Analysis of children’s diets across eight different countries has concluded that under-five children consume too much ultra-processed foods (UPFs). In fact, these products constitute nearly two thirds of their average energy intake.
This is one reason why childhood obesity level is rising at record speeds, significantly increasing their risk of one day developing cancer, type 2 diabetes, early heart disease, liver conditions and other problems.
According to research from Imperial College London, the higher the proportion of ultra-processed foods children consume, the greater the risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Meanwhile, sugary diets are causing tooth decay – one of the several reasons for hospital admissions among young children.
So, which foods would the experts remove from the plates of our toddlers, children and teens?
For optimal health and development, babies and young children should be fed varied diets based on unprocessed and minimally processed foods
According to the public health nutritionist/director of First Steps Nutrition Trust, Dr. Vicky Sibson, said the first years of life set the trajectory for life-long health.
This makes what babies and toddlers are fed very important for their health in the short and long term.
For optimal health and development, babies and young children should be fed varied diets based on unprocessed and minimally processed foods, avoiding commercial baby foods as much as possible.
Babies between 6 and 12 months
Crucially, babies between 6 and 12 months do not need snacks. Commercial baby snack foods – wafers, straws, melty sticks, rusks, biscotti and more – displace the nutrients that babies should be getting from a healthy diet of breast milk/infant formula and nutrient-rich complementary foods, given at regular mealtimes .
As well as poor nutrient content, many of these snacks can be classified as ultra-processed. These types of products disrupt the process by which babies learn to accept and eat real food that promote optimal health and nutrition.
The fix? Between their meals, simply give their usual milk feeds
‘Growing up’ or ‘toddler’ milks
Commercial milk formulas marketed for use by toddlers are less healthy, often have a higher sugar content and are more expensive than cows’ milk. The fix? Breastfeeding, or whole cow’s milk.
When it comes to the dental health of toddlers, night-time milk drinking – whether bottle or breast – is what causes the main problems, so, cut it from their diets.
Milk has lactose in it, and if toddlers go to bed drinking it, that sugar is left on their teeth as their saliva glands switch off, causing bottle caries or tooth decay, not only in their back teeth where we would usually see it but at the front too.
The fix? At a minimum, toddlers need to brush their teeth after bedtime milk. But ideally, water for bed is best. If they want a comforting warm drink, then warm water – it has lots of health benefits compared to cold water in any case so why not create that habit from the start of their lives?
Within 30 to 60 minutes of consuming a fizzy drink, children are dealt a huge blood-sugar load, which can lead to behavioural issues, further compounded by the follow-on blood sugar crash. Many of these drinks also contain caffeine which can cause agitation and sleep disturbance.
The direct hit of the ingested sugar from the gut straight into the liver (via the portal vein) is also a key factor in the emergence of paediatric fatty liver disease, a condition that was almost unheard of in children a generation ago. Devoid of vitamins or any nutritional content, there is no redeeming feature here.
The fix? Give them water or, during daytime, milk. If there is consistency of approach, those foods become their “normal”.
Sugary flavoured yogurts
These are simply ultra-processed puddings with better branding. Often marketed at children, these yogurts have a high sugar content that targets the brain’s reward centre, generating a temporary, dopamine-driven “high” that drives the child to crave more sweet foods.
Food colours have been linked to hyperactivity in children and, when emulsifiers have been added for texture and consistency, these harm the gut bacteria, resulting in gut inflammation and dysregulated blood-sugar control.
Poor quality dairy substitutes like skimmed milk powder, which these yogurts can contain, deprive children of the essential fatty acids found in whole full-fat milk and the low protein content fails to generate strong gut-to-brain fullness signalling.
The fix? Introduce children to yogurt as their grandparents would recognise it: a two-ingredient food made of milk and beneficial bacterial cultures such as natural or Greek yogurt, delicious eaten as is or with added fresh fruit, nuts and seeds.
These are so commonplace that they are listed on most restaurants’ kids’ menus. Yet they often contain 20 or more ingredients and are fried in oils with additives such as dimethylpolysiloxane, an “antifoaming agent”.
We know that processed foods contribute to obesity and also to atherosclerosis – the thickening or hardening of the arteries, caused by a build-up of plaque in the inner lining of an artery which can rupture and cause heart attacks. The latter is a slow, progressive disease that may start as early as childhood.
The fix? Consider making chicken strips at home by coating chicken breast in egg and whole-grain breadcrumbs, then baking until crisp.
Sugary breakfast cereals
Some breakfast cereals that are marketed to kids are like eating cake for breakfast. Even the cereals labelled “whole grain” can be full of sugars and empty calories with only a small amount of fibre added.
The fix? Check the ingredients label and make sure that sugar or any other name for sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup, is not in the top three ingredients. Also, hunt down a cereal with three or more grams of both protein and fibre per serving.
Packaged macaroni and cheese
Packaged pastas like macaroni and cheese, canned spaghetti and ramen noodles can have more sodium in one serving than is recommended for a child in an entire day.
About 9 in 10 children consume more sodium than recommended. A taste for salt can easily continue into adulthood, when high sodium leads to hypertension. The main source of excess sodium is processed foods, which are also often lacking in fibre and essential nutrients
The fix? Try your best to make home-cooked meals using fresh ingredients and freeze them or store them in the fridge for your kids.
Children and teenagers are being deceived into drinking large cans of potentially harmful energy drinks, thinking they are going to improve their performance at school or during sports.
In reality it is more likely to increase their risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental caries, which will have lifelong implications on their health.
The Fix? Simple. Water.
Dried fruit is a lot like sticky, chewy sweets. It can easily lodge itself in crevices and becomes a feeding ground for bacteria and it’s easy for toothbrushes to miss. As with any sweet treat, it’s worse when consumed in excess, as the sugar in dried fruit can cause tooth decay.
The fix? Natural fresh fruit like apples – good food for teeth, full of fibre and great at scrubbing away plaque.
Did any of these surprise you? What do you give your children to eat? Please tell us in the comments section below