June 14 (UPI) -- Children as young as age 7 who consume large amounts of ultra-processed foods experience steady weight gain into adulthood, a study published Monday by JAMA Pediatrics found.
People whose daily diets are about 70% ultra-processed -- which tend to be high-calorie and include a range of artificial ingredients -- saw an average weight gain of about half a pound per year over a 10-year period, the data showed.
This weight gain caused many of them to meet the criteria for obesity, or being severely overweight, and placed them at increased risk for diabetes and heart disease, among other heart problems, the researchers said.
"The increasing availability and variety of ultra-processed foods have reshaped global food systems by displacing dietary patterns previously based on fresh and minimally processed foods," wrote the researchers, from Imperial College of London.
"Of particular concern is the growing consumption of [these foods] among children and adolescents, who are leading consumers," they said.
The findings are based on an analysis of the diet and health status for more than 9,000 children in Britain.
The researchers started tracking participants' consumption of ultra-processed foods at age 7 and continued monitoring their diets and body weight over an average of 10 years, or up until age 24, they said.
Ultra-processed foods are made primarily from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches and sugars, according to Harvard University Medical School.
These food products -- such as frozen meals, soft drinks, fast food, candy and salty snacks -- may also contain additives, including artificial colors and flavors, the school says.
These foods are the source of up to 60% of calories consumed in the United States, recent research estimates.
People with higher amounts of ultra-processed foods in their diets are at increased risk for obesity and related health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, heart attack and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For this study, the researchers sorted participants into one of five categories based on the amount of ultra-processed foods in their diets.
For the more than 1,700 children in the lowest category of consumption, ultra-processed foods accounted for less than 25% of their overall diets, the researchers said.
Conversely, these foods made up almost 68% of the diets of the nearly 1,900 children in the high-consumption group, according to the researchers.
In addition to weight gain, the children in the high-consumption category saw additional waist circumference increases averaging more than half an inch over the 10 study period, the data showed.
Those in the high-consumption group also increased their intake of ultra-processed foods over the 10-year period at a faster rate than children in the lower-consumption group, the researchers said.
"Lifelong dietary patterns develop from childhood and may lead to widespread consequences on health and well-being throughout the life course," they wrote.
"The ultra-processed food industry is highly profitable through the use of low-cost supply chains and aggressive marketing strategies to promote excess consumption," they said.