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Junk Food and Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious global health concern, and, unfortunately, the UK is no exception.

Once primarily adult problems, overweight and obesity now affect a substantial number of children in the UK. Nearly one-third of children in the UK aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese. Among even very young children (aged 4 to 5) in England, nearly 10 percent are obese, and among children aged 10 to 11, more than 20 percent are obese.

Children with obesity are more likely to develop serious chronic health problems during childhood, including sleep apnoea, asthma, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. They also may be more likely to be bullied and experience depression. Children with obesity are more likely to become obese adults, increasing their risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer in adulthood.

Many factors may contribute to childhood and adult obesity, such as dietary and physical activity habits, genetics, home environment, and more. In last September’s article, our Health Edco newsletter on childhood obesity offered tips and suggestions to help children eat healthy, nutritious foods and get more physical activity. One key suggestion was to limit the amount of junk food in the home. For this month’s article, we’re taking a closer look at why limiting junk food is important. We’ll also present just a few of our many creative nutrition education materials that are ideal teaching tools to help young people understand the importance of making healthy food choices.

What Is Junk Food?

Junk food is a term that describes foods that lack important nutrients our bodies need (such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre) but have a lot of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. The thought of junk food usually brings to mind the counter of a convenience store, a vending machine, or a trip down the snack aisle at the supermarket, where you’ll find packaged crisps, biscuits, snack cakes, chocolate bars, and more. Many fast foods— such as chips, chicken nuggets, fizzy drinks, and shakes—are also considered junk food because they are loaded with sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.

What’s Wrong With Junk Food?

When people consume junk food, these foods often take the place of the nutritious, healthy foods that people need. Instead, junk food consumers get empty calories that can lead to excess weight gain as well as saturated fat and extra sodium that can also lead to health problems.

Sweets, chocolate bars, doughnuts, biscuits, pastries, and fizzy drinks are just a few examples of junk foods that are high in added sugars. Added sugars refer to the added sugar or syrup that is added to foods during processing or preparation. They differ from the natural sugars that occur naturally in unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and some grains. Although our bodies process natural and added sugars the same way, foods with natural sugars tend to have a high nutritional value because they are often good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Foods with added sugars, like junk foods, provide extra calories but offer little nutritional value.

Sugar contains about 4 calories per gram. A can of cola can contain 39 grams of sugar, which is about 150 calories from sugar alone! According to government recommendations, intake of free sugars—which include added sugars as well as the sugars in honey, syrups (such as maple or golden syrup), nectars, or even unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies—should be limited to no more than 5 percent of your daily calorie intake. For adults, this limit calculates to no more than 30 grams (about 7 sugar cubes) of free sugars per day. Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24 grams (about 6 sugar cubes) of free sugars per day, and children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19 grams (5 sugar cubes) of free sugars per day. Children under the age of 4 should avoid food and drinks with added sugars.

Our Fizz to Fat Display™ fancifully explains how
the added sugars in cola can pack on extra weight.

Many junk foods, such as fried fast food, milkshakes, and baked goods, are high in saturated fat, commonly found in animal products, such as meats and butter, as well as palm and kernel oils. Although fat is an essential nutrient and important energy source for the body, most of the fat we consume should come from unsaturated fat sources, such as nuts, seeds, seafood, avocados, and olives or oils from plants, such as corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower, and canola oils.

Too much saturated fat can raise levels of LDL cholesterol, sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, which can form deposits on artery walls and negatively affect cardiovascular health. It is recommended that the average man should consume no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day, and the average woman should consume no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day. Children should consume less saturated fat than adults, but a low-fat diet is not appropriate for children under 5 because dietary fat is important for young children’s growth and development.

All types of fat are high in calories and contain 9 calories per gram, so it is important for children and adults to make wise dietary choices and get most of their fats from unsaturated sources, unlike fast foods and many other junk foods, which tend to contain unhealthy saturated fat. For example, one fast food meal with a cheeseburger, medium order of fast-food fries, and a medium chocolate milkshake can contain more 13 grams of saturated fat, which is 65 percent of an average woman’s recommended limit of saturated fat for the entire day.

Our Fast Food Blubber Busters™ Display uses fatlike models
to reveal the high-fat and calorie content of many fast foods.

Many junk foods such as fast foods are also high in sodium, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke in adults. According to the Eatwell Guide, many people in the UK consume too much salt. Adults should consume no more than 6 grams (about a teaspoonful) of salt per day, and children should consume even less. This limit includes not only the salt we add to foods but the salt already included in the everyday foods we eat. A typical fast food meal of a cheeseburger, medium fast-food fries, and medium chocolate milkshake contains about 3 grams of salt before a consumer adds any additional salt. In addition, the more calories people consume, the more salt they tend to consume, too.

Health Edco Nutrition Teaching Tools

Health Edco has a variety of innovative nutrition education resources that are ideal teaching tools to help young people make healthier food choices and understand the connection between a diet high in junk food and potential excess weight gain. Here are just a few examples:

  • SpinSmart™ Eatwell Guide Wheel
    Great for people of all ages, our SpinSmart Eatwell Guide Wheel is a fun, nutrition education activity. Players spin the wheel and answer multiple-choice questions whilst learning about the Eatwell Guide and eight different nutritional categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat & beans, milk, fats & oils, fluids, and junk food. Questions related to junk food help players understand that a diet filled with junk food tends to lead to extra calories and weight gain whilst missing out on essential nutrients.

    Our SpinSmart™ Eatwell Guide Wheel is a fun
    activity for learning about healthy food choices.

    The Wheel’s detailed activity guide features one set of questions for players aged 6 through 10 and another set of questions for players aged 11 to adult. The SpinSmart Eatwell Guide Wheel is an entertaining way to teach both children and adults the basics of healthy eating.

  • June for Sale™ Display
    Young people love the fun twist on vending machine foods with our Junk for Sale Display! Designed to look like a vending machine, the 3-D display uses satirical takeoffs of popular junk foods to explain how the high calorie, fat, sugar, and sodium content of junk food can contribute to multiple health problems, including obesity and heart disease.

    Our Junk for Sale™ Display takes a satirical look
    at the nutritional content of many snack foods.

    For example, the display highlights the high-sugar content of soft drinks:

    Each model in our Junk for Sale™ Display reveals
    the facts about many vending machine items.

    The Junk for Sale Display is an attention-grabbing resource for classrooms and health fairs. Use it with our Fat Facts: Vending Machine Foods Test Tubes to help young people learn more about the fat in many vending machine foods and how to make healthier selections from vending machines.

  • Weigh Your Options™ Display
    Give young people the opportunity to feel how much weight can be gained by “little” snacks when junk foods are consumed in excess of daily calorie needs. Our colourful Weigh Your Options Display features weighted models of five junk foods: 5-pound fast-food fries, a 2.5-pound chocolate bar, a 2.5-pound bag of crisps, 1-pound of chocolate sweets, and 1-pound of vanilla biscuits.

    Our Weigh Your Options™ Display uses weighted models
    to show how junk food can cause excess weight gain.

    The accompanying tent card and the back of each model explain that the weight of each model depicts how much weight can be gained in just one month by eating that food each day in addition to a person’s daily calorie needs.

Learn More

If you have questions about your child’s weight or nutritional needs, consult your GP or other healthcare professional.

At Health Edco, we have a wide range of nutrition education products created to teach people of all ages about healthy eating and how to make wise food choices. Discover our full line of nutrition teaching tools by visiting our Nutrition Education Resources Section.

©2019 Health Edco®