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Ultra Processed Foods, gut health and pollution all contribute to childhood obesity, says new study

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
mother and daughter picnic

Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs), pre-birth and early life influences on gut health, and pollution, are all major drivers of childhood obesity, according to a recent study published in Obesity Reviews.

The latest research was conducted in collaboration with the Horizon 2020 EU-funded project based at Imperial College Business School: Science & Technology in Childhood Obesity Policy (STOP), which evaluates the factors behind childhood obesity, and assesses the alternative policy options that can be used to tackle them.

According to the report, gaining weight while pregnant, a low birth weight, and certain birth and feeding methods were proven to affect infant microbiota in the gut, which can consequently increase a child’s obesity risk level.

The gut microbiome contains 39 trillion microbes that help us digest the foods we eat, and regulate our metabolism. They also have an impact on our behaviour, emotions and general health.

In a recent Table Talk podcast episode, Vice President of platform innovation, ingredients and dosage form solutions at Lonza, Shane Durkee, explains the importance of gut microbes to our health: “Having that diversity in gut microbes is beneficial whether you’re an athlete or not.

“We know that a decrease in diversity is a sign of an unhealthy microbiome and these things have also been associated with development of chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity for example.”

The STOP report also analysed a collection of data from eight countries which include Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Mexico, which showed that the consumption of UPFs significanty increased the risk of childhood obesity.

Both marketing as well as peer-related influences surrounding UPFs were also shown to result in a greater level of risk.

Inhaling high levels of traffic-related air pollution (a combination of nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide) are also said to have impacted the behaviour and genes of children and teenagers across eight different countries, and ultimately increased their risk of developing obesity.

The study also emphasised there is no single influence causing childhood obesity, and that a child’s genetics, mental health, physiology, and level of inequalities also have an impact.

The report states that obesity is not solely an individual’s responsibility, and that a range of other factors, some uncontrollable by a single person, have a role to play in its development.

The STOP study highlights the need for new obesity-related policies to prioritise finding new ways to develop healthier environments for children that tacke these three major risks.

Within the report, STOP offered a series of recommendations including:

  • Increasing the price of UFPs and marketing healthier foods at a lower price to make them more accessible.
  • Finding ways to develop the microbiome composition of children during pregnancy and in early life stages.
  • Improving children’s access to green spaces.
  • Developing research around how traffic-related pollution increases the risk of childhood obesity.

Director of the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Innovation at Imperial College Business School and STOP Project Coordinator, Professor Franco Sassi, says: “Obesity is often simplistically viewed as a matter of individual responsibility. But today we know that many factors on which individuals have limited or no control contribute to obesity. The STOP Obesity Reviews supplement highlights, among others, the consequences of air pollution on physical activity and health; the risks linked with highly industrially processed, and heavily promoted, foods; and, the importance of a healthy start in life.”

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