Teens are eating less processed foods during the COVID-19 pandemic



Balhara M.LBODP004. Presented at: ENDO Annual Meeting; 11-14 June 2022; Atlanta (hybrid meeting).

Balhara does not report relevant financial information.

We could not process your request. Please try again later. If this issue persists, please contact [email protected]

ATLANTA – Adolescents and young adults have been eating less ultra-processed foods since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic than they did before the pandemic, reversing a 30-year trend of increased consumption of ultra-processed foods.

In an interim analysis of the Processed Intake Evaluation (PIE) study of 452 adolescents and young adults presented at ENDO 2022, participants reported that in the first two years of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 compared to before Eat less highly processed foods in 2020. Ultra-processed food consumption continued to decline in 2022 as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

Ultra-processed foods
Source: Adobe Stock

“After the introduction of the pandemic restrictions, average consumption of ultra-processed foods fell by almost 6%, falling further when COVID-19 restrictions were later eased, and is now almost 14% below pre-pandemic levels.” Maria Balhara, a student at Broward College in Davie, Fla., to Healio. “It is noteworthy that the decline has been sustained and has continued even after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.”

Maria Balhara

The PIE study involved 1,800 teenagers and young adults from across the United States. The interim analysis focused on the first 452 participants in the study (53% girls; mean age 16.6 years). The researchers calculated a composite processed intake (PIE) rating from 0 to 100 for consumption of processed foods; A score of 0 was defined as eating less processed food and a score of 100 as eating more processed food. PIE scores were compared for the pre-pandemic period prior to 2020, during COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021, and after the easing of pandemic restrictions in 2022.

The mean PIE score before the pandemic was 56.2. The value fell to 52.6 during the pandemic and to 48.1 in 2022.

Boys had a decrease in PIE score from 57.9 before the pandemic to 55.5 during the pandemic and 49.1 in 2022. The mean PIE score for girls went from 54.1 before the pandemic to 50.6 during of the pandemic and 47.4 in 2022.

“It was surprising to see that changes related to COVID-19 have reversed the trend seen in ultra-processed food consumption over the past three decades,” Balhara told Healio. “As COVID-19 has brought about several unprecedented changes, including school closures, social restrictions and many people turning to work from home, this new study has found that such changes have led to an unexpected outcome. The study results were in sharp contrast to the speculative hypotheses in the early phase of the pandemic that a lack of routine and structure in daily routines and constant proximity to the refrigerator and kitchen would lead to increased consumption of ultra-processed foods among adolescents.”

In an analysis of 23 dietary behavior factors, fewer processed foods at home and fewer opportunities to eat processed foods contributed most to the decline in processed food intake.

“This provides supporting evidence that in adolescents, peer influence outweighs other factors such as individual intentions, nutritional knowledge and parental behavior,” Balhara told Healio. “Programs should therefore include guidance on healthier eating habits when eating out with friends. The results of this study suggest that peer-mediated intervention outreach programs, in which a teen trained in dietary guidelines works with peers to improve nutritional knowledge and address risk factors for obesity, can be successful.”

Participants were divided into high-risk and low-risk groups based on the presence of obesity or diabetes in the individual or family. The low-risk group saw a significantly larger drop in PIE score of 8.8 points from pre-pandemic to 2022, compared to a 4.7-point drop in the high-risk group (P < 0.01).

Balhara said the decline in ultra-processed food consumption needs to be confirmed in the final analysis of the full PIE study cohort, but noted that the early data are encouraging and may provide an opportunity for improved nutritional and behavioral interventions for adolescents.

Leave a Comment