Did you catch the BBC1 programme ‘What are we feeding our kids?’ with Dr Chris van Tulleken? I certainly watched it with interest as I have been harping on about this message for the last four years! It started, unsurprisingly with some statistics around global health and childhood obesity, let’s take a look at some of those: -
· 21% of children in the UK are obese when they leave primary school
· Worldwide 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020.
· Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.
Why are these figures so high?
Why is this happening? Now there’s a very big question! If we look at obesity in general, on average obesity levels have tripled worldwide since the late 1970’s. There is an epigenetic link with obesity so we are seeing a heritable generational impact on obesity rates (a family link) but there are many other factors at stake.
Is it due to junk food?
Yes and No. If we consider foods, we traditionally thought of as ‘junk food’ then, in some shape they have always been around; crisps, chocolate, cake, sweets, ice-cream, burgers, chips, pizza. These are not new foods and children have of course, always liked them even when obesity wasn’t a global concern so what has changed?
Changes to the food industry
Our food landscape has changed beyond all recognition in the last 45 years – firstly with the introduction of ‘convenience foods’ and at a similar time, the birth of the diet industry. Now, you may wonder how the launch of the diet industry coincides with the rise in global obesity but it does, year on year, as the diet industry has grown in market share, obesity rates have continued to rise, the very simple explanation is that dieting doesn’t work and exacerbates an unhealthy relationship with food and low self-esteem, neither of which help with fat metabolism. The real issue however, is the rise in convenience foods, and in particular a section called UPF (Ultra Processed Foods). These foods used to make up a small percentage of our dietary intake but have slowly increased and gradually crept into our homes (and our bodies) and are now, in many cases making up a larger proportion of our diet than ‘real foods’.
What are Ultra Processed Foods? Any foods (and there are a lot of them!) which contain very little in the form of real foods and a lot of artificial ingredients. The term comes from the NOVA food classification system, this is designed to classify foods based on how and why they are processed. The NOVA definition of Ultra Processed Foods (or group 4) is;
“formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular flavours, colours sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product”
Understanding the groups
Group 1 consists of both unprocessed and minimally processed foods
Unprocessed – definition: -
“are obtained directly from plants or animals and do not undergo any alteration following their removal from nature”
Minimally processed foods definition
"foods are natural foods that have been submitted to cleaning, removal of inedible or unwanted parts, fractioning, grinding, drying, fermentation, pasteurization, cooling, freezing, or other processes that may subtract part of the food, but which do not add oils, fats, sugar, salt or other substances to the original food"
Examples of Group 1 foods include: -
Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables
Dried fruit (not in oil or with added sugar)
Meat, fish, poultry, seafood and eggs
Nuts and seeds
Herbs and spices
Tea, coffee and plain water
Group 2 processed culinary ingredients – definition
“These are products extracted from natural foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining. They are used in homes and restaurants to season and cook food”
Examples of Group 2 foods include: -
Oils from crushed olives or seeds
Honey extracted from honeycombs
Group 3 processed foods – definition
“Group 3 are products manufactured by industry with the use of salt, sugar, oil or other substances (Group 2) added to natural or minimally processed foods (Group 1) to preserve or to make them more palatable”
Examples of Group 3 foods include: -
Fermented alcoholic drinks (e.g. beer and wine)
Freshly made cheeses
Group 4 Ultra Processed Foods
"UPF’s are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavour enhancers, colours, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, moulding and pre-processing by frying. Beverages may be ultra-processed. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of, or are even absent from, ultra-processed products.
Examples of Group 4 foods include: -
Chocolates and sweets
Pre-prepared/packaged pizza and pasta dishes
Pre-prepared/packaged burgers and hot dogs (some sausages, you can source good ones from a butcher)
Dairy drinks (milkshakes etc)
Margarine & spreads
Instant soups, noodles, desserts (packet mixes of foods)
Breakfast cereals (most but not all)
Pastries, cakes, cake mixes
sweetened and flavoured yogurts, including fruit yogurts
other animal products made from remnants
baked products made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives
ice cream and frozen desserts
fatty, sweet, savoury or salty packaged snacks
Meal replacement shakes (many but not all)
Impact on health
It is always worth remembering that these foods have been designed to suit the food industry not human health and even they (The Food Industry) state that people should eat these foods ‘in moderation’. The problem is many are not eating them in moderation, in fact 1 in 5 people in the UK have a diet made up of 80% Ultra Processed Foods, more worryingly is that 64% of children get more than half their daily calories from this group, rising to 68% in teens. Here in the UK, we eat a huge amount of these foods, second only to the US. There are many negative health associations, the most obvious being obesity, but obesity isn’t just what size your clothes are, it’s a whole load of issues going on internally and we have been seeing these health side-effects in children for some time.
Children are not exempt from adult diseases; they just didn’t used to get them! A diet high in UPF’s will certainly increase their changes of becoming obese but it will also increase their risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, joint problems, infertility, sleep apnea, stoke, Alzheimer’s, malnutrition, some cancers and depression. A frightening list that’s for sure!
What do these foods do to us?
There’s a reason why we are able to eat so many of these foods once we start. They are designed to be highly palatable, the term used is ‘Hyper Palatability’ the ‘perfect’ mix of sugar, salt and fat to ‘tickle your taste buds’ and activate your senses. These foods are even designed to have the ‘perfect’ texture so you don’t have to work as hard chewing, meaning you can eat more quickly, use less energy to eat the food and eat more and more food without getting full. In short, ultra-processed foods bypass your body’s natural ability to feel full, these foods do not enable your body to produce Leptin, the hormone that tells you to stop eating.
In the programme, Dr Chris states “I’m not enjoying it, but I can’t stop’
What do they miss?
So, we have seen what these foods contain but what do they miss? Well, everything that the body actually needs is missing, I refer to UPF’s as ‘empty calories’ calories without nutrition. There’s a reason why obesity and malnutrition exist within the same populations. Here’s some of what’s missing:
Protein – does more jobs in the body than you could imagine including of course muscle growth and repair but also, fixing cells, carrying oxygen around your blood, fighting infections, creating ‘messages’ around the body to stabilise your emotions and enabling you to feel full.
Fibre – as there’s no fruit, veg or wholegrains there’s also no fibre! Fibre helps you to feel full but is crucial for digestive and cardiovascular health.
Vitamins and Minerals – there’s no fix by eating a diet full of UPF’s and then taking a multi-vitamin! Vitamins and minerals do more than you think and are crucial in all ages.
The real problem
As if all of the above wasn’t a big enough problem for me, there’s one factor even more scary and that is the impact these foods have on our brains. When we consider children eating these foods with developing brains it’s, frankly terrifying. In the programme Dr Chris’s brain scan showed a huge increase in just four weeks in the number of new connections in the brains reward centre – this is the area that drives automatic and repetitive behaviours. The pleasure and reward centre of the brain is also linked with addictions and the results of Dr Chris’s brain scan showed “what we would expect to see in addicts”. These changes did not return to normal once he came off the diet of UPF’s. A child’s brain is more impressionable than that of a 42 year-old male and is what caused Dr Chris to state that this was;
“The most appalling medical result he had ever seen”
I went on BBC Radio Leicester discussing this programme, playback link here
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09jgn71 starts 1hr 52 in.
Look out for the next blog where I try to look at how we can avoid them and why we really need to.
Food & Health Writer
Presenter on Early Years TV Food