Expert offers guidelines for concerned parents on high ultra-processed food

Evelyn Benden

Ultra-processed foods are causing an epidemic of children worldwide becoming overweight or having obesity, according to a pediatrician at a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic Children’s, who is urging families to adopt healthier diets to prevent long-term health issues.

Evelyn Benden, a pediatric dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, points to recent research emerging from the UK, which shows that the greater the proportion of ultra-processed foods in children’s diets, the greater the risk of their becoming overweight or having obesity in adulthood. Benden was not involved in the study of more than 9,000 children, which has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study also found that, on average, ultra-processed food made up more than 60 precent of British children’s calorie intake.

“Childhood obesity is a serious problem, and diets that contain a lot of ultra-processed foods can cause a greater risk for children developing obesity, diabetes, heart, disease and cancer long-term. Families should replace ultra-processed foods with whole foods, limit treats or desserts, encourage snacking on fruits or vegetables, and replace sodas or juices with water, flavored water, or milk,” said Benden.

She added that while ultra-processed foods and drinks – such as frozen pizzas, sodas, mass-produced packaged breads, and ready meals – are high in calories, saturated or trans fats, sugar, and salt, which are added for extending shelf life, these foods generally do not have much nutritional benefit.

Worldwide, there are 340 million children and adolescents who are overweight or obese, including 39 million children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization. Most of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight and having obesity kill more people than being underweight.

“Families who are concerned that their children might be overweight, should look for obvious signs such as their clothes becoming too tight, but also other less direct signs, for example, if they are having trouble sleeping, or are fatigued easily when doing physical activity. A physician or dietician will be able to advise the parents,” said Benden.

“Younger children can often grow into their weight. For older children and adolescents, if they can make changes to their diet and exercise, then they can slow their weight gain appropriately,” she added.

If whole foods are not readily available, then Benden suggests purchasing frozen fruits or vegetables, especially fruits that are canned in their own juice, or vegetables that do not have added salt. She also recommends leaner meats such as chicken or turkey, low-sodium deli meats, and whole wheat grains, pastas, or crackers.

Families should consider adopting the United Nations’ food-based dietary guidelines, Bended added, such as the United States Department of Agriculture’s My Plate methodology. Families can visualize their meals, with ideally half of the plate containing half fruits and vegetables, half having grains and proteins, and a portion of dairy.

“Instead of pushing children to clean their plate, which could lead to excessive eating, parents should encourage children to listen to their body to recognize when they are hungry and when they are full,” said Benden.