The lesser known disastrous consequences of unhealthy eating

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‘Fast’ or ‘junk’ food is very popular with young children and adolescents, but frequent consumption of this type of food is associated with negative impacts on nutrition and health. Fast food meals are usually high in calories and fat, with higher proportions of carbohydrates and added sugar and salt than regular meals. Children who regularly eat fattening fast food are generally less likely to consume healthy dietary components such as fibre, milk, fruit and vegetables than children who do not regularly eat fast food.[1] Regular fast food consumption may also prove to be addictive.[2], [3] As many of the foundations for lifelong eating habits are laid down during childhood and adolescence, this can mean that excessive fast food consumption can be particularly hazardous to children’s long term health and development.[4]

Studies have shown that fast food consumption is linked with many dangerous precursors for obesity and other metabolic conditions. Genetics, individual behaviour, and environment all play a role in the development of obesity, but high levels of fast food consumption can have a dramatic impact. Regular consumption of fast food by children can result in weight gains of several pounds per year.[5] This is coupled with increased rates of chronic illnesses such as asthma,[6] diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke.[5], [7] 

The effect of unhealthy weight gain resulting from frequent consumption of fast food can not only impact the physical development of the child, but can have implications for children's’ mental health. As a result of stigmatisation, children who are overweight or obese are more prone to suffer from low self-esteem and low self-confidence,[8] both of which are considered important to a child’s personal development. Low self-esteem can be the precursor to depression, which can have an adverse impact on almost every aspect of the child’s life and development.[9]

It has also been suggested that diet can significantly impact children’s concentration and academic performance.[10], [11], [12] High energy levels and the ability to concentrate are essential attributes for success in school children that can be affected positively or negatively by diet. High sugar foods can ultimately deplete energy levels and reduce the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time compared with lower-sugar alternatives.[13] Studies now also suggest that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with high sugar intake.[2] The increasing prevalence of ADHD, which now affects 5-11% of children in the USA,[14] may therefore be the result of increasingly poor diets.

These damaging effects of excessive fast food consumption are varied and far reaching, and can include obesity, chronic or critical illness, low self-esteem and depression. Diet can affect both a child’s mental and physical health, as well as their performance, both at school and in extracurricular activities. To stay healthy in both body and mind, sticking to healthier, non-processed food options can go a long way.


[1] Bowman, SA, Gortmaker, SL, Ebbeling, CB, Pereira, MA, Ludwig, DS. (2004) Effects of fast-food consumption on energy intake and diet quality among children in a national household survey. Pediatrics. 113(1). 112-8.

[2] Gearhardt, AN, Grilo, CM, DiLeone, RJ, Brownell, KD, Potenza, MN. (2011) Can food be addictive? Public health and policy implications. Addiction. 106(7). 1208-12.

[3] Garber, AK, Lustig, RH. (2011) Is fast food addictive? Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 4(3). 146-62.

[4] Johnson, RJ, Gold, MS, Johnson, DR, Ishimoto, T, Lanaspa, MA, Zahniser, NR, Avena, NM. (2011) Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Is it Time to Reappraise the Role of Sugar Consumption? Postgrad Med. 123(5). 39-49.

[5] Pereira, MA, Kartashov, AI, Ebbeling, CB, Van Horn, L, Slattery, ML, Jacobs, DR, Ludwig, DS. (2005) Fat-food habits, weight gain, and insulin resistance (the CARDIA study): 15-year prospective analysis. Lancet. 365(9453). 36-42.

[6] Wickens, K, Barry, D, Friezema, A, Rhodius, R, Bone, N, Purdie, G, Crane, J. (2005) Fast foods - are they a risk factor for asthma? Allergy. 60(12). 1537-41. 

[7]  Alter, DA, Eny, K. (2005) The relationship between the supply of fast-food chains and cardiovascular outcomes. Canadian J Public Health. 96(3). 173-7.

[8] Puhl, RM, King, KM (2013) Weight discrimination and bullying. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 27(2). 117-27.

[9] Simon, GE, Von Korff, M, Saunders, K, Miglioretti, DL, Crane, PK, van Belle, G, Kessler, RC. (2006) Association between obesity and psychiatric disorders in the US adult population. JAMA Psychiatry. 63(7). 824-30.

[10] Martin, A, Saunders, DH, Shenkin, SD, Sproule, J. (2014) Lifestyle intervention for improving school achievement in overweight or obese children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. [epub] doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009728.pub2.

[11] Benton, D. (2010) The influence of dietary status on the cognitive performance of children. Mol Nutr Food Res. 54(4). 457-70.

[12] Stevenson, J. (2006) Dietary influences on cognitive development and behaviour in children. Proc Nutr Soc. 65(4). 361-5.

[13] Cooper, SB, Bandelow, S, Nute, M, Morris, JG, Nevill, ME. (2012) Breakfast glycaemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children. Br J Nutr. 107(12). 1823-32.

[14] Hamed, AM, Kauer, AJ, Stevens, HE. (2015) Why the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder matters. Front Psychiatry. [ecollection] doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00168


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