Sweets and desserts can act as a ‘gateway’ that leads teens to adopt unhealthy eating habits


Cutting back on just a few types of unhealthy food can lead to the adoption of healthier overall eating habits, a study led by a high school student in Florida has found.

The study, carried out at Florida’s Broward College, has shown how the consumption of so-called ‘gateway’ foods– like sweets, ice cream and pastries – can be an indicator of the wider intake of ultra-processed foods, and that eating fewer of these may help teens to cut down on their overall junk food consumption.

The research may help to reduce risk factors associated with high blood pressure from eating too much junk food, the researchers say.

The findings are being presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions 2022, in San Diego.

“The good news is that even small changes, such as reducing how often you eat a few gateway foods, may reduce overall consumption of unhealthy foods and have a big impact on your overall health,” said Maria Balhara, the 16-year-old high school student who is leading the study.

The Ultra-processed food types in question are often described as ‘junk food’. These are high in sugar, salt, unhealthy ‘trans-fat’ (trans fatty acids) and artificial flavours and colours. The Florida study highlights how these ultra-processed foods such as bread, cereals, desserts, soft drinks and processed meats, make up over 60 per cent of the calories that Americans eat each day.

“Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, or engineered to be as addictive as possible,” said Balhara.

“They’re also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people are eating too many of these foods without realising it.”

Balhara gathered data on how often a sample of her fellow teenagers had consumed 12 ultra-processed food products over eight previous weeks. This included biscuits, sweets, crisps, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, soft drinks, pastries, smoothies, syrup-sweetened coffee or tea, white bread and processed meat.

The study featured 315 teen participants aged 13-19 from 12 high schools in South Florida. The researchers gave them survey to complete called the Processed Intake Evaluation (PIE), which assessed the frequency of their consumption of processed food, between February and April 2022.

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While an increase in eating frozen desserts was associated with an 11 per cent increase in ultra-processed foods, an increase in eating pastries saw a 12 per cent rise, and an increase of sweets saw a steep rise of 31 per cent.

“For teenagers whose consumption of ultra-processed foods has not yet been established, certain gateway foods such as candy (sweets), store-bought pastries and frozen desserts should be avoided, since increased consumption of these foods appears to lead to increased consumption of other processed foods,” said Balhara.

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