Eating just one extra packet of crisps every day could make your child unfit, a study suggests.
Researchers found the difference between children who are physically fit and unfit was just 200 additional calories of junk food per day.
That is the equivalent of a 40g packet of Doritos Tangy Cheese crisps, a Mars bar or a 500ml bottle of Coca-Cola.
While ‘highly processed convenience foods are easy to throw into a school bag’, the experts said parents should focus on ‘preparing healthy snacks and meals’.
Ultra-processed foods are often filled with sugar and saturated fat, which can lead to obesity, clog up the arteries, and stunt growth.
US researchers found the difference between children who are physically fit and unfit was just 200 additional calories of junk food per day
Eating an extra packet of crisps or chocolate bar every day could make your child unfit, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, research claims
The study, carried out by researchers from the Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, was presented at the Nutrition 2022 Live Online conference today.
It looked at the diets of 1,500 children aged three to 15, who were also put through exercise tests to measure their cardiovascular fitness.
The survey, carried out in 2012, saw children split into two age groups: those aged three to five and those aged 12 to 15.
Children were interviewed about what they ate in the last 24 hours, with foods split into four groups — whole foods, partly-processed, processed and ultra-processed.
Ultra-processed foods included soft drinks, crisps, sweets, chocolate, biscuits and pre-prepared frozen foods including chips, hot dogs and chicken nuggets.
Whereas processed foods included canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads. Partly-processed foods included soups and broths.
Fitness levels in teenagers were measured by hooking electrodes to their chest while they ran on a treadmill to see how quickly their hearts were beating.
Younger children were tested by measuring how far and high they could jump and how quickly they ran over short distances.
Teenagers who performed worst at the fitness tests ate roughly 226 more calories of ultra-processed foods per day than the best performers.
Meanwhile, the least fit three to five-year-olds ate around 273 more calories of junk food daily, on average.
Researchers controlled for variables like household income, gender and age which could have skewed the findings.
Dr Jacqueline Vernarelli, a nutritionist at the university, said: ‘Healthy dietary and exercise behaviors are established at a very young age.
‘Our findings point to the need to educate families about cost-effective ways to reduce ultra-processed food intake to help decrease the risk for cardiovascular health problems in adulthood.’
She added: ‘Though highly processed convenience foods are easy to throw into a school bag, our research shows the importance of preparing healthy snacks and meals.
‘Think of it like saving for retirement: You’re making decisions now that will influence your child’s future.’
The findings have been released as an abstract online ahead of the conference, with the full results due to be published in the coming months.
It is unclear how many overall calories the unfit children ate overall, which may have been one of the biggest factors affecting their fitness. Nor did the experts say how much they exercised regularly.
Obesity can cause children to become unfit because it directly damages the heart, while also putting them at higher risk of high cholesterol and narrow arteries.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide