Fast food or junk food is a generic term for all kinds of foods which are rich in energy, because they contain a lot of fat and sugar, as well as salt, but are relatively low in other important nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
However, fast food is extremely attractive to most children because of the taste, comparatively lower price, and convenience (doesn’t require any cooking or preparation). Since children typically do not understand how this kind of food negatively impacts their health, it can be quite addictive.
This article describes some important ways in which junk food harms children’s health.
Regular junk food intake leads to long-term health problems such as obesity, accompanying emotional and self-esteem problems, and chronic illnesses in later life. A single fast food meal could add 160 and 310 extra kilocalories to the daily caloric intake for teenagers and younger children, respectively.
Lack of vitamins such as A and C, and minerals such as magnesium and calcium, encourage the development of deficiency diseases and osteoporosis, as well as dental caries due to higher sugar intake.
The presence of hazardous food coloring agents and/or unhealthy trans fats in many fast food items, and issues with food preparation safety, often complicate the issue further.
Fast food intake more than three times a week is associated with greater odds of atopic disorders such as asthma, eczema or rhinitis, while asthma severity is almost 40% higher in teenagers and more than 25% in younger children.
Eating junk food 4-6 times a week leads to lower math and reading skills compared with the children who did not eat so much junk food.
An overdose of calories, fats, sugars, and other carbohydrates in repeated meals changes the food desires of the child, and makes it less likely that the child will eat fibers, fruits, milk, and vegetables. This can result in greater chances of constipation.
Eating a lot of fast food in childhood makes it hard to eat healthy in later life, even if related medical problems are already evident, because childhood food habits solidify by adulthood. The addictive taste of fast food makes it quite unlikely that the palate will later savor the less complicated and less spicy flavors of ordinary food.
Fast food can lead to impaired academic performance because high sugar levels followed by sugar crashes and poor concentration levels make it difficult to accomplish tasks which need extended periods of focused attention. Blood sugar fluctuations can also result in mood swings and lack of alertness, lowering classroom participation.
Fast food can inhibit participation in extracurricular activities because it doesn’t provide adequate nutrients for physical activity. Lack of physical activity not only keeps children out of peer groups but also impairs physical and mental health.
Obesity can result in lowered self-esteem, and perhaps depression. Some children who eat junk food are at risk of developing depression even without obesity. Depression in turn affects growth and development parameters, academic performance, and social relationships. It also results in a higher risk of suicide.
Pop and cola drinks often contain caffeine which can make bedtime an ordeal by postponing normal sleep-wake cycles.
Essential fatty acids are typically missing or lacking in fast foods. These include omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids which cannot be produced within the body, but are essential for the manufacture of cell membranes, and are also required in high concentrations within the brain and retina. The lack of such nutrients is thought to be associated with increased antisocial behavior, and perhaps with hyperactivity, though more research is needed to prove this.
Fast food intake definitely needs to be strictly controlled in children as it does no good and may do much harm. The antidote? Surprisingly, a simple increase in fruit intake can improve the mood and reduce the severity of atopic diseases. Stopping the marketing of junk foods directed at children with attractive characters and gifts may be one way to help children eat better. Another method is to make healthy food more easily available at affordable prices and in a more appealing format.