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This is the main finding of a study that analysed the eating habits of 139 overweight children between the age of nine and 11 years old from two schools in Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city.
Researchers from the Federal University of Sao Paulo found that 95 per cent of them presented at least one of seven symptoms of food addiction, while 24 per cent were diagnosed as food-addicted.
“To create a favourable environment, governments must adopt policies that lead to changes in the market, such as taxing sugary drinks, regulating marketing directed at children, and proper labelling,”
Daniela Neri, University of São Paulo
Although the findings suggest a high incidence of food addiction in overweight children, researchers say they cannot be sure of a cause-and-effect relationship between these two factors.
“But it paves the way for future studies on whether the high consumption of ultra-processed food increases the likelihood of developing addiction or whether children who are likely to have food addiction eat more ultra-processed food than those who do not,” said Andrea Filgueiras, a nutritionist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo and main author of the study in the journal Appetite.
Ultra-processed foods were defined in 2009 by a group of scientists led by the Brazilian epidemiologist Carlos Augusto Monteiro. They include shelf-stable ready meals, cakes, cookies or biscuits, and sausages, which contain additives, preservatives, flavourings, and colourings.
Such foods can be attractive because they are cheaper and palatable due to often high levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Cookies, for example, have an average of 4 grams of sodium per package, well above the intake limit of 2,000 micrograms per package recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Increased consumption of this sort of food may cause changes in carbohydrate and fat metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and appetite hormone function, explained Filgueiras, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
“It may also trigger alterations in the neural control of reward, increase the release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to the reward system in the brain — and consequently reinforce the importance of and motivation for its consumption,” she added.
The hyperstimulation of these neural reward pathways resembles that described in people hooked on drugs, and could generate attachment mechanisms linked to the psychological compulsion to eat, she said.
The findings help to shed light on a complex paradox in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. In Brazil, while almost 13 million people are still starving, studies have shown a significant increase in consumption of ultra-processed food in the last 30 years.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 39.3 million people are undernourished — an increase of 400,000 since 2016 — according to a report released in September 2018 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. However, daily sugar intake at 99g was almost double the maximum recommended by the WHO of 50g.
Daniela Neri, a nutritionist at the University of Sao Paulo’s Public Health School, told SciDev.Net the results highlight one of the possible mechanisms linking ultra-processed foods and poor health.
“Unlike previous studies associating a ‘dietary pattern based on ultra-processed foods’ with risk factors for obesity in children, the Filgueiras study identifies the types of ultra-processed foods most associated with the risk of addiction in children,” she said.
Children of this age have a “biological preference” for sweet and salty flavours, and such preferences tend to be reinforced by the types of food they consume, she added.
“There is also a 'conditioned preference' for foods rich in fat and energy, and such preference may be reinforced by the frequent consumption and persuasive marketing of ultra-processed foods directed at children of this age, interfering in their food choices,” she told SciDev.Net.
Another study published in April in Obesity Reviews found that despite the implementation of food industry codes of practice for responsible marketing in many countries, children are potentially exposed to a large amount of television advertising for unhealthy foods and beverages.
Researchers analysed global children's television advertising exposure to healthy and unhealthy products in several developed and developing countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, and Slovenia. They found that, on average, there is four times as much advertising for foods and drink that should not be allowed on TV than for those that are allowed. The frequency of food and drink adverts that should not be permitted was also higher during peak viewing times compared with other times.
“A child who receives healthy and adequate food early in life is more likely to maintain healthy habits later in life, becoming an adult with good food choices,” added Neri.
“A child’s surroundings must be healthy to foster the development of healthy habits. And to create a favourable environment, governments must adopt policies that lead to changes in the market, such as taxing sugary drinks, regulating marketing directed at children, and proper labelling,” he concluded.