Dietitians, nutritionists, and psychologists are concerned about the critical mental and physical health issues that U.S. children and adolescents could develop in their futures as they consume more ultra-processed foods and continue poor eating habits.
Ultra-processed foods are packaged foods that are low in nutrients, high in added sugar, fat, and sodium — and contain low-quality and artificial ingredients, colors, and preservatives.
They include grab-and-go snacks like Lunchables, chips, sugary sodas, juices and breakfast cereals as wells as certain meats like sausages and burgers. Fast food, instant soups, and frozen meals are also on the list.
One of the biggest issues that kids are facing today is emotional eating. When they consume ultra-processed foods excessively over time mental health problems can follow, says Dr. Danielle Miro, a licensed psychologist at DC Health Psychology, a practice helping patients with psychological issues influenced by health and medical problems.
“We know that these highly sugary foods over time can accumulate to develop into depressive or anxiety symptoms,” said Miro, who’s also a board-certified rehabilitation psychologist. “If food is their primary coping strategy… that might then lead to binge-eating or loss of control eating.”
A 2020 National Institute of Health study showed that there’s a connection between the gut microbiome and the brain, which can affect mental health.
“Things like depression, for instance, it’s been associated with ultra-processed foods,” said Miro.
Dr. Tania Rivera, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor at Florida International University, says emotional eating is “the elephant in the room that nobody is addressing” and a major cause of childhood obesity.
Obesity rates in children are predicted to double in the next 12 years. Graph by Nicole Ardila/SFMN.
The present rate of obesity among children ages five to 19 is expected to double by 2035, according to a World Obesity Atlas report. It’s predicted to increase from 10% to 20% in boys, and 8% to 18% in girls.
Both Miro and Rivera explain that when kids are stressed, sad or anxious, they tend to crave foods high in sugar, fat, and salt — also called comfort foods.
“Kids are getting obese much sooner, which means chronic diseases are setting it a lot faster,” said Rivera. “So in my opinion, everything has to happen at the insurance level. There’s no reason why insurance should not be covering nutrition services.”
Rivera says that parents need to be aware and intervene as soon as they notice their child might be overeating – then take them to a dietician.
“The longer that we eat these types of foods or the more consumption we have of these types of foods, the more we can be more at risk to develop dementia or cognitive decline,” said Miro.
Last year, a JAMA neurology study found that those who consume ultra-processed foods as more than 20% of their caloric intake raise their risk for cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s — but in the diets of children and adolescents, ultra-processed foods make up 67% of calories.
“Very healthy foods like berries, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids actually prevent cognitive decline,” said Rivera.
More people are becoming aware of the growing health issue in youth.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed new standards for added sugars in school meals, including reducing sodium limits. However, the rule wouldn’t be implemented until the school year 2024-25.
Healthy eating habits are learned from parents, says Maria Paula Criado, a Miami dietitian.
“I’m always trying to help people with their diets, with their lifestyles, by doing workshops, teaching people how to build plates,” she said.
After having been diagnosed overweight at only ten years old, Criado learned healthy eating. She now assists adults and children who’ve adopted poor eating habits to improve their health. And she gives supermarket tours to teach them how to shop for quality food, and how to read labels properly.
“I would say a solution is to educate families, households, parents, [on] how to read labels, how to shop, to snack, just teach them how to eat healthily,” said Criado.
These health experts emphasize the importance of nutrition knowledge and adding more fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids in fish, nuts, and oils, into children’s diets.