Even if you don’t want fries with that kids’ meal, chances are your fast food restaurant entices you to give it to your child. The top chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King offer unhealthy sides and drinks 84 percent of the time rather than encouraging their more nutritionally sound offerings like apple slices, baby carrots, and yogurt, according to an analysis released by researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Out of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations, only 12 meet the researchers’ nutrition criteria for preschoolers and barely 15 meet the nutritional needs for older children. At the same time, the fast food industry has stepped up its efforts to promote these high fat, high sodium, fiber free foods to children. For example, 56 percent more ads for Subway were directed at preschool aged children, while 21 percent more ads for McDonald’s and 9 percent more ads for Burger King were pitched to children as compared to the advertising campaigns pitched in 2007. Mostly, the children are bombarded with images of snacks and desserts—with at least two advertisements daily promoting unhealthy menu items.
The report reinforces concerns raised about the rising rates of obesity among children. As fast food marketing efforts become more aggressive, children are more likely to see a regular routine of French fries and a doubledecker cheese burger, observe the Rudd Center researchers. The excessive calories are expected to contribute to increasing waistlines. And, childhood obesity isn’t a short-term problem: Obese teens are 16 times more likely than their peers to become severely obese by age 30, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association .
“Severe obesity can lead to diabetes, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, and a shorter life,” says tudy co-author Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “It’s very easy to eat a high-calorie, high-fat diet,” she says. “We have so much food around—high-fat, high-sugar, tasty food that we need to be very careful of. Those foods are marketed well to people, and making healthier choices takes a lot more work.”
Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living at the National Restaurant Association, said in a press statement, “Numerous surveys show the increasing number of healthful options in kids’ meals. And nutritious offerings in childrens’ meals is the number one food trend in [fast food] restaurants.”
Just the same, the Rudd Center researchers analyzed the calories, fat, sugar, and sodium in more than 3,000 possible combinations that chains market as kids’ meals. The meals were then ranked as “best” and “worst” based on guidelines issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent scientific advisory panel. Preschool children should consume no more than 410 calories and 544 milligrams of sodium per meal, according to the IOM, compared to 650 calories and 636 milligrams of sodium for elementary school children, and 700 calories and 720 milligrams of sodium for older children. Only 12 kids’ meal combos met the IOM’s nutrition criteria for preschoolers, while 15 met the criteria for elementary kids. Another 20 combos met kids’ calorie goals, but were too high in at least one area, like sodium, and just 36, or 1%, of kids’ meal combos were ranked as “best”, based on the Rudd study.
The vast majority of kid’s meals were rated in the “worst” category since they were all “equally bad,” says Jennifer Harris, Phd, MBA, Rudd Center study leader.
Parents are encouraged to avoid the worst three kids’ meals at each restaurant, and to order any of the “best” options, which are listed below in order of ranking from best to least recommended.
Best:Veggie Delite sandwich on wheat bread (no cheese); apple slices. Calories: 285; Salt: 295 mg; Saturated fat: 0 Worst: None. Available milk and 100 % juice, apples and yogurt. All sandwiches are all pretty low in fat
Best: Macaroni and cheese; apple “fries” (without caramel sauce); fat-free milk. Calories: 285; Salt: 490 mg; Saturated fat: 14 calories; Worst: Cheeseburger; French fries; Dr. Pepper: Calories: 635l Salt: 1,106 mg; SF: 86 calories