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Some ultra-processed foods, such as candy, pastries and frozen desserts, may be ‘gateway’ foods for teens, leading them to eat greater amounts of other unhealthy foods, according to new research presented at American Heart Association Hypertension Scientific Sessions 2022, September 7-10, 2022 in San Diego. The meeting is the premier scientific exchange focused on recent advances in basic and clinical research on high blood pressure and its relationship to heart and kidney disease, stroke, obesity and genetics.

Research suggests that reducing intake of key foods can impact overall consumption of ultra-processed foods, which are high in sugar, salt, unhealthy trans fats, and artificial flavors and colors. Ultra-processed foods such as breads, cereals, desserts, sodas and processed meats account for more than 60% of the calories Americans consume each day. Previous research has linked high consumption of ultra-processed foods to hypertension, weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and premature death.

“Ultra-processed foods are either designed to be super-appetizing or designed to be as addictive as possible,” said Maria Balhara, lead researcher of this study and a student at Broward College in Davie, Florida. “They’re also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people eat too much of these foods without realizing it.”

Balhara has a unique perspective on adolescent eating behavior: She’s 16 and led the study while dual-enrolled at Broward College while attending Cooper City High School.

Balhara collected data on how often teenagers consumed 12 ultra-processed food items in the previous 8 weeks. Ultra-processed foods included pre-packaged cookies, candies, chips, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, sodas, store-bought pastries, store-bought smoothies, coffee or tea sweetened with syrup , white bread and processed meat. Study participants included 315 adolescents ages 13 to 19 recruited from 12 South Florida high schools between February and April 2022. Participants’ average BMI was 22.8 (indicating normal body weight) and 56 % of participants identified as white, 25.2% as Hispanic and 7.6% as black. Additionally, 52.2% of participants identified as female, 41.6% as male, 3.2% as non-binary, and the remainder did not specify their gender.

Participants responded to a survey developed by Balhara called Processed Intake Evaluation (PIE). The survey assessed the frequency of their consumption of the 12 processed foods in the previous 8 weeks in 2022, and questions to assess their consumption in 2022 (after COVID 19 restrictions were lifted) with their estimated consumption in 2019 (before the implementation of COVID restrictions). The survey asked students to report ‘true’ or ‘false’ responses to statements such as ‘I drank soda often in the previous 8 weeks in 2022’ and ‘I drank soda often before. the pandemic in 2019″. Their responses were used to calculate a PIE score from 0 to 100, with 8.33 points given for “often” responses or 0 points otherwise. Their consumption scores in 2022 were compared to their estimated pre-pandemic consumption scores in 2019.

Candy, pre-packaged pastries, and frozen desserts have been found to act as a possible “gateway” to drive an increase (or decrease) in the consumption of other processed food products. Teens who changed their intake of these “gateway” foods were more likely to change their intake of all other ultra-processed foods as well.

The analysis revealed that among the identified gateway foods:

  • increased frequency of frozen dessert consumption was associated with an 11% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods;
  • increased consumption of pastries was associated with a 12% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods; and
  • increased consumption of sweets was associated with a 31% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

The report also found that 43% of teens felt they had increased the frequency with which they consumed ultra-processed foods after pandemic restrictions were lifted compared to their pre-pandemic consumption, while 57% felt a decrease in measured consumption. by the PIE score.

Of the other foods in the survey, lower intakes of processed meats among study participants were associated with an 8% lower intake of all other ultra-processed foods; a decrease in the consumption of white bread was associated with a 9% decrease in the consumption of all other ultra-processed foods; and a decrease in the consumption of pre-packaged cookies was associated with a 10% decrease in the consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

“For adolescents whose consumption of ultra-processed foods is not yet established, certain gateway foods such as candies, store-bought pastries and frozen desserts should be avoided, as increased consumption of these foods seems to lead to a increased consumption of other processed foods,” Balhara said.

“The good news,” she adds, “is that even small changes, like reducing how often you eat a few introductory foods, can reduce overall intake of unhealthy foods and have a big impact on your overall health.”

“I commend Ms. Balhara for her project, which highlights the importance of establishing good diets early in life,” said Donna K. Arnett, Ph.D., executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina. , and past president of the American Heart Association. “The relationship between a poor quality diet and cardiovascular risk factors is well established. Although this is a small preliminary study, it is an important topic to continue to investigate and help us understand how we can influence eating behaviors to promote optimal cardiovascular health for all ages.”

Limitations of the study included its limited generalizability to all adolescent populations and the fact that the information collected was self-reported. Additionally, the PIE survey was not validated, and the study did not include health data such as blood tests to determine the impacts of participants’ food choices.