Junk food causing constipation and acid reflux in young children, studies find

Junk food is known to be a major contributing factor in child obesity. But that is not the only reason children should stay off fatty foods.

Eating food that is low on nutrition and high on calories is also being linked to constipation and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in children.

Two studies carried out by postgraduate students of the Institute of Child Health (ICH) have established this correlation. They were undertaken as more children began to report at ICH with constipation and acid reflux.

The students first took up the study on constipation. “They conducted a survey among patients in the outpatient department and in two city schools, one private and the other, Corporation-run. Around 300 children from the hospital and 500 from each of the schools were part of the study, which lasted a year,” said a paediatrician who did not wish to be named.

These children were between the ages of six months and five years. Parents were given questionnaires and an inference was drawn based on their responses. “We made comparisons between children with constipation and those without, to arrive at a conclusion,” said the paediatrician.

The majority of parents of children who suffered from habitual constipation admitted to buying a lot of packaged food. Easy availability was cited as a reason. Moreover, parents said packaged food spared them the trouble of preparing snacks at home.

The paediatrician said the intestine was normal in these patients and it was clear the problem lay in poor eating habits.

Currently, the hospital treats at least three children for constipation every day, said a senior hospital authority. “We get two kinds of patients with constipation. Some are children who are not toilet trained but this is a very small number. The majority are children from families with poor eating habits,” she said.

The other ICH study involved GERD, a condition often associated with adults. An increase in the number of children complaining of heartburn led to this study, said the paediatrician. The research focused on children over the age of two years who complained of symptoms associated with GERD.

Just as in the other study, the minimum age of participants here was six months, as doctors assumed babies below that age were breastfed.

Just as in the case of children with constipation, those on a rich diet of junk food were found to suffer from acid reflux. A senior gastroenterologist at the hospital said, “Processed food is rich in trans fat and low in fibre content. Such food can induce acidity as it has additives and this results in GERD or even ulcers. As fibre content is very low, children are more prone to constipation and obesity. In the long run, eating processed food can also produce colon cancer in adults.”