Ultra-processed foods such as frozen pizza and fizzy drinks make up more than 60 per cent of the calories consumed by British children, a new study has found.
This puts children at increased risk of obesity in adulthood, according to the team from Imperial College, who say 'urgent action is needed' to reduce harm.
Researchers used data from thousands of children in England that looked at the health impact of consuming foods and drinks that are heavily processed.
Examples of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) include some ready meals, frozen pizza, fizzy drinks, and mass produced packaged bread.
Not only do UPFs make up a considerably high proportion of children's diets - 40 per cent in grams and 60 per cent in calories - but the higher the proportion of UPFs they eat, the greater the risk of obesity, the team behind the study discovered.
The team suggest that those eating UPFs don't feel as full with these products, which results in excess consumption when compared to healthier foods.
They have called on the government to introduce regulations that protect the health of children and 'reduce the proportion of these foods in their diet'.
Ultra-processed foods such as frozen pizza and fizzy drinks make up more than 60 per cent of the calories consumed by British children, a new study has found. Stock image
HOW FAT ARE BRITISH CHILDREN?
English children are fatter than ever – official data revealed last October that one in every 25 10 to 11-year-olds are severely obese, the fattest possible category.
And out of around 556,000 children of primary school-leaving age in the UK, 170,000 are overweight to some degree, figures showed in May last year.
More than one in five 11-year-olds are obese – equivalent to around 111,000 children – and being so fat means they are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer or have a stroke.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health say children should be weighed every year at school because 'danger is on the horizon' and the UK is lagging behind the rest of the EU in tackling obesity.
Experts have also warned children gain weight 'at a drastic rate' when they're at school.
Sugar in food is known to be contributing to the swelling waistlines of children, with huge amounts of popular foods crammed full of sugar.
A sugar tax has reduced the effects of some soft drinks, but breakfast cereals can still contain more than 70 per cent of an entire day's sugar in a single bowl.
Even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contain more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.
Eating patterns established in childhood extend into adulthood, potentially setting children on a lifelong trajectory for obesity and a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes including diabetes and cancers, researchers claim.
The research provides important evidence of the potential damage of consuming highly processed foods which are often cheap, widely available and highly marketed.
Professor Christopher Millett, study author, said they set out to explore why obesity rates are so high among British children and its long-term impact.
'Our findings show that an exceptionally high proportion of their diet is made up of ultra-processed foods, with one in five children consuming 78 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed foods,' he said.
'Through a lack of regulation, and enabling the low cost and ready availability of these foods, we are damaging our children's long-term health.
'We urgently need effective policy change to redress the balance, to protect the health of children and reduce the proportion of these foods in their diet.'
Dr Eszter Vamos, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Public Health Medicine at Imperial, study co-author, said they found a dose-response relationship with unhealthy food.
'This means that it's not only the children who eat the most ultra-processed foods have the worst weight gain, but also the more they eat, the worse this gets.'
'Childhood is a critical time when food preferences and eating habits are formed with long-lasting effects on health,' said Vamos.
'We know that if children have an unhealthy weight early in life, this tends to trace into adolescence and then adulthood.
'We also know that an excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a number of health issues including being overweight or obese, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and cancer later in life.'
She said the implications of this study are 'enormous,' due to the later-in-life risk.
The study provides new data on the impact of industrial food processing on child health - that is processes where foods are modified to change consistency, taste, colour, shelf life or other attributes through mechanical or chemical alterations.
Using data from a cohort of 9,000 children in the Avon area in the West of England born in the early 1990s, researchers were able to follow the life course of children from the age of 7 until the age of 24, with regular food diaries.
Data measures were also collected over 17 years, covering areas including body mass index (BMI), weight, waist circumference and measurements of body fat.
They split the children into five groups based on the amount of ultra-processed foods in their diet - from one-fifth to two-thirds of their total diet.
This puts children at increased risk of obesity in adulthood, according to the team from Imperial College, who say 'urgent action is needed' to reduce harm. Stock image
WHAT ARE PROCESSED FOODS?
A processed food has been altered in some way during its preparation.
This can be via freezing, canning, baking or drying.
Examples include breakfast cereals, pastries, crisps, microwave meals, cakes, bread and tinned vegetables.
Processed foods are not necessarily unhealthy unless sugar, salt or fat are added to make them more palatable or extend their shelf life.
This can lead to people eating more than the recommended allowance of sugar, salt and fat a day as they unaware of the levels in processed foods.
People can reduce their intake by reading nutrition labels on processed products to check their fat, salt and sugar content.
Cooking food from scratch also gives people more control over their diets.
It is worth noting some healthy foods require processing, such as pressing olives to make oil.
Source: NHS Choices
Major sources of UPFs in the highest consumption group included fruit-based or fizzy drinks, ready meals, and mass-produced packaged bread and cakes.
In the lowest consumption group processed foods included plain yoghurt, water and fruit - rather than higher fat products.
On average, children eating more processed foods had high BMI, weight and waist circumference than those eating a more healthy, balanced diet, they found.
By the time they were 24, the high UPF group had a 1.2kg/m2 higher BMI, a 1.5 per cent higher body fat and were up to eight pound heavier.
Kiara Chang, Research Fellow and first author on the paper, said they saw a veery consistent increase in all measures of unhealthy weight among the children who consumers greater amounts of ultra-processed food as part of their diet.
'Their BMI, weight gain, and body fat gain was much quicker than those children consuming less ultra-processed foods,' Chang said.
'We actually see it making a difference from as young as 9 years old, between those consuming the most compared with those consuming the least ultra-processed foods.'
The researchers highlight that a limitation of the study is its observational nature, and that they are unable to definitively show direct causation between consumption of UPFs and increases in BMI and body fat.
According to the researchers, more radical and effective public health actions are needed urgently to reduce children's exposure and consumption of UPFs and to address childhood obesity in the UK and internationally.
Examples of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) include some ready meals, frozen pizza, fizzy drinks, and mass produced packaged bread. Stock image
They suggest new national dietary guidelines to emphasise fresh or minimally processed foods similar to those in France, Belgium, Israel and Brazil.
UPFs should be taxed and minimally processed foods should be subsidised to make healthier food choices more affordable, according to the authors.
Other actions include restricting promotions and advertising of UPFs, especially those targeting children, and mandatory bold front-of-pack product labelling.
They add that further studies are now needed to determine the underlying mechanisms linking UPF consumption to worse health outcomes.
'Fat but fit' is a MYTH: Obese people who regularly exercise are at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease, study warns
Obese people who exercise regularly are still at an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease, a study has cautioned.
University of Glasgow experts studied people who were obese but had a normal metabolic profile, a combination dubbed 'metabolically healthy obesity' (MHO).
Individuals with MHO have a body mass index of 30 or higher, but lack the systemic inflammation, problematic blood fats and insulin issues often seen with obesity.
Experts have calculated that MHO may occur in the general population at levels of anywhere between 3 and 22 per cent.
The team found that metabolically healthy obesity increases the risk of various health issues in comparison with people of a regular BMI.
For example, it raises the risk of type 2 diabetes 4.3 fold and leads to a whopping 76 per cent increase in the risk of heart failure.
Experts estimated that there are more then 300 million people worldwide who are obese — a figure expected to exceed 1 billion, or 1-in-5 people, come the year 2030.