How is junk food killing children slowly?

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junk food

Early childhood lays a strong foundation for a healthy, active, and sustainable future. A child starts learning and adapting different behaviours, knowledge, and habits. And so, they need extra care and parental surveillance for a healthy food habit. But with the advancing technology and marketing strategies, the young youth is more driven towards junk food/packaged foods than a healthy balanced dietary regime. Even the packaged health drinks/fruit juices parents feed their children thinking of its health benefits are also misconceptions. Long-term intake of this HFSS (High in Fat, Salt sugar) foods marks the onset of childhood obesity, dental caries, behavioural symptoms, cardiac risks, etc. Specifically, the modern urban population is more leaned towards these habits than the rural culture, and intake of junk food among children has become very prominent daily. 

 In this article, we will focus on what is junk food? The negative aspects of junk foods, the reasons that make children choose these foods, and some guidelines for parents to avoid junk foods.

What is junk food/fast food?

Junk/fast food is a generic term, but there’s an acceptable difference between the two. Fast foods are those which are easy to prepare in less time. But, junk foods have fewer amounts of nutrients and more significant amounts of processed items, additional sugars, bad fats, preservatives, and additives available in a cheaper and convenient mode. It is also called empty calorigenic food as it is high in calories derived from refined sugars or fats with less/no nutrients that our body needs to function and grow. So, not all fast foods are junk foods, but all junk foods are fast foods. 

Studies show that the cold drinks/ packaged fruit juice beverages we consume are refreshment or health drinks filling our body with toxins. Ingredients like caffeine in some energy drinks lead to cardiovascular toxicity resulting in tachycardia in young children and increasing mental stress. 

Many children show the behaviour of addiction too. The high presence of sugar and fats in a combination trigger our good-feeling hormone Dopamine leading to a dopamine surge of immense pleasure while consuming these foods. So, it becomes prevalent for the preschoolers and schoolers to develop a liking/an addiction, leaving a plate of healthy nutritious food. Also, the quality and hygiene of the products are a significant concern. 

Easy availability, palatability, catchy presentations, convenience, faulty marketing strategies, working parents, inadequate parental surveillance are some factors that contribute to the intake of junk/packaged foods. 

According to a recent survey by the Centre of Science and Environment(CSE) conducted on 13,274 children(9-14 yrs) documented that almost 93% of children consume packaged food and 68% consume packaged sweetened beverages more than once a week. Also, 53% down these products at least once a day. Almost one-fourth of the schoolchildren have ultra-processed food high in fat, salt, or sugar, such as burgers and pizza, from fast food outlets, more than once a week. 

Any food which is cheap, convenient, tasty, and fancy is not always good for our health. 

Negative aspects of junk foods: 

Junk foods are low in nutrients and primarily unhygienic, and poorly handled. Long-term intake of these foods adversely affects our body and mental strength. It makes our future vulnerable to non-communicable diseases(NCDs) like stroke, cardiac arrest, diabetes-Type 2, and a weak body constitution. 

Obesity/Overweight: 

Obesity is a silent killer and can be called an emerging pandemic in the new Millenium. In simple words, obesity is excess fat accumulation in the body. The extra fat accumulated inside the body’s organs affects the optimal functions and makes our body prone to other diseases and complications. Junk foods are mainly composed of refined sugar and fats, which don’t provide quick energy; instead, they are stored as fat. This will makes a child lethargic and marks the onset of obesity in the very early years of life. 

Effect on brain: 

The brain can be called the mastermind of our every action, and so brain health is an essential factor during childhood. Studies showed that children who consume a large amount of junk and processed foods have low comprehensive capacity than those who consume healthy foods. They also lack behind in terms of studies, sports, concentration, and physical activities. Children fail to memorize faster and, on a long-term basis, become restless, hyperactive, etc., from the very early days of their life. It is hypothesized that unhealthy diets affect mental state, brain function, inflammation, and stress response systems through oxidative stress processes. While vitamins, antioxidants, beta-carotene, and minerals in fruits and vegetables lower inflammation and oxidative stress markers. As an effect on the hormones, the emotional quotient also decreases, resulting in undesirable mood swings, tantrums, or even depression. 

Cardiac risks, Diabetes, and other diseases: 

The trans fats present in junk foods are responsible for high cholesterol levels, clogging of the arteries, increased risk of coronary diseases. The increased amount of sodium content in the food elevates the blood pressure, and the bad cholesterols suffocate the blood leading to poor circulation. Whatever a child eats will reflect in their adult stages. Studies showed that those who had eaten many junk and processed foods from their early life had developed different complications, including coronary heart diseases, obesity, diabetes, constipation, etc. 

Excess refined oils and spices irritate the stomach, leading to excess secretion of hydrochloric acid and forming gastritis. Lack of dietary fibres develops constipation in young children. Also, hygiene is a concern. Streetside food lacks hygiene and contains many pathogens, which causes typhoid, diarrhoea, food infection, etc. The presence of additives, contaminants, colourings also harms our health. 

The refined sugar of junk food hampers the sugar metabolism in the body. Sugar increases the blood glucose level, and as an instinct, the pancreas secretes insulin to balance it. But due to the low/no presence of proteins and carbohydrates, the glucose levels drop down, resulting in a grumpy feeling. The continuous cycle may lead to diabetes in young children. 

What make children attracted to junk food? 

  • Taste, attractive packaging, easy availability is one of the top reasons.
  • Junk food intake in television and online advertisements.
  • The fake promises and claims by the companies on the 100% health benefit of the product confuse both children and parents.

What can You do as a parent?

  • Have your meals together with your child. Children adapt to things faster, may it be negative or positive. They will absorb all the activities that are happening around them. A healthy meal together can make them habituated with healthy eating.
  • Limit the consumption and allow only once a week in case the child desires.
  • Try not to consume food while watching television/any screens.
  • Put more emphasis on homemade fruit juices and seasonal fruit intake than packaged fruit juice beverages, even when they claim 100% originality. 
  • Children should avoid caffeinated drinks.
  • Preference should be given to water for hydration than any other beverages. 
  • Healthy foods should be packed in the lunch box of school-going children if no mid-day meal program is launched in school.
  • Many people offer junk food as a treat/gift to children, which should be avoided.
  • Children should limit tea and coffee.

Read more about the importance of child nutrition here.

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Article by Ishita Chandra, BSC Food and Nutrition, Kolkata

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