Yet eating fast food is a major American habit: At least one quarter of adults eat fast food daily, as do 25 - 30 percent of kids.
Fast food meals typically serve big portions of calorically dense food, rich in fat and sugar and quite aptly labeled “fiberless food”. The typical kids’ meal in fast food chains is no better – the main distinction of the young ones’ fare is the addition of the collectable toy.
Fast-food restaurants publicize (and are often applauded for) their move to healthier oils, and many have revamped their menu and now include a few healthier options, such as salads and apple slices (both accompanied by condiments that return guilt into the equation). But do kids and their parents order the ‘better’ menu options?
What kids actually eat at McDonald’s
A new study in Childhood Obesity collected the receipts and interviewed 544 families with kids visiting the McDonald franchise inside the Children’s Hospital of San Diego for lunch.
Let me pause for a moment to comment on the presence of a McDonald franchise inside a children’s hospital, which feels like a great endorsement from a major medical institution. I assure you that no reputable medical authority has ever given McDonald’s its blessing, yet San Diego’s Children’s Hospital is not alone in hosting a fast-food joint. Children’s hospital of Philadelphia, considered by some the No 1 children’s hospital in the nation, had a McDonald’s for 34 years -- it closed a few weeks ago because the hospital needed the space -- Children’s Los Angeles has a McDonald’s on its first floor, as does Texas Children’s.
So what’s for lunch? The most frequent items bought for preschoolers (2-5 years) were French fries, soda, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and hamburgers. The most frequent items for kids 6-11 years were French fries, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, soda and apple pie. Adolescents’ choices centered on French fries, soda, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and chocolate chip cookies.
Less than 1 percent of kids bought the yogurt parfait, and apple dippers were bought by less than 1 percent of preschoolers, 3.5 percent of 6-11 year-olds, and almost none of the teens (0.3 percent).
And now to the calorie count: The average caloric content bought for kids’ lunch was 646-811 calories, which makes about half of the daily caloric need of a young kid.
The meals averaged 35-39 percent of calories from fat, with about 10 percent of that fat saturated.
The sodium content of the meals averaged 866-1100 mg, which pretty much covers the daily sodium allowance of a preschooler.
The parents were asked what made them choose McDonald's for lunch, and the most common reasons for their pick were “the kids like the food” and its convenience.
Better options at fast food restaurants – a remote option
This study confirms what we already know: Customers go to McDonalds for fries, hamburgers and soda, not for milk and salad. A recent article by Christina Rexrode of the The Associated Press sums up the healthier options at fast food chains as just that – a remote option. What really sells is the high calorie, high fat food, which the chains are famous for. And the reasons are varied, but one of them is price: “Healthier foods also are usually among the most expensive menu items, which can be tough for recession-weary customers to stomach”.
Let’s face it, McDonalds isn’t renowned for its salads and apples, and as the kids in this study testify, they’re ‘lovin’ it’ for the taste they know -- it's the McDonald's fat-salt-sugar mixture they crave.
And it would have been fine, had it remained an infrequent indulgence. Problem is, kids are eating fast food often. Very often.