Highly processed foods harm children’s fitness

Highly processed foods can damage children’s fitness in the long run and have consequences for cardiovascular and motor functions, as a new study shows. A 4-step system could help with nutrition.

“You are what you eat” is a well-known saying. A phrase that parents in particular should embrace. Because a study now confirms that children who frequently consume highly processed foods can harm their health in the long run.1 Previous studies have already shown that pizza, sweets, sodas and the like are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in adults.2 The latest study is one of the first that also puts a link to children’s physical fitness.

Highly processed foods and their risks

Eating processed foods is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adults, but few studies have examined the link between this risk and childhood consumption of highly processed foods. U.S. researchers did just that by analyzing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) National Youth Fitness Survey. For this purpose, data on physical activity, fitness, and food intake (including highly processed foods) were collected from more than 1,500 American children aged 3 to 15 years using interviews and fitness tests.

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Consequences for the cardiovascular system and motor skills

Data have shown that children who consume more highly processed foods have poorer motor skills and poorer cardiovascular fitness. Children aged 12 to 15 years who ate more processed foods than those who ate less also had poorer cardiovascular health. And even among the 3-5-year-olds, poorer mobility was observed.

The researchers used the development of the musculoskeletal system as a measure of physical fitness. The analysis showed that the lowest performing children consumed 273 more calories a day of ready meals than the highest performing 3- to 5-year-olds. In the older children, cardiovascular fitness was used as a benchmark. The study found that teens and preschoolers with good cardiovascular fitness ate 226 fewer daily calories from highly processed foods than those who did not have healthy cardiovascular fitness.

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4-step system for food processing

The basis for this study was the so-called NOVA classification system. Developed at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, it classifies foods according to their degree of processing. The German Society for Nutrition Therapy and Prevention (FET) eV also publishes its recommendations based on this 4-step system.3 The food is divided into the following groups:

1st group: Unprocessed to minimally processed foods

  • Edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk)
  • Mushrooms
  • Drinks (water, tea, coffee)

Minimally treated means:

  • Removal of inedible or unwanted portions
  • Drying, crushing, grinding and dividing
  • Filtering, frying, cooking
  • Non-alcoholic fermentation and pasteurization
  • Cooling, freezing, pickling
  • vacuum packaging
  • Should be the main part of the daily diet

2nd group: Processed Ingredients (“Cooking Ingredients”)

  • Vegetable oils, butter, sugar, salt
  • Ingredients are usually not eaten in isolation or individually, but are added in small amounts to foods in the first phase for taste and consistency

3rd group: Processed foods

  • Freshly baked bread and rolls
  • Stored cheese
  • Canned vegetables, fruits and fish
  • Mostly combined foods of first and second stage, which usually consist of 3-4 ingredients
  • Produced by various preservatives (smoking, curing), cooking methods or fermentation processes

4th group: Highly processed foods

  • Often consists of individual ingredients and only rarely whole foods
  • finished products
  • Most snacks
  • soft drinks
  • Sweets
  • Compound meat and fish products such as sausage
  • Ready-made frozen meals and instant products
  • Additives or additives (E-substances and aromas) as well as extracts (eg certain sugars, milk components, gluten, etc.

Therefore, in this study, ultra-processed or highly processed foods include products found in group 4. These included packaged snacks, breakfast products, sweets, sodas, sweetened juices and yogurts, canned soups or ready meals such as pizza, hot dogs, burgers and chicken nuggets.

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Reduce highly processed foods

Highly processed foods such as ready meals or snacks can be quickly and easily put in the school bag, but the study shows how important healthy meals are. You also invest to some extent in your child’s future health when it comes to nutrition. As a next step, the researchers plan to take a closer look at consumption patterns for convenience food by age group. For example, do children eat more of these products for breakfast, lunch or as a snack? A better understanding of how and when to eat can help future actions to promote healthy eating. But in principle, those who eat less food from groups 4 and more often from groups 1 and 2 do something good for their health in the long run.


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