At a time of growing concern over childhood obesity, a new report shows kids get 12% of their calories from fast-food restaurants.
A third of kids eat fast food on any given day, according to the report made public Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report found that children eat the equivalent of a small hamburger — such as the kind found in a McDonald’s Happy Meal — every day, said Kristi King, a senior clinical dietitian with Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, who wasn’t involved in the new study.
“It’s part of our fast, go-go culture,” King said.
Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, credits savvy marketing, such as advertising the food with cartoon characters and including toys with meals.
“It’s very well-advertised, and the marketing is working,” said Hassink, who wasn’t involved in the new report.
Teens are more likely than smaller children to consume fast food, the report said. Adolescents ages 12 to 19 years old got 17% of their calories from fast food in 2010-2011, compared with 9% of children ages 2 to 11 years old, the report found. Adults got about 11% of their calories from fast food from 2007-2010, according to a CDC report in 2013.
“Families eat (at fast-food restaurants) for a lot of reasons,” said dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, owner of BetterThanDieting.com, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “It tastes good, it’s convenient and the price is right.”
But in most cases, it’s not very healthy. Children who eat a lot of fast food tend to consume more calories but have a nutritionally poorer diet, compared with other kids, the report said.
The obesity rate in children has more than doubled in the past 30 years, rising from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. The obesity rate among adolescents more than quadrupled, growing from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period, according to the CDC.
A growing number of children develop diseases once seen only in middle-aged people, such as high blood pressure, liver disease and type 2 diabetes, Hassink said.
“Childhood doesn’t buffer you against these diseases,” Hassink said. “Childhood is not a place where you can say, ‘Let everyone eat what they want and we can fix it later.’ ”
Hassink said parents should remember that daily choices about food can contribute to long-term chronic disease. “Health doesn’t happen by accident,” she said.
Avoiding fast food may require advanced planning, King said. Parents who don’t want to resort to stopping at a drive-through on the way home from soccer practice should try packing sandwiches and healthy snacks in advance, King said. Instead of rushing to cook dinner after work, they should prepare meals the night before, she suggests. That way, parents can simply reheat them and get dinner on the table quickly.
“It takes a few extra minutes to do some prep work,” King said. “Have snacks available so that, when you pick up your child from school, they’re ready. Have apples, grapes, whole grain crackers, string cheese sticks. My mom used to put stuff at eye level in the fridge or on the counter for me.”
Kids accustomed to fast food sometimes turn up their noses when offered home-cooked meals, making parents wonder why they bothered, Hassink said. “Parents feel, ‘I’m exhausted. I cooked a meal. And they want fast food.’ ”
Kids are often more willing to try foods if they help cook, Taub-Dix said. Kids who help grow parsley in an herb garden may be more willing to put it on their plates.
Taub-Dix noted that many fast-food restaurants offer healthier options, allowing customers to substitute a piece of fruit for french fries. She suggests choosing healthier foods — such as grilled chicken, instead of fried.
“Not everything comes with a toy, but there are healthier options,” Taub-Dix said. “Parents can buy a toy themselves and give them healthier options that don’t come with a toy.”