What are we feeding our kids?
Last week we watched the BBC1 documentary ‘What Are We Feeding Our Kids’ made by Dr Chris van Teullkin. It is a shocking eye opener about the state of our food environment, ultra-processed food (UPFs) and the devastating impact it’s having on the nation’s health. We highly recommend watching it on replay if you didn’t catch it – some of the findings were pretty scary but try not to let it panic you! There are loads of simple, manageable changes we can make to our families diets.
This blog is a summary of the key messages and findings in the documentary, along with ways we can start to reduce the amount of UPFs in our diets.
What are UPFs?
- They are industrialised foods that contain ingredients you wouldn’t add when cooking from scratch, and that you are unlikely to recognise because they are chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. A study from 2008-2014 showed that the most commonly eaten UPFs in the UK were:
- Industrialised bread (11 per cent)
- Pre-packaged meals (7.7 per cent)
- Breakfast cereals (4.4 per cent) 
- They are relatively new to our food environment in terms of history. In the 1940s we ate seasonal fresh food, growing over half of our own fruit and veg and buying the rest from grocers and butchers; rationing continued into 1950s but fridges were invented and the demand for more convenience began (in 1959 13% of homes had a fridge and by 1970 this was 58%). The 60s is when the rise in convenience food really started to grow and it has exploded since.
- In 1980 around one third of our shopping baskets were UPFs. Now it is over 60% and ”most children in this country start their lives on 100% ultra-processed food”, Dr Chris van Tullekan.
- They are cheap (nearly always cheaper than healthy food), readily available, convenient and designed to be addictive – it is no wonder we eat so many of them!
What do UPFs do to us?
- Dr Chris van Teullkin did a one man experiment on himself to see what effect eating 80% UPFs for 1 month would do to him. The results:
- He gained 6.5kg in weight
- Brain scans showed his brain rewired so that the reward and automatic behaviour centres were dialled up – i.e. they became addictive and altered his brain pretty drastically
- The hormone controlling appetite was suppressed so he ate more, as well as his brain craving more from the rewiring
- He experienced insomnia, anxiety, mood problems, low libido, constipation and piles
- A review in 2020 found a clear association between UPFs and poor health outcomes, including obesity and cardio-metabolic risks; cancer, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases; irritable bowel syndrome, depression, frailty conditions; and all-cause mortality….“The authors did not find any studies evidencing an association between ultra-processed foods and beneficial health outcomes”
- It’s intuitive that they don’t do us any good, but there is shockingly little research demonstrating this – it’s no wonder when most research is funded by the food industry who have a vested interest in continuing to make and sell UPFs which have the highest profit margin than any other products they make! However, the correlation between the staggering rise in lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes with the introduction of UPFs is irrefutable. Childhood obesity has increased tenfold in the last 50 years.
What can we do?
Eating a diet consisting mostly of UPFs has become normalised and we need to change that. The programme showed us just how addictive they are designed to be, so it’s little wonder children crave them, and there will be an inevitable backlash when they can’t have them, but children’s brains are highly adaptable (neuroplastic) right up to their mid-twenties, so habits can change! Their neural connections will change and new habits will be formed, and often much quicker than you’d think.
Here are our ideas for starting the journey towards reducing UPFs in our diets:
- Cook from scratch as much as possible and teach children how to cook – this is absolutely essential. If kids don’t know how to cook then they will have no choice but to rely on ready meals and take-aways when they are older!
- Look at ingredients labels – the front of a packet may say ‘one of your five a day’ or ‘high in fibre’ but still be an UPF. If you don’t understand the ingredients on the back and/or there are loads of them, best to avoid it!
- Consider how real something is before you buy or eat it – i.e. how many processes has it undergone. Squeezing oil out of olives to make olive oil isn’t a problem, but the more ingredients something has and the less it resembles it’s real state, the better it is to avoid it.
- Set kids a challenge to try new fruits and veggies each month – find a seasonal food chart and let them choose what they want to try. You can download a free seasonal wall chart from our website here
- Get some cookbooks out, choose your favourite recipes together and commit to a time to making them together – perhaps allow your child to choose one dinner a week, make it together and then eat it together as a family – it may turn into a family tradition that you end up loving and making lots of memories doing
- Find healthy alternatives – homemade chicken nuggets, refined sugar free ketchup (Dr Wills do a great one), fruit teas instead of squash (we love Small and Wild), replace sweetened yoghurts with natural yoghurt and chopped fruit etc
- Avoid breakfast cereals – opt for porridge, pancakes, boiled eggs, homemade granola etc
- Replace shop bought snacks with healthy homemade snacks – apple slices or dates with peanut butter, fruit and yoghurt, cheese and grapes, carrot and humus
We have published a cookbook for children that contains lots of fun, healthy recipes children can make, and our cooking kits provide an easy way to start children off on their cooking journey, but whether it’s those or any other way you find to help get kids in the kitchen and eating real food, the ultimate goal is for them to be healthy and happy, so any way that happens is good with us!