Can junk food be damaging children’s skeletal development?

 

Credit: Maliz Ong/public domain

A team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found a definite link between ultra-processed foods and reduced bone quality, unveiling the damage of these foods particularly for younger children in their developing years. The study was published in the journal Bone Research and serves as the first comprehensive study of the effect of widely-available food products on skeleton development.

Ultra-processed foods—aka junk food—are food items products that undergo several stages of processing and contain non-dietary ingredients (meaning additives that have no nutritional qualities). They’re popular with consumers because they are easily accessible, relatively inexpensive and ready to eat straight out of the package. They also often have a long shelf life as well. The increasing prevalence of these products around the world has directly contributed to increased obesity and other mental and metabolic impacts on consumers of all ages.

Children tend to like junk food.  It’s been estimated that in some communities, as much as 70% percent of their caloric consumption comes from ultra-processed foods. While numerous studies have reflected on the overall negative impact of junk food, few have focused on its direct developmental effects on children, particularly young children.

The Hebrew University study provides the first comprehensive analysis for how these foods impact skeletal development. The study surveyed lab rodents  and found that those that were subjected to ultra-processed foods suffered from growth retardation and their bone strength was adversely affected. Under close examination, the researchers detected high levels of cartilage build up in the rodents’ growth plates, the “engine” of bone growth. When subjected to additional tests it was found that the RNA genetic profiles of cartilage cells that had been subjected to junk food were showing characteristics of impaired bone development.

The team then sought to analyse how specific eating habits might impact bone development and replicated this kind of food intake for the rodents. The rodents’ weekly nutritional intake was divided – 30% came from a ‘controlled’ (healthy) diet, 70% from ultra-processed foods. These rodents experienced moderate damage to their bone density albeit there were fewer indications of cartilage build up in their growth plates.  The research concluded that even in reduced amounts, the ultra-processed foods can have a definite negative impact on skeletal growth.

Carlos Monteiro is one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition and he is quoted as saying that there is no such thing as a healthy ultra-processed food. He is clearly right.  It seems likely that even if the amount of fats, carbs nitrates and other known harmful substances are reduced, junk foods still possess their damaging attributes. Every part of the body is prone to this damage and certainly those systems that remain in the critical stages of development.

Some may criticise these findings, saying that the study was done on rats rather than humans. However, science continually finds merit in research conducted with rodents, because their genetic, biological and behaviour characteristics closely resemble those of humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice and rats.

 

 

 

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