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Junk Food and Childhood Obesity

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, providing an opportunity to examine the serious issue of childhood obesity and ways to help prevent it, including limiting children’s consumption of junk food.

Once primarily adult problems, overweight and obesity now affect a large number of our nation’s children. One-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese. Nearly 19% of young people between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese.

Children with obesity are more likely to develop serious chronic health problems during childhood, including sleep apnea, asthma, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. They also may be more likely to be bullied and experience depression. Children with obesity are more likely to become obese adults, increasing their risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer in adulthood.

Many factors may contribute to childhood and adult obesity, such as dietary and physical activity habits, genetics, home environment, and more. In last year’s article for National Childhood Obesity Month, our Health Edco newsletter offered tips and suggestions to help children eat healthy, nutritious foods and get more physical activity. One key suggestion was to limit the amount of junk food in the home. For this month’s article, we’re taking a closer look at why limiting junk food is important. We’ll also present just a few of our many creative nutrition education materials that are ideal teaching tools to help young people understand the importance of making healthy food choices.

What Is Junk Food?

Junk food is a term that describes foods that lack important nutrients our bodies need (such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber) but have a lot of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. The thought of junk food usually brings to mind the counter of a convenience store, a vending machine, or a trip down the snack aisle at the grocery store, where you’ll find packaged potato chips, cookies, snack cakes, candy bars, and more. Many fast foods— such as French fries, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, and shakes—are also considered junk food because they are loaded with sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.

What’s Wrong With Junk Food?

When people consume junk food, these foods often take the place of the nutritious, healthy foods that people need. Instead, junk food consumers get empty calories that can lead to excess weight gain as well as saturated fat and extra sodium that can also lead to health problems.

Candy, chocolate bars, doughnuts, cookies, pastries, and soft drinks are just a few examples of junk foods that are high in added sugars. Added sugars refer to the sugar or syrup that is added to foods during processing or preparation. They differ from the natural sugars that occur naturally in unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and some grains. Although our bodies process natural and added sugars the same way, foods with natural sugars tend to have a high nutritional value because they are often good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Foods with added sugars, like junk foods, provide extra calories but offer little nutritional value.

Sugar contains about 4 calories per gram. A can of cola contains 39 grams of sugar, which is about 150 calories from sugar alone! According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people should get less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. In a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, a person should consume no more than 200 calories from added sugars, which is no more than 50 grams (about 12 teaspoons) of added sugars per day. Children have different daily calorie needs based upon their age, sex, and activity level.

Our Fizz to Fat Display™ fancifully explains how
the added sugars in cola can pack on extra weight.

Many junk foods, such as fried fast food, milkshakes, and baked goods, are high in saturated fat, commonly found in animal products, such as meats and butter, as well as palm and kernel oils. Although fat is an essential nutrient and important energy source for the body, most of the fat we consume should come from unsaturated fat sources, such as nuts, seeds, seafood, avocados, and olives or oils from plants, such as corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower, and canola oils. Too much saturated fat can raise levels of LDL cholesterol, sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, which can form deposits on artery walls and negatively affect cardiovascular health.

Fat is also high in calories and contains 9 calories per gram. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, less than 10% of our daily calories should come from saturated fat. One fast food meal with a small cheeseburger, medium order of French fries, and a small chocolate shake can easily contain more than three-fourths of a person’s saturated fat for the day in a 2,000-calorie diet.

Because dietary fat is important for a child’s normal growth and development, young children need more dietary fat than older children and adults. Talk to your child’s healthcare professional about the appropriate amount of dietary fat your child should consume. In general, babies under the age of 1 should not have a fat-restricted diet. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 should get between 30% and 40% of their daily calories from fat. Children ages 4 and older should get between 25% and 35% of their total calories from fat. But most fats should come from unsaturated sources, unlike fast foods and many other junk foods, which tend to contain unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats.

Our Fast Food Blubber Busters™ Display uses fatlike models
to reveal the high-fat and calorie content of many fast foods.

Many junk foods such as fast foods are also high in sodium. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people ages 14 and older should consume less than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium. Young children should consume less sodium. The average sodium intake is about 3,440 milligrams per day, far more than the recommended limit. Evidence suggests a link between increased sodium intake and increased blood pressure in adults. In addition, the more calories people consume, the more sodium they tend to consume, too.

Health Edco Nutrition Teaching Tools

Health Edco has a variety of innovative nutrition education resources that are the ideal teaching tools to help young people make healthier food choices and understand the connection between a diet high in junk food and potential excess weight gain. Here are just a few examples:

  • SpinSmart™ Nutrition Wheel
    Great for people of all ages, our SpinSmart Nutrition Wheel is a fun, nutrition education activity. Players spin the wheel and answer multiple-choice questions while learning about eight different nutritional categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat & beans, milk, fats & oils, fluids, and junk food. Questions related to junk food help players understand that a diet filled with junk food tends to lead to extra calories and weight gain while missing out on essential nutrients.

    Our SpinSmart™ Nutrition Wheel is a fun
    activity for learning about healthy food choices.

    The Wheel’s detailed activity guide features one set of questions for players in grades 1 through 5 and another set of questions for players in grades 6 to adults. The Wheel is an entertaining way to teach both children and adults the basics of healthy eating.

  • June for Sale™ Display
    Young people love the fun twist on vending machine foods with our Junk for Sale Display! Designed to look like a vending machine, the 3-D display uses satirical takeoffs of popular junk foods to explain how the high calorie, fat, sugar, and sodium content of junk food can contribute to multiple health problems, including obesity and heart disease.

    Our Junk for Sale™ Display takes a satirical look
    at the nutritional content of many snack foods.

    For example, the display highlights the high-sugar content of soft drinks:

    Each model in our Junk for Sale™ Display reveals
    the facts about many vending machine items.

    The Junk for Sale Display is an attention-grabbing resource for classrooms and health fairs. Use it with our Fat Facts: Vending Machine Foods Test Tubes to help young people learn more about the fat in many vending machine foods and how to make healthier selections from vending machines.

  • Weigh Your Options™ Display
    Give young people the opportunity to feel how much weight can be gained by “little” snacks when junk foods are consumed in excess of daily calorie needs. Our colorful Weigh Your Options Display features weighted models of five junk foods: 5-pound French fries, a 2.5-pound chocolate bar, a 2.5-pound bag of potato chips, 1-pound of chocolate candies, and 1-pound of vanilla sandwich cookies.

    Our Weigh Your Options™ Display uses weighted models
    to show how junk food can cause excess weight gain.

    The accompanying tent card and the back of each model explain that the weight of each model depicts how much weight can be gained in just one month by eating that food each day in addition to a person’s daily calorie needs.

Learn More

If you have questions about your child’s weight or nutritional needs, talk to your child’s healthcare professional.

At Health Edco, we have a wide range of nutrition education products created to teach people of all ages about healthy eating and how to make wise food choices. Discover our full line of nutrition teaching tools by visiting our Nutrition Education Resources Section.

©2019 Health Edco®