New ARCH research finds alarming ‘junk food’ consumption among young children in Nepal

NEW EVIDENCE SUGGESTS HIGH CONSUMPTION OF UNHEALTHY SNACK FOOD PRODUCTS MAY CONTRIBUTE TO STUNTED GROWTH IN YOUNG CHILDREN

In Nepal, unhealthy snack food and beverage products comprise nearly 25 percent of energy intake among children 12 to 23 months of age, new data shows.

Washington, DC (16 July, 2019) –A new study published today by the global health organization Helen Keller International (HKI) in the Journal of Nutrition reports that young children in Nepal are consuming unhealthy snack food and beverage products in alarming amounts—which may be contributing to undernutrition. The study, conducted by HKI’s Assessment and Research on Child Feeding project (ARCH), highlights the startling and significant consumption of unhealthy snack food and beverage products among children under 2 years of age and offers evidence of the negative consequences for their overall diet quality and for growth. With these new findings showing a relationship between unhealthy snack foods and undernutrition, this research challenges the assumption that childhood obesity is the main health risk associated with ‘junk food’ products.

The study is among the first of its kind to comprehensively assess the relationship between diets high in unhealthy snack food and beverage products and nutritional outcomes among young children in a low or middle-income country.

“We hope these findings sound the alarm for researchers and policymakers alike – there is a need for continued research on the role of snack food products in the health and development of nutritionally vulnerable children,” says Dr. Alissa M. Pries, principal investigator of the ARCH study. “Packaged snack food products – typically high in sugar and salt and low in micronutrients – are increasingly available across the globe. There is already growing global concern in the health community over the role of ‘junk foods’ or ‘ultra-processed foods’ in the obesity epidemic, but for young children in contexts where access to nutritious food is limited, this study signals that these foods may also be contributing to undernutrition.”

Conducted in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal in 2017, the ARCH study documented quantities of foods and beverages consumed by 745 children 12 to 23 months of age and found that nearly all children were consuming unhealthy snack foods and beverages. Children who were among the highest consumers received nearly 50 percent of their caloric intake from these foods and were shorter than other children their same age. These children also had lower consumption of nutrients critical for growth and development, including protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and zinc. Nearly all the unhealthy snack foods and beverages assessed in the study were commercially packaged products such as biscuits, instant noodles, candies, chocolates, and juice drinks.

Populations in many low- and middle-income countries are transitioning towards diets higher in added sugars, fats, and refined carbohydrates. Young children in these countries are increasingly consuming these foods—potentially displacing healthier, more nutritious foods and influencing their food preferences throughout childhood and possibly into adulthood.

In addition to the link between high consumption of snack food/beverage products and growth among young children, this study highlighted several other key findings:

  • On average, unhealthy snack food and beverage products contribute to nearly 25 percent of the dietary energy intake (calories) for children 12 to 23 months of age, with the ‘highest consumers’ receiving nearly 50 percent of their calories from these products
  • Compared to low consumers, children who were high consumers of unhealthy foods and beverages were at risk of inadequate intakes of eight nutrients, including: calcium, zinc, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, and folate
  • Displacement of traditional foods by unhealthy snack foods and beverages may be diluting the micronutrient content of children’s diets during the period when they are beginning to eat foods in addition to breastfeeding; this is particularly concerning in low- and middle-income settings where food insecurity and cost of nutritious foods are already challenges.

“There is growing evidence that children are consuming unhealthy snack products at a shocking rate,” said Dr. Atul Upadhyay, co-author on the paper. “More attention and efforts need to focus on increasing consumption of nutrient‐rich, locally available foods and developing strategies to limit consumption of unhealthy snack products among young children.”

To fully understand the impact of unhealthy snack food/beverage products on children’s health and growth, more evidence is urgently needed. Addressing increased availability of these products in food systems throughout low and middle-income countries must be a priority for countries aiming to improve and safeguard child nutrition. By developing an understanding of what young children are eating and the nutritional implications of these practices, ARCH’s research aims to provide the global health community, policymakers, and government leaders with the information they need to develop policies and interventions to drive positive change. Investing in and ensuring the nutrition of young children enables long-term health and economic development.

Read the full article here.

Authors of Unhealthy Snack Food and Beverage Consumption is Associated with Lower Dietary Adequacy and Length-for-age Z-scores among 12-23 month olds in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Alissa M. Pries, Andrea M. Rehman, Suzanne Filteau, Nisha Sharma, Atul Upadhyay, Elaine L. Ferguson

Helen Keller International’s Assessment and Research on Child Feeding (ARCH) project works to strengthen policies that promote optimal infant and young child nutrition and explores marketing of commercial foods and diets of young children in rapidly evolving food environments. ARCH’s research has contributed to global discussions on implementation of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and new policies to prevent inappropriate marketing of commercial foods for children 0-3 years of age. Evidence from ARCH research also supports decision making by national-level stakeholders to promote optimal infant and young child nutrition in Asia and Africa.

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