By Nicole Avena, Ph.D.
Children develop their eating habits at a young age, which can have effects on their health well into adolescence and adulthood. It is important to establish good eating habits in children as young as two years old, but this is often a challenging thing to do. Children are bombarded from a young age with images and advertisements of unhealthy foods, and a recent report has come out showing that out of a selection of 80 children’s snacks, only four met appropriate nutrition standards (1). As we can see, junk food enters a child’s life early on, and can easily stay to wreak havoc on their health and wellbeing.
Sugar is a main component in many snack foods that children find so appealing. It can be easy for a child to finish a bar of chocolate and polish it off with a can of soda and still be hungry for more, because the sugar content in both of those food items is high and provides no nutritional value. What’s more, eating sugar early on in life can set a child up for serious health issues like type 2 diabetes – which is the result of insulin resistance from the blood containing too much sugar too often – and cardiovascular disease (2). Sugar can also cause tooth decay and cavities, which are more prevalent in children who may not be so fastidious about their dental hygiene.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children consume no more that six teaspoons (or 25 grams) of sugar on a daily basis. Parents should look out for hidden sugar on nutrition labels, which may not be so easy to spot. Corn syrup, fructose, and dextrose are all kinds of added sugars that will be broken down and processed by the body in basically the same way (3).
Saturated fat is found in many processed foods, and while it can add significantly to the taste of a snack, it can be very detrimental to your child’s health. A study with adolescents showed that eating a diet high in saturated fat increases low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the body (the bad kind of cholesterol) as well as blood pressure, which puts children at risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life. While fat is an important part of every diet, it is best to stick with unsaturated fats that come from nuts and other plant sources, as these kinds of fats have not been correlated with increased risk for developing coronary heart disease (4).
Effects on concentration and cognitive function
Diet in general is a critical part of a child’s neurological development, and can affect their concentration and performance in school. Nutrient deficiencies are thought to play a role in impairing cognitive development. Omega 3 fatty acids, folate, choline, B12, and zinc are all considered when it comes to discussing brain health. Some of these nutrients are most important during fetal development, but others are necessary for children to be consuming throughout their lives (5).
If a child is consuming most of their daily caloric needs from junk food on a regular basis, they are missing out on the crucial nutrients, and their health and brain function can be negatively impacted. Eating foods high in processed sugar can lead to increased inflammation and oxidative stress which can weaken and cause damage to brain cells. Diets high in sugar can also lead to mood disorders like depression which can affect a child’s performance in school, as well. A diet composed of mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is the best way to ensure that your child is getting the appropriate nutrients for optimal brain health, and supplementation with vitamins is a viable and helpful option.
For a growing body, the proper nutrients are essential for long-term health and happiness. Unfortunately, children are often most susceptible to bad eating habits and are often most enticed by sweets and fatty foods. It is necessary to instill good eating habits in your child as young as possible to give them a jumpstart on their health from the very beginning.
Nicole Avena, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler, and What to Eat When You’re Pregnant. The post was adapted from What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler.
- Kowal-Connelly S. How Children Develop Unhealthy Food Preferences. 2020. Healthychildren.org. Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/How-Children-Develop-Unhealthy-Food-Preferences.aspx
- Sugar: How Bad Are Sweets for Your Kids. 2018. Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. Retrieved from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/sugar-how-bad-are-sweets-for-your-kids/
- Korioth T. Added sugar in kids’ diets: How much is too much. 2019. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from: https://www.aappublications.org/news/2019/03/25/sugarpp032519
- Morenga LT. Health effects of saturated and trans-fatty acid intake in children and adolescents: Systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE, 2017. 12(11): e0186672.
- Nyaradi A, Li J, Oddy WH. The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development from pregnancy through childhood. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7:97. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3607807/