Ultra-processed junk snacks dubbed ‘gateway foods’ to teen obesity

SAN DIEGO — Pastries, candy, and everything else people consider junk food could be “gateway foods” which lead to teen obesity, a new study says.

Researchers with the American Heart Association say ultra-processed food turns teenagers on to other unhealthy eating habits, just like a drug.

Along with processed meat and pastries, other products kids should avoid include sweets, chocolate, ice cream, and frozen yogurt, according to the new report.

Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, or engineered to be as addictive as possible,” says lead researcher Maria Balhara, a student at Broward College, in a media release.

“They’re also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people are eating too many of these foods without realizing it.”

The study found eating more pastries increased consumption of other ultra-processed foods by 12 percent. Confectionery and frozen desserts, which are full of sugar, displayed a link to a 31 and 11-percent rise in overall consumption of junk food, respectively.

A teen is sounding the alarm on childhood obesity

Balhara has a unique perspective. She’s 16 years-old and carried out the study while also attending Cooper City High School.

“For teenagers whose consumption of ultra-processed foods has not yet been established, certain gateway foods such as candy, store-bought pastries and frozen desserts should be avoided, since increased consumption of these foods appears to lead to increased consumption of other processed foods,” Balhara says.

They are high in sugar, salt, trans fats, and artificial flavors and colorings. Resisting temptation may make an impact on overall consumption.

“The good news,” the study author adds, “is that even small changes, such as reducing how often you eat a few gateway foods, may reduce overall consumption of unhealthy foods and have a big impact on your overall health.”

Ultra-processed foods include bacon, burgers, pizzas, and ready-to-eat meals, biscuits, cakes, and white bread. They make up more than 60 percent of a average American’s menu if they eat a traditional “Western diet.”

Eating processed food comes with many risks

Eating too much junk food can also lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, diabetes, dementia, and premature death. The findings are based on a study of 315 boys and girls between 13 and 19 at 12 local high schools. They completed a survey Balhara developed herself called PIE (Processed Intake Evaluation).

It asked about the students’ intake of 12 ultra-processed products during the previous eight weeks, between February and April 2022.

The researcher used the answers to compute a score of 0 to 100, with 8.33 points given for replies of “often” or zero otherwise. Average BMI (body mass index) was 22.8, indicating that the teens had a normal weight.

The foods included biscuits, candy, chips, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, soda, pastries, smoothies, sweetened coffee or tea, white bread, and processed meat.

Balhara compared the results with each person’s estimated consumption in 2019, before COVID lockdowns. Results show candy, pastries, and frozen desserts act as a possible “gateway” — driving consumption of other processed products.

Eating healthy needs to start at an early age

Participants who changed amounts, either up or down, were more likely to alter eating habits overall. Cutting back on processed meats, white bread, or biscuits led eight, nine, and 10-percent drop in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

The analysis also found 57 percent of volunteers believed their ultra-processed food consumption rose after pandemic restrictions ended, while 43 percent believed it fell – as measured by PIE.

“I commend Ms. Balhara for her project, which highlights the importance of establishing good dietary patterns early in life,” says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., the executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina, and a former American Heart Association president.

“The relationship between poor dietary quality and cardiovascular risk factors is well-established. While this is a small, preliminary study, it’s an important topic to continue to investigate and help us understand ways we can influence dietary behaviors to promote optimal cardiovascular health for all ages.”

Balhara presented the study at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions 2022.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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