On any given day, almost one-third of U.S. kids ages 4 to 19 order and eat fast foods, according to a new study on fast food habits and obesity in children.*
There's more disheartening news. On any given day, children who eat fast foods - burgers, fries, shakes, and the like - take in an average 187 more calories than kids who do not eat fast foods. These extra calories could translate into an additional six pounds of weight gain in a year, estimates the study's lead author Dr. Shanthy A. Bowman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland.
The study, published in Pediatrics, was based on dietary intake data from 6,212 kids and teens living across the United States, part of the USDA Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, 1994-1996, and the Supplemental Children's Survey, 1998.
Overall, notes Dr. Bowman and co-authors, from Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, children who ate fast food consumed more total calories, more calories per gram of food, more fat, more added sugars, and more sugar-sweetened drinks than other children. The fast-food eaters also consumed less fiber, less milk, fewer fruits, and fewer vegetables.
This data adds fuel to the current belief among many public health scientists that America's fast food habit has contributed to the country's obesity epidemic. In the late 1970s, children got just two percent of their overall calories from fast food, and back then, only about one in 18 kids was overweight. By the mid 1990s, 10% of kids' daily meals came from fast foods, and today about one in seven children is overweight.
In this same period, the number of fast food restaurants in the U.S. more than doubled - to an estimated 250,000.
In an accompany editorial in the same issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Kelly Brownell of Yale University described the massive public relations campaigns by fast foods and soft drink giants that downplay - and even deny - the effects of their products on children's growing waistlines.
In July 2003, for example, the U.S. National Chamber of Commerce released a report on fast food and obesity, saying: "This study finds that fast food restaurants are not a chief culprit in the fattening across the country." Of course, points out Dr. Brownell, "fast food companies are involved in chambers of commerce across the country.
"With billions of dollars at stake, the food industry may find it difficult to take an objective position on their products." Just recently, for example, the National Soft Drink Association announced, with absolutely no equivocation, that "soft drinks do not cause pediatric obesity and do not reduce nutrient density."
But, Dr. Brownell writes, "mounting science" is making such statements harder and harder to defend.
* Pediatrics, 2004; 113: 112-118.