics are staggering and diet shares much of the responsibility.

Health Risks of Overnutrition in Adolescents and Teens

“Over the past 30 years, rates of childhood obesity have doubled and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),” said Dr. Crittenden. “A recent estimate on their website factsheet suggests that more than a third of children and teens in the US 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 cancers, children and teens also show a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a higher risk of developing diabetes.”

According to Dr. Crittenden, our cardiovascular health is linked to our physical activity and is probably 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, doesn’t seem to match the conditions in which we evolved. However, that is only one piece of the puzzle.

The Candy Crush

“We now eat three times the amount of sugar we ate 30 years ago,” said Dr. Crittenden. “By various estimates, the average American eats more than 60 pounds of sugar per year, not counting fruits and juices. We all seem to have a love-hate relationship with sugar – we love the taste of it, but we hate the effects.”

Sugar has glucose, and our brains are glucose consumers, using it to fuel billions of neuronal nerve cells. Every time we ingest glucose, it is absorbed from our gut into our bloodstreams and distributed throughout our body. dr. Crittenden said our brains need an almost constant supply of glucose because they can’t store it on their own.

“The sweet tooth may not only be part of our evolutionary heritage, but it’s a hallmark of development,” she said. “Research has suggested that babies and children like sweet flavors 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 soft drinks and many other places, can help us get back on track and burn off some of the excess fat.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

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