Ultra-Processed Food Intake by Moms Linked With Childhood Obesity

Ashley Lyles

October 06, 2022

A mother's consumption of ultra-processed foods appears to be related to an increased risk of overweight or obesity in her children, according to new research.

Among the 19,958 mother–child pairs studied, 12.4% of children developed obesity or overweight in the full analytic study group, and the offspring of those mothers who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 26% higher risk of obesity/overweight (12.1 servings/day) compared with those with the lowest consumption (3.4 servings/day), report Andrew T. Chan, MD, MPH, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and colleagues.

This study demonstrates the possible advantages of restricting ultra-processed food consumption among women and mothers who are in their reproductive years to potentially lower the risk of childhood obesity, the investigators note.

"These data support the importance of refining dietary recommendations and the development of programs to improve nutrition for women of reproductive age to promote offspring health," they write in their article published in BMJ.

"As a medical and public health community, we have to understand that the period of time in which a woman is carrying a child or during the time when she is raising her children represents a unique opportunity to potentially intervene to affect both the health of the mother and also the health of the children," Chan told Medscape Medical News in an interview.

It is important to address these trends both on an individual clinician level and on a societal level, noted Chan.

"This is a good opportunity to counsel patients about the potential linkage between their consumption of ultra-processed food for not just themselves but also their kids, and I think that added counseling and awareness may motivate individuals to think about their diets in a more favorable way," he added.

But ultra-processed foods are affordable and convenient, and many communities are not able to easily access fresh and healthy foods, so "it is incumbent upon [clinicians] to make it a priority and to break down those social and economic barriers, which make it difficult to have healthy and less processed food," Chan elaborated.

Assessment of Maternal Junk Food Intake During Peri-Pregnancy and Childhood

Modern Western diets frequently include ultra-processed foods — such as packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, and sugary cereals — which are linked to adult weight increase. The relationship between parental consumption of highly processed meals and offspring weight is, however, unclear across generations, the researchers note.

Hence, they set out to determine whether eating ultra-processed foods during peri-pregnancy and while raising children increased the risk of being overweight or having obesity among children and teens.

The study team assessed 14,553 mothers and their 19,958 children from the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS I and II) and Nurses' Health Study II (NHS II) in the United States. Males accounted for 45% of the children in the study, and the children's ages ranged from 7 to 17 years.

The NHS II is a continuing investigation following the lifestyle and health choices of over 100,000 female registered nurses in the United States in 1989, while the GUTS I involved about 17,000 children of the nurses in the NHS II. Participants in GUTS I filled out an initial lifestyle and health survey and were evaluated annually between 1997 and 2001, and every 2 years thereafter.  

Roughly 11,000 children from the NHS II were included in the GUTS II. The children were further evaluated in 2006, 2008, and 2011, as well as every 2 years thereafter.

Participants were followed until the children reached 18 years of age or experienced obesity and overweight onset. A subcohort consisted of 2925 mother–child pairs with data on peri-pregnancy eating patterns.

Maternal intake of ultra-processed foods while raising children was linked with obesity or overweight in children. Moreover, compared with the lowest consumption cohort (3.4 servings/day), there was a 26% greater risk for the greatest maternal ultra-processed food intake cohort (12.1 servings/day), after adjusting for child's sedentary time, ultra-processed food intake, physical activity, and established maternal risk factors.

Even though rates were elevated, ultra-processed food intake during pregnancy was not significantly linked to a higher risk of obesity or overweight in children (P for trend = .07).

Sex, birth weight, age, gestational age, or maternal body weight had no effect on these correlations either.

The study's limitations include the fact that some of the children in the pairs were lost during follow-up, there may have been data misreporting, as the weight and diet measures were provided via self-reported questionnaires, and potential residual confounding given the observational study design, the researchers note.

Other limitations include that the mothers involved in the study came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, had similar personal and familial educational statuses, and were primarily White, which limits the generalizability of these data to other ethnic groups, the authors add.

"Further studies are warranted to investigate specific biological mechanisms and socioeconomic determinants underlying the observed associations between maternal ultra-processed food intake and offspring overweight and obesity," the researchers conclude.

BMJ 2022;379:e071767. Full text

Ashley Lyles is an award-winning medical journalist. She is a graduate of New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Previously, she studied professional writing at Michigan State University. Her work has taken her to Honduras, Cambodia, France, and Ghana and has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times Daily 360, PBS NewsHour, The Huffington Post, Undark, The Root, Psychology Today, Insider, and Tonic (Health by Vice), among other publications.

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