Kids Get Most of Their Calories From Ultra-Processed Foods, Study Says

Burger, fries and soda
Burger, fries and soda.

Oscar Eduardo Escobar Ballesteros/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Ultra-processed foods are convenient and tasty but are filled with ingredients that do not adequately nourish the body.
  • A new study found that 67% of calories in the average child’s diet come from ultra-processed food.
  • Too much ultra-processed food is problematic because it doesn’t leave room for nutrient-dense whole foods, which are required for growth and development.

Kids have long been fans of burgers, fries, and soda. And while eating these things from time to time is not cause for alarm, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the consumption of ultra-processed foods among children and teens continues to rise.

This increase is concerning to healthcare providers, who say that eating too many ultra-processed foods leaves less room for nourishing, nutrient-rich foods in a child’s diet.

"Our analyses showed that ultra-processed foods consistently comprised the majority of total energy consumed by U.S. children and teens and that this percentage increased, from 61% to 67% in the past 20 years," says Lu Wang, PhD, a post-doctoral scholar at the Friedman School Of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and one of the researchers for this study.

About The Study

For the study, researchers looked at the intake of ultra-processed foods in more than 33,000 youth ages 2 to 19 years. They used data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which was collected between 1999 to 2018.

Ultra-processed foods were defined using the NOVA classification system. They include highly palatable, convenient, ready-to-eat items such as soft drinks, candy, salty packaged snacks, processed meats, fast food, and pre-prepared frozen dishes, which are made with sugar, fat, salt, preservatives, stabilizers, and additives. Usually, these products are attractively packaged and extensively marketed.

Lu Wang, PhD

High consumption of ultra-processed foods could replace the consumption of more nutritious foods, which contributes to the overall lower [quality of diet] of children.

— Lu Wang, PhD

What the researchers discovered was that while the consumption of ultra-processed foods increased, at the same time, the percentage of calories from unprocessed or minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and fish decreased.

In fact, consumption of these whole foods fell from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means it is more likely that kids are eating pizza and ice cream for dinner, rather than grilled chicken with rice and broccoli.

"High consumption of ultra-processed foods could replace the consumption of more nutritious foods, which contributes to the overall lower [quality of diet] of children," says Dr. Wang.

What's more, a higher intake of ultra-processed foods is linked to weight gain and other adverse health outcomes due to their overall poorer nutrient profiles, she adds.

While the study found a promising trend of decreasing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages from 10.8% down to 5.3% of calories, there was an increase in ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals (from 2.2% to 11.2% of calories), Dr. Wang says. They also found a slight increase in sweet bakery products. 

Breaking down the study into population groups, Dr. Wang adds that “the percent of energy from ultra-processed foods among U.S. youth do not differ by family income and parental educational level. The study also found a greater increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites.”

Ultra-Processed Food and Health

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian at Cotton O'Neil Endocrinology and Diabetes Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and author of "The Nourished Brain." She says that about half of the patients referred to her by doctors are children and adolescents.

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD

The more ultra-processed foods our kids eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of their diet and of their health will be.

— Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD

“The majority of them are seeing me for conditions like insulin resistance, excessive weight gain, or even prediabetes,” says Mussatto. “Insulin resistance and prediabetes are typically seen as conditions adults get, not children. Both can increase a child’s likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, all chronic diseases associated with older adults.”

Mussatto is also concerned that choosing more ultra-processed foods will be detrimental to children's health. Many kids will be lacking the beneficial nutrients their bodies need for good health, she says.

In fact, Dr. Wang’s research found that ultra-processed foods had an overall poorer nutrient profile. These foods are higher in added sugars and sodium but are low in essential nutrients such as fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

“The more ultra-processed foods our kids eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of their diet and of their health will be," she says.

How Was the Food Made?

While it has long been known that excessive amounts of sugar, sodium, or trans fat are detrimental to human health, there is another aspect that is being explored—how these foods are made. The different processes that foods go through—from deep-frying to grinding to hydrogenation—may also impact human health. 

“Studies propose that the adverse effect of ultra-processed foods may go beyond the nutrient content,“ explains Dr. Wang. “Processing may change the physical structure and chemical composition of food, which could elicit an elevated glycemic response and reduced satiety. Further, commonly contained food additives in ultra-processed foods, such as emulsifiers, stabilizers, and artificial sweeteners, have been linked to adverse metabolic effects in animal studies.

Impact of the Pandemic 

NHANES stopped collecting data at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, so Dr. Wang and her colleagues were unable to assess the dietary intake of U.S. children since then. Although research on pandemic dietary habits is mixed, a multinational study of adolescents indicates that teens have consumed comfort food—including ultra-processed items—more often during the pandemic.

“The pandemic might have further increased children’s consumption of ultra-processed foods, as parents avoid going to grocery shops very often,” says Dr. Wang. “They may choose more ready-to-eat or frozen meals.”

How Parents Can Help

To help combat dependence on processed foods, Mussatto recommends modeling healthy eating by eating nutrient-rich foods in front of your children to normalize healthy foods, says Mussatto. Of course, that doesn’t mean an end to ordering pizza, but she suggests serving pizza alongside a leafy green salad and cut-up fruit. It also helps if you:

  • Plan meals together and cook with your kids.
  • Serve a variety of nutritious foods at meals, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, tofu, and animal-based foods such as fish, chicken, and eggs. 
  • Keep nutritious snacks handy, such as vegetables, fruit, string cheese, and trail mix.
  • Serve meals and snacks at consistent times each day.
  • Avoid restricting how much food kids can eat, based on what is served at mealtimes.
  • Allow kids to have some choice in what and how much they are eating.

What This Means For You

If you are like most parents, you likely have busy kids and busy schedules, and ultra-processed food is a quick and easy way to get food on the table. While there can be room for these choices in your family's meal plan, try to also offer nutrient-rich foods to support their health as they grow.


5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Moubarac J-C, Levy RB, Louzada MLC, Jaime PC. The UN decade of nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutr. 2018;21(1):5-17. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000234

  3. Scrinis G, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and the limits of product reformulation. Public Health Nutr. 2018;21(1):247-252. doi:10.1017/S1368980017001392

  4. Tawfek NS, Amin HM, Abdalla AA, Fargali SHM. Adverse effects of some food additives in adult male albino rats. Curr Sci Int. 2015;4(4):525-537.

  5. Ruiz-Roso MB, de Carvalho Padilha P, Matilla-Escalante DC, et al. Changes of physical activity and ultra-processed food consumption in adolescents from different countries during Covid-19 pandemic: an observational study. Nutrients. 2020;12:2289. doi:10.3390/nu12082289

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.