A new study shows that highly processed foods can harm children’s long-term fitness and have consequences for cardiovascular function and movement. A 4-step system can help with nutrition.
“You are what you eat,” a famous saying. A sentence that parents in particular should take seriously. Because a study now confirms that children who frequently eat processed foods can harm their health in the long run.1 Previous studies have already shown that pizza, sweets, soft drinks, and the like are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adults.2 The latest study is one of the first to also link children’s fitness.
Highly processed foods and their dangers
Eating processed foods is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adults, but few studies have examined the relationship between this risk and children’s consumption of highly processed foods. US researchers did just that, analyzing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for Youth Fitness. For this purpose, data on physical activity, fitness and eating (including highly processed foods) were collected from more than 1,500 US children aged 3 to 15 years by means of interviews and fitness tests.
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Consequences for the cardiovascular system and motor skills
Data showed that children who consumed more processed foods had poorer motor skills and poorer cardiovascular fitness. Children ages 12 to 15 who ate more processed foods than those who ate less also had poorer cardiovascular health. And even among children aged 3 to 5 years, motor impairment is observed.
The researchers used the development of the musculoskeletal system as a measure of fitness. The analysis found that the lowest-performing kids consumed 273 calories per day from ready meals compared to 3- to 5-year-olds. In older children, cardiovascular fitness was used as a criterion. The study showed that teens and preschoolers with good cardiovascular fitness ate 226 fewer calories from significantly processed foods than those without a healthy cardiovascular fitness.
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4-Step Food Processing System
The basis of this study was the so-called NOVA rating system. Developed at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, it ranks foods according to the degree to which they are processed. The German Society for Nutritional Therapy and Prevention (FET) eV also publishes its recommendations based on this 4-step regimen.3 Food is divided into the following groups:
The first group: Unprocessed minimally processed foods
- Edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or animals (muscles, viscera, eggs, milk)
- Drinks (water, tea, coffee)
Minimum processing means:
- Remove inedible or unwanted parts
- drying, crushing, grinding and splitting
- Filtering, roasting and cooking
- Alcohol-free fermentation and pasteurization
- Cooling, freezing and pickling
- Vacuum packaging
- It should be an essential part of your daily diet
the second group: Processed ingredients (“cooking ingredients”)
- Vegetable oils, butter, sugar, salt
- Ingredients are not usually eaten in isolation or individually, but are added in small amounts to Phase 1 foods for taste and consistency.
third group: Processed foods
- Fresh bread and rolls
- aged cheese
- Canned vegetables, fruits and fish
- Most mixed foods are from the first and second stages, which usually consist of 3-4 ingredients
- They are produced by various means of preservation (smoking, curing), cooking methods or fermentation processes
Fourth group: highly processed foods
- They often consist of single ingredients and rarely whole foods
- finished products
- Most snacks
- Soft drinks
- Compound meat and fish products such as sausages
- Frozen ready meals and instant products
- Additives or additives (electronic substances and fragrances) as well as extracts (such as individual types of sugar, milk ingredients, gluten, etc.
In this study, ultra-processed or highly processed foods thus include products in group 4. These included packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, desserts, soft drinks, sweetened juices, yogurt, and packaged soups or ready-made meals such as pizza, sausages, burgers and chicken nuggets.
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Cut back on processed foods
Highly processed foods like ready-made meals or snacks can be quickly and easily put into a school bag, but the study shows just how important healthy meals are. You also invest in your child’s future health to some extent when it comes to nutrition. As a next step, the researchers plan to take a closer look at consumption patterns of convenience foods by age group. For example, do children eat more of these products for breakfast, lunch, or as a snack? A better understanding of how and when to eat can help take future actions to promote healthy eating. However, in principle, those who eat less than group 4 and more often than groups 1 and 2 do something good for their long-term health.