What is your child actually eating?

With fast foods and processed foods becoming a way of life, learn to recognize what is healthy and understand the impact of eating choices on the child’s health

By Smitha Suresh  • 11 min read

What is your child actually eating?

Childhood obesity and early onset of diabetes have seen a tangible increase in the last ten years!

The days of eating freshly prepared, wholesome homemade and balanced meals are giving way to the eating of fast foods, processed foods that can be cooked in a few minutes or even leftovers that can be quickly reheated in the microwave. Most of these types of foods, though they may appear to be healthy, are low in nutritional values. It is important to understand the difference between food that is of nutritional value and that which we often refer to as ‘junk’. Serving our families healthy food and creating an awareness in our children about healthy food choices, is essential to the well-being of the entire family.

What is junk food?

Any food that does not deliver a significant quantity of a variety of nutrients but only adds calories from fats, sugars and / or simple carbohydrates, deserves this label. Many people think that no food should be called ‘junk’. But many processed foods are manipulated so extensively that they hardly resemble their original ingredients and cannot even be called ‘food’.

Ever since the term ‘junk food’ was coined in the early seventies, we have seen a global explosion in the varieties available and consumption patterns. Obviously, this label is not working to alter people’s choices. Let us start calling a spade a spade and term them ‘Zero Nutrition foods’, ‘Non-nutritive foods’, ‘Health-damaging foods’ or ‘Chronic-disease causing’ foods.

Next time you pay for junk food, remember it will be paid for in two instalments; first in cash and then in your health. - Antonio Carillo (writer on wellness)

‘Pull’ of junk food

The fast food Industry has endured a lot of controversy – inhumane treatment of animals, using leftover animal parts in certain menu items and more. These have not made any dent in their sales. We should be aware of what they do.


Have you ever walked past a fast food place and been drawn in by the aromas that waft out? Not only fast food chains, but even bakeries and restaurants resort to deliberately dispersing the aromas of their kitchen to the area outside (smellvertising). This aroma triggers cravings and hunger pangs, leading to more walk-ins and greater sales.

Non-food ingredients

Food chains in the West have been accused of including some pretty strange nonfood ingredients – sand, wood, duck feathers, animal bones and hooves, beetle juice and fertilizer! All are suitably modified and used to impart specific textures and properties to ‘food’. How far this may be the case in India is debatable but given that most global food chains have outlets in our country (and we do not have a reliable monitoring body for food safety), we should play safe.

Doubtful quality

Apart from failure to list certain ingredients or making misleading health claims, manufacturers may be using inferior-quality ingredients to start with. Processed food products have undergone some form of chemical processing and also contain a cornucopia of chemicals to impart desirable properties to increase acceptability (and addiction).


They also indulge in heavy advertising to make it seem that their products are safe, tasty and even healthy. These ads are targeted mainly at children who can influence food-related decision-making at home.

Not only fast food chains but even bakeries and restaurants resort to deliberately dispersing the aromas of their kitchen to the area outside (smellvertising)!
What is your child actually eating?
What is your child actually eating?

Diet and pregnancy 

To look at the impact of non-nutritive food consumption on health especially in children, we need to begin by going back to pregnancy – where a lifetime of good or bad health is created for the foetus.

When pregnant (whether you are eating healthy food or not), your foetus is drawing upon whatever nutrients it needs from your body stores. This does not mean that you can eat whatever you want including health-damaging foods and expect a healthy baby. Even doctors agree. “Not only will you suffer from nutrient deficiencies, but your baby will have to adjust to an environment that is nutritionally substandard, or barely adequate, rather than a nutrient- rich environment,” says Dr Shanthy Sekaran, a practising gynaecologist in Chennai for the last 25 years. “By eating zero-nutrition foods, how can you expect the foetal bone growth and brain growth to be optimal?” she asks.

The danger comes from eating nonnutritive foods instead of nutrient-dense ones. Pregnancy is a physiologically demanding process and your baby and the body needs more nutrients than usual. If you are not focusing on consuming high-nutrition foods at all times, you may fall short. Supplements cannot replace nutritious food and certainly will not prevent associated problems like pre-eclampsia (high BP), gestational diabetes, constipation, heart burn and haemorrhoids – and one source of these problems is the consumption of zero-nutrition foods. There is ongoing research on the impact of obesity in pregnancy which suggests:

  • Prenatal exposure to junk food flavours in amniotic fluid, and then as an infant to breast milk, may result in postnatal preference for junk food. 
  • Gestational consumption of junk food may result in children being at risk for developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes in later life. 
  • Maternal obesity before and during pregnancy may affect the health of the foetus and subsequently the child with respect to behavioural disorders like ADHD and Autism.

This research does not provide conclusive proof but does provide enough food for thought - we need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves if we are really willing to take a chance with the current and future health of our offspring.

Plan your pregnancy and start getting as close to your ideal body weight and nutritional status at least 3–6 months before even conceiving. During pregnancy, ensure that you are following an extremely strict, healthy, balanced dietary and exercise regimen.

Impact of junk food on children 

When children eat zero nutrition foods, they do so at the expense of healthier options.

Compare the healthfulness of a few biscuits versus boiled peanuts as an evening snack. The biscuits contribute some quantity of unhealthy fat and refined carbs along with sugar, and some harmful chemicals. The boiled peanuts, on the other hand, supply healthy fat, valuable protein, age and disease-defying fibre, resveratrol, isoflavones, vitamins E and B complex and many minerals. If your child consumed biscuits instead of the boiled peanuts, he gave up the right to boost his all-round growth, metabolism, immunity and cognitive development (resulting in lower IQ)! 

Some foods may appear to be a healthy snack, like microwave popcorn and a bowl of instant whole grain noodles – but these are high in salt.

Broadly, American Academy Pediatrics and other published research papers indicate that: 

  • Children develop cravings and binge eating disorders, with the particular non-nutritive food they prefer.
  • They experience mood swings, depression and tend to behave aggressively. Lethargy is seen in obese children. Their natural immunity is lowered and they fall sick often. Childhood obesity and hyper cholesterol conditions have dramatically increased over the last ten years.
  • The risk of life-long asthma increases. The respiratory system in children is highly susceptible and needs to be strengthened through good nutrition. A high intake of fruits, veggies and fish can lower asthma attacks in children.
  • Foods high in salt, trans fat and other oils can lead to heart problems later in life. Some foods may appear to be a healthy snack, like microwave popcorn and a bowl of instant whole grain noodles – but these are high in salt.
  • Obesity also paves the way for insulin resistance and Type 1 Diabetes.
  • Children having even 3 out of the 4 conditions under the Metabolic Syndrome (abdominal obesity + insulin
  • resistance or high blood sugar + abnormal lipid levels in blood + high blood pressure) are prone to increased risk of diabetes, heart and kidney problems.
  • Digestive disorders are common. Constipation soon leads to more serious bowel conditions in little ones.
  • Consuming empty calories (carbonated drinks, bread/biscuits made of all-purpose flour or maida ) and ignoring nutritive foods, increases acidity in children. It also results in gastritis problems and mineral and vitamin deficiencies.
  • Ingesting harmful chemicals (preservatives) leads to food allergies, affecting the liver.
What is your child actually eating?

Smitha Suresh is a renowned nutritionist and child specialist from Chennai