You may have friends who are taller, heavier and more muscular than you. We all grow and develop at different rates. Lots of boys don’t reach their adult weight until they are over 18.
You can check whether you’re a healthy weight by using our healthy weight calculator. If you are underweight, your GP (*pediatrician), practice nurse or school nurse can give you help and advice.
There may be an underlying medical cause for your low weight that needs to be checked out. Gut problems like coeliac disease, for example, can make people lose weight.
Read about other medical problems that can cause unexplained weight loss.
Or perhaps you haven’t been eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Whatever the situation, if you’re concerned about your weight or your diet, the best thing to do is tell someone. There’s a lot that can be done to help.
Why Being a Healthy Weight Matters
Being underweight can leave you with no energy and affect your immune system, meaning you could pick up colds and other infections more easily.
If your diet is poor, you may also be missing out on vitamins and minerals you need to grow and develop.
The good news is that, with a little help, you can gradually gain weight until you get to a weight that is healthy for your height and age.
Healthy Diet for Teen Boys
It’s important that you gain weight in a healthy way. Try not to go for chocolate, cakes, fizzy drinks and other foods high in fat or sugar. Eating these types of foods too often is likely to increase your body fat, rather than building strong bones and muscles.
Instead, aim to eat three meals and three snacks a day. You should be having:
- Plenty of starchy carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes (choose wholegrain versions or potatoes with their skins on if you can)
- At least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day
- Some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- Some milk and dairy food
We all need some fat in our diet, but it’s important to keep an eye on the amount and type of fat we’re eating. Try to cut down on the amount of saturated fat you eat – that’s the fat found in sausages, salami, pies, hard cheese, cream, butter, cakes and biscuits.
Cut down on sugary foods, such as chocolate, sweets, cakes, biscuits and sugary soft drinks.
Strength training can also help to build strong muscles and bones. Find out how to increase your strength and flexibility.
Boost Your Calories
To bump up your energy intake in a healthy way, try these tips:
- Make time for breakfast. Try porridge made with semi-skimmed (*1% or 2% milk) milk and sprinkle some chopped fruit or raisins on top. Or how about eggs on toast with some grilled tomatoes or mushrooms?
- Crumpets, bananas or unsalted nuts all make good snacks.
- A jacket (*baked) potato with baked beans or tuna on top makes a healthy lunch and contains both energy-rich carbohydrates and protein. Adding cheese will provide calcium.
- Try yoghurts and milky puddings, such as rice pudding.
- Have a healthy snack before bed. Cereal with semi-skimmed milk is a good choice (choose a cereal that is lower in sugar), or some toast.
Teen Boys and Eating Disorders
Sometimes there can be other issues that stop you from eating a healthy diet.
If you feel anxious when you think about food, or you feel you may be using control over food to help you cope with stress, low self-esteem or a difficult time at home or school, then you may have an eating disorder.
People with eating disorders often say they feel that their eating habits help them keep control of their lives. But that’s an illusion: it’s not them who are in control, but the eating disorder.
If you feel you may have an eating disorder, help is available.
Tell someone: ideally your parents, guardians or another adult you trust.
The eating disorders charity b-eat has a Youthline, where you can get advice.
Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.
Processed foods aren’t just microwave meals and other ready meals. The term ‘processed food’ applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience. This means you may be eating more processed food than you realise.
Processed foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but anything that’s been processed may contain added salt, sugar and fat.
One advantage of cooking food from scratch at home is that you know exactly what is going into it, including the amount of added salt or sugar.
However, even homemade food sometimes uses processed ingredients. Read on to find out how you can eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet.
What Counts as Processed Food?
Most shop-bought foods will have been processed in some way.
Examples of common processed foods include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Tinned vegetables
- Savoury snacks, such as crisps (*potato chips)
- Meat products, such as bacon
- “Convenience foods”, such as microwave meals or ready meals
- Drinks, such as milk or soft drinks
Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurising products.
Dietitian Sian Porter says: “Not all processed food is a bad choice. Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.
“Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while tinned produce (choose those without added sugar and salt) can mean convenient storage, cooking and choice to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh.”
What Makes Some Processed Foods Less Healthy?
Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to make their flavour more appealing and to prolong their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes.
This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts for these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.
Furthermore, a diet high in red and processed meat (regularly eating more than 90g a day) has also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Some studies have also shown that eating a large amount of processed meat may be linked to a higher risk of cancer or heart disease.
What is Processed Meat?
Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.
The (*UK) Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, that you cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers (*strips) of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, with each about the size of half a slice of bread.
However, it’s important to remember that the term “processed” applies to a very broad range of foods, many of which can be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
How Can My Family Eat Processed Foods as Part of a Healthy Diet?
Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on the amount of processed foods you’re eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.
Adding tinned tomatoes to your shopping basket, for example, is a great way to boost your 5 a day. They can also be stored for longer and cost less than fresh tomatoes – just check the label to make sure there’s no added salt or sugar.
Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.
These labels include information on protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion.
How Do I Know if a Processed Food is High in Fat, Saturated Fat, Sugar or Salt?
There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high or low in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. These are:
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g (*rougly half an ounce per 3oz)
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g (*about a tenth of an ounce per 3oz)
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g (*100g is about 3.5oz)
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g (*a little under 3/4 of an ounce per 3 oz)
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
For example, if you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, try to limit the amount of foods you eat that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.
If the processed food you want to buy has a nutrition label that uses colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green. So, when you’re choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice.
However, even healthier ready meals may be higher in fat and other additives than a homemade equivalent. That’s not to say that homemade foods can’t also be high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, but if you make the meal yourself, you’ll have a much better idea of what’s gone into it. You could even save yourself some money, too.
When Cooking Food at Home…
If a friend or relative has an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, you might want to encourage them to speak to someone about it. You could go with them for support if they want you to.
But there are other things you can do. You’re already doing a great job by finding out how to help them – it shows you care.
You may have noticed your friend has changed. They may no longer go out or want to be included in things.
Keep trying to include them, just like before. Even if they don’t join in, they will still like to be asked. It will make them feel valued as a person.
You can also try to build up their self-esteem, perhaps by telling them what a great person they are and how much you appreciate having them as a friend.
Try not to give advice or criticism. Give your time and listen to them. This can be tough when you don’t agree with what they say about themselves and what they eat.
Remember, you don’t have to know all the answers. Just being there is what’s important. This is especially true when it feels like your friend or relative is rejecting your friendship, help and support.
How are eating disorders treated?
Treatment for eating disorders varies around the country. Different types of help may be offered depending on where you live.
Treatment includes dealing with the emotional issues as well as the physical, but this must be done slowly so your friend or relative is able to cope with the changes.
Treatment will involve your friend or relative talking to someone about the emotional difficulties that have led to their eating disorder. It will also explore their physical problems, general health and eating patterns. Help with eating and putting on weight is usually not enough.
The earlier your friend or relative embarks on the treatment programme and the more they engage with it, the better their chances of making a good recovery.
Will they have to go into hospital?
Most people with eating disorders are seen as outpatients. This means they visit the hospital – for example, one day a week. In severe cases, they might need to visit the hospital more often, or be admitted to hospital for more intensive support and treatment (known as inpatient care).
Should I visit them in hospital?
This depends on what your friend wants, how you feel and what the treatment centre allows. Let them know you’re thinking of them and would like to visit them. If this is not possible, you can always write to them or call to let them know you’re still there to support them.
Can people be forced to get help for eating disorders?
If your friend or relative has lost a lot of weight, they may be in danger of starving themselves and developing serious complications. They may not be able to think clearly and may refuse life-saving treatment.
In these circumstances, their doctor may decide to admit them to hospital for specialist treatment. This can only be done after the doctor has consulted colleagues and they agree with the doctor’s decision. This is called being sectioned and it is done under the rules of the Mental Health Act (*in the UK).
Will they be cured when they come home?
Your friend or relative will still need your support. Most people with an eating disorder do recover and learn to use more positive ways of coping.
But recovery from an eating disorder can be very difficult and can take a long time. Part of your friend may want to get better, while the other part might be very scared about giving up the eating disorder. They might think, “I want to get better, but just don’t want to gain weight.”
They will probably have good days and bad days. During times of stress, the eating difficulties may return. Changing the way people with eating disorders think and feel is never easy and it takes time.
The eating disorders charity beat has a dedicated online space for anyone who is supporting someone with an eating disorder.
Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.
Resources in the US:
I am a fan of the health and wellness articles in the New York Times (NYT). Their reporting is based on scientific studies and evidence – but the articles are engaging and bring the science down to a more readable level. So, this post is a departure for me, because I disagree with a recent NYT article, by Rachel Rabkin Peachman, on whether it’s ok to salt a child’s food.
The basic argument of the article is that using a little bit of salt on your child’s food isn’t going to add that much sodium – especially compared to how much is hidden in processed foods. And that if adding a bit of salt to healthy but bitter foods, like broccoli, gets kids to eat more of these – then it’s probably worthwhile.
But I strongly disagree.
So What’s the Problem?
First of all, salt intake is MUCH too high in most countries, and this causes serious health issues. In the US, adults and children consume around two to three times more salt than is recommended, most of which is added to foods during processing. The Harvard School of Public Health highlights that these excess salt levels lead to high blood pressure and heart disease – as well as stomach cancer and osteoporosis. Nation-wide salt reduction efforts in the UK, starting in 2003, resulted in a 15% drop in salt consumption and very significant drops in blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks.
And these issues are not just adult concerns. Both the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that factors leading to high blood pressure and heart disease begin in childhood. Studies have shown that about 15% of kids already have high blood pressure.
Starting in Childhood is Key
Research shows that most food preferences are developed in childhood and are difficult to shift. I’ve seen this first-hand through my own research dissertation for my Masters in Public Health. My project involved qualitative focus group interviews with employees of companies who offer a home delivery service for fresh produce as part of their wellness program. The people I met with struggled to eat the recommended levels of fruit and vegetables – even if they wanted to. Many cited that not growing up eating a large amount and variety of produce set habits that are tough to break and limited their knowledge about healthier cooking and eating.
Ms Peachman’s article states that children who learn to like bitter vegetables with toppings like salt, will like the veggies even after the salt is taken away. Personally, I VERY much doubt that. The study they cited as evidence didn’t use salt, but rather cream cheese – plus another New York times article published in 2011 points out that babies fed higher levels of sodium prefer salty foods when they are older. Again, both the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend taking the salt shaker off the table – and trying to reduce the sodium kids get through processed food. Kids will learn to prefer less salty food. That’s advice I believe – and how we operate in our house. Now the whole family generally finds that processed and restaurant foods taste too salty.
What to Do Instead?
So, without adding salt, what CAN you do to help kids learn to like certain healthy vegetables that may not be so appealing at first bite? The AAP recommends using other things to alter or boost taste – like herbs, spices and lemon juice.
We do all those in our house. Pepper always gets put on the table, along with Mrs Dash – a salt-free topping. And I use herbs and spices like basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme and cumin. I also brown steamed vegetables, like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, in a frying pan with a bit of butter or olive oil to add to the taste. Another good option is a little bit of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on veggies – or cooked onions or leeks mixed with veggies like broccoli. See the end of this article for more resources for getting kids to eat veggies.
The point is, there are healthier ways to help kids get used to vegetables – ones that can become lifelong habits without concern.
Tips for Getting Kids to Eat Veggies
Research shows that children who achieve a healthy weight tend to be fitter, healthier, better able to learn and are more self-confident.
They’re also less likely to have low self esteem and be bullied.
As a parent, there’s lots you can do to help your child become a healthier weight. Getting them to be more active and eat well is important.
Here’s practical advice to help you.
Listen to your child’s concern about their weight. Overweight children often know they have a weight problem and they need to feel supported and in control of their weight. Let them know that you love them, whatever their weight, and that all you want is for them to be healthy and happy.
Steps for Success
Here are five key ways to help your child achieve a healthy weight. You can read this whole page or click on the links below to go directly to the topic you want to know about:
- Be a good role model
- Encourage 60 minutes of physical activity a day
- Keep to child-size portions
- Eat healthy meals, drinks and snacks
- Less screen time and more sleep!
If your child has a medical condition then the advice in this article may not be relevant and you should check first with their GP (*pediatrician) or hospital doctor.
Be a Good Role Model
One of the best ways to instill good habits in your child is to be a good role model. Children learn by example. One of the most powerful ways to encourage your child to be active and eat well is to do so yourself.
Set a good example by going for a walk or bike ride instead of watching TV, or surfing the internet. Playing in the park or swimming with your children shows them that being active is fun.
- Any changes you make to your child’s diet and lifestyle are much more likely to be accepted if the changes are small and involve the whole family. Here are 10 ways to get healthy as a family.
- If you’re not sure what activities you’d like to try as a family, use this What’s your sport? tool to find out what you’re best suited to.
Very overweight children don’t need to do more exercise than slimmer children. Their extra body weight means they will naturally burn more calories for the same activity.
All children need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day for good health, but it doesn’t need to be all at once. Several short 10-minute or even 5-minute bursts of activity throughout the day can be just as good as an hour-long stretch.
For younger children, it can take the form of active play, such as ball games, chasing games like “it” and “tag”, riding a scooter, and using playground swings, climbing frames and see-saws.
For older children it could include riding a bike, skateboarding, walking to school, skipping, swimming, dancing and martial arts.
If your child isn’t used to being active, encourage them to start with what they can do and build up to 60 minutes a day. They’re more likely to stick to their new activity levels if you let them choose the type of activity they’re comfortable with.
Walking or cycling short distances instead of using the car or bus is a great way to be active together as a family – and you’ll save money too.
- Find out the amount and type of physical activity recommended for under-5s
- Find out the amount and type of physical activity recommended for children and young people aged 5-18.
- Join Change4Life for free and your child will get their own personalised activity plan full of good ideas for getting moving.
- Watch this short video to see how playing can help all aspects of a child’s development and improve their health.
Try to avoid feeding your child large portions.
A good rule of thumb is to start meals with small servings and let your child ask for more if they are still hungry.
Try not to make your child finish everything on the plate or eat more than they want to. And avoid using adult-size plates for younger children as it encourages them to eat oversized portions.
Beware of high-calorie foods. Calories are a measure of the energy in food and knowing how many calories your child consumes each day and balancing that with the amount of energy they use up in activity will help them reach and stay at a healthy weight.
- This article helps you and your child understand calories.
- Keep track of your child’s daily calorie intake with MyFitnessPal’s free online calorie counter (also available as an app).
- Find out how many calories children aged 7-10 need and how many calories teenagers need.
- Explain to your child how to get the balance of their diet right using the eatwell plate. It shows how much they should eat from each food group.
- Read more about what counts as a balanced diet.
- Get ideas for healthy packed lunches.
Eat Healthy Meals
Getting 5 A DAY shouldn’t be too difficult. Almost all fruit and vegetables count towards your child’s 5 A DAY including fresh, tinned, frozen and dried. Juices, smoothies, beans and pulses also count.
Discourage your child from having too many sugary or high-fat foods like sweets, cakes, biscuits, some sugary cereals and soft drinks. These foods and drinks tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients.
Aim for your child to get most of their calories from healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables, and starchy foods like bread, potatoes, pasta and rice (preferably wholemeal). And switch sweet drinks for water.
- Fussy eater? Not a problem with these tips to help your kids enjoy their 5 A DAY.
- Tasty 5 A DAY family-friendly recipes.
- Find out more about healthy drinks for children.
- Swap high-fat foods for these healthier alternatives
- Try these sugar swaps – healthier swaps for breakfast, snacks and puddings
- Ideas for sugar swaps when you shop.
Less Screen Time and More Sleep!
Help your children to avoid sitting and lying around too much, as it makes it more likely for them to put on weight.
Limit the amount of time your child spends on inactive pastimes such as watching television, playing video games and playing on electronic devices.
There’s no hard and fast advice on how much is too much, but experts advise that children should watch no more than two hours of television each day – and remove all screens (including mobile phones) from their bedroom at night.
It also helps children stay trim if they sleep well. It’s been shown that children who don’t have the recommended amount of sleep are more likely to be overweight. The less children sleep, the greater the risk of them becoming obese. Lack of sleep can also affect their mood and behaviour.
- Find out how much sleep children need according to their age.
- How screens impair children’s sleep.
- Sleep tips for children.
- Hidden causes of weight gain
If you’ve received a letter about your child’s weight after they were measured in school you can use the contact number on the letter to speak to a health worker and get more information about what you can do and what support is available in your area (*UK-specific advice).
Your GP (*pediatrician) or practice nurse can give you further advice.
These programmes are often free to attend through your local health authority (*in the UK), and typically involve a series of weekly group workshop sessions with other parents and their children.
At these workshops you’ll learn more about the diet and lifestyle changes that can help your child to achieve a healthy weight.
Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.
“Fast food and takeaways linked to surge in child asthma and allergies,” reports The Guardian.
Along with many other papers, it reports on a study attempting to shed light on one of the enduring medical mysteries of recent times – what explains the sharp rise in allergic conditions that has occurred during the past few decades?
Researchers wanted to investigate the theory that changes to traditional diets in the developed world since World War Two may be partially responsible.
This was an international survey looking at the links between diet and three allergy-related conditions in adolescents and children:
The researchers found frequent fast-food consumption (three or more times a week) was significantly linked with an increased risk of what the researchers defined as severe asthma, severe rhinoconjunctivitis or severe eczema. In contrast, consumption of fruit at least three times per week was significantly associated with a decreased risk of severe asthma. However, these associations are not proof of direct cause and effect.
It is possible that there are other underlying factors associated with both diet and risk of these allergic conditions, which could explain the associations seen, such as socioeconomic status.
Whatever the evidence, encouraging your child to eat fresh fruit and vegetables regularly (at least five portions a day) is a good idea.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by an international team of researchers. It was funded by a number of organisations, including the BUPA Foundation and Glaxo Wellcome International Medical Affairs, as well as by a number of New Zealand-based funding bodies.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Thorax.
The results of this study were widely and accurately reported in the media, although reports didn’t make it clear that cause and effect cannot be implied from this study.
What kind of research was this?
The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) study is a multicentre, international, cross-sectional study.
In this part of the study, the authors aimed to determine whether there was an association between food intake over the past year and current and severe symptoms of the following allergic conditions:
The study involved a group of children aged six and seven years old, and a separate group of adolescents aged 13 and 14 years old.
Cross-sectional studies are good for determining prevalence: in this case, the results of the study can provide us with information on the number of children with symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema, and on the diet of the children.
However, this study design has some limitations (see conclusions) and to determine a link, a cohort study would be needed. However, even a cohort study could not show whether fast food was actually causing the development of asthma, as fast-food intake could be a marker of many other factors, such as socioeconomic status, which could be the real cause of any association seen.
A randomised controlled trial would be required to prove causation, though such a trial would have both practical and ethical issues (obviously few parents would be happy to find their child had been placed in the ‘kebab and cheeseburger’ group).
What did the research involve?
This international study included 319,196 adolescents aged 13 to 14 years, and 181,631 children aged four to seven years. Information on the diet and clinical symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema were collected using questionnaires. Questionnaires were self-completed by the adolescents and were completed by the parents of the children.
Clinical symptoms included:
- Asthma: Wheezing or whistling in the chest in the past 12 months. If wheezing affected speech, occurred more than four times in the past 12 months, or caused sleep disturbance more than one night per week, then it was defined as severe symptoms.
- Rhinoconjunctivitis: Sneezing or runny or blocked nose when not suffering from a cold/flu, and itchy watery eyes in the past 12 months. Symptoms were defined as severe if the nose problems were accompanied by itchy watery eyes and were reported as interfering with daily activities ‘a lot’.
- Eczema: An itchy rash in the past 12 months. Symptoms were defined as severe if sleep disturbance was reported at least once per week.
The diet questionnaire asked questions on the average weekly consumption over the previous year (never/occasionally, once or twice per week, at least three times per week) of the following foods:
- Meat (presumably home-cooked meat dishes as opposed to fast food)
- Vegetables (green and root)
- Pulses (peas, beans, lentils)
- Pasta (including bread)
- Fast food, such as burgers
The researchers then looked to see if there was an association between the food consumed and the clinical symptoms reported.
The researchers adjusted for a number of factors that they had also collected information on, as it was thought they could partially explain any association seen (confounders).
These included exercise, television watching, maternal education, maternal smoking in the first year of life and current maternal smoking. Gender, region of the world, language and per capita gross national income were also adjusted for.
What were the basic results?
- For adolescents; milk, fruit, and vegetables were found to be ‘protective’ foods.
- Fruit intake at least once or twice per week or at least three times per week was associated with a reduced the risk of current wheeze, severe asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and severe rhinoconjunctivitis.
- Milk was associated with a reduced risk of current wheeze when consumed once or twice per week, and severe asthma when consumed at least three times per week. Milk consumption once or twice per week was associated with a reduced risk of rhinoconjunctivitis and severe rhinoconjunctivitis. Drinking milk once or twice per week or at least three times per week was associated with a reduced risk of eczema, and when consumed once or twice a week, with severe eczema.
- Eating vegetables was associated with a reduced the risk of current wheeze when eaten at least three times per week, and of severe rhinoconjunctivitis and severe eczema when eaten once or twice per week.
- Butter, fast food, margarine, pasta, potato, pulses, rice, seafood and nuts were associated with an increased risk of one or more conditions when eaten once or twice per week or at least three times per week, without being associated with a reduced risk of any conditions.
- An increased risk of all three conditions (current and severe) was associated with eating butter, fast food, margarine and pasta at least three times per week. In some cases, an association was seen if the foods were eaten once or twice per week.
- The greatest increase in risk was associated with eating fast food at least three times per week. Eating fast food at least three times per week was associated with an increased risk of current wheeze, severe asthma, current rhinoconjunctivitis, severe rhinoconjunctivitis, current eczema and severe eczema.
- For children; eggs, fruit, cereals, meat, milk, nuts, pasta, potato, pulses, rice, seafood, and vegetables were found to be ‘protective’ foods, and were associated with a reduced risk of at least one condition without being associated with an increased risk of any condition.
- Eating eggs, fruit, meat and milk at least three times per week was associated with reduced risk of all three conditions (current and severe).
- Fast food was found to be a ‘risk factor’ food. Eating fast foods once or twice per week or at least three times per week was associated with an increased risk of current wheeze and severe asthma. Eating fast foods at least three times per week was associated with an increased risk of current rhinoconjunctivitis, severe rhinoconjunctivitis, and severe eczema.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that their results “suggest that fast-food consumption may be contributing to the increased prevalence of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema in adolescents and children. For other foods, the picture for adolescents and children is less clear. However, in concordance with international dietary recommendations, diets that have a regular consumption of fruit and vegetables are likely to protect against asthma, allergic disease and other non-communicable disease”. The researchers also suggest that further exploration of this association is needed.
This cross-sectional study found that for both adolescents and children, fast-food consumption was associated with an increased risk of what the researchers defined as severe asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema. Consumption of fruit at least three times per week, by contrast, was associated with a decreased risk of severe asthma.
Although eating a balanced diet including the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables has many health benefits, there are limitations to this study, some of which were noted by the authors.
These limitations include:
- The cross-sectional study design meant that the children were not followed over time, so we don’t know the order of events. For example, we can’t say whether consumption of fast food occurred before the development of asthma or whether children/adolescents with asthma ate more fast food.
- Diet and symptoms over the whole year were either self-reported or reported by the parents of the children. This means that they may be subject to recall bias.
- Not all confounders could be adjusted for and it is possible that there are other underlying factors associated with both dietary habits and risk of these allergic conditions. For example, the researchers only adjusted for socioeconomic status at the country level, rather than at the individual level.
- Diagnoses of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema – in particular what the researchers defined as ‘severe’ cases of these conditions – were not confirmed by medical records, so we don’t know whether they were entirely accurate.
Despite these limitations, this was an impressive and wide-ranging study (involving more than half a million children from across the world) whose results suggest that the possible association between diet and allergy deserves further investigation.
‘Teenagers more likely to have severe asthma and eczema if they eat fast food more than three times a week,’ The Guardian reports. The claim is based on wide-ranging research looking at the dietary patterns of children across the world.
Links to Headlines
- Fast food and takeaways linked to surge in child asthma and allergies. The Guardian, January 14 2013
- Fast-food ‘linked to childhood asthma and eczema’. BBC News, January 14 2013
- Fast food linked to asthma in children: research. The Daily Telegraph, January 14 2013
- Children who eat junk food three times a week have more severe asthma and eczema. Daily Mail, January 14 2013
Links to Science
- Ellwood P, Asher MI, Garcia-Marcos L, et al. Do fast foods cause asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema? Global findings from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) Phase Three. Thorax. Published online January 14 2013