More than a third of America’s children and adolescents have probably consumed fast food today. That’s according to a new report released by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the September 2015 data brief, researchers examined data from 2011 and 2012 and found that over 12 percent of our kids’ daily calories came from fast food. Thirty-four percent of children and adolescents from ages two to 19 years old consume fast food on any given day.
This alarming number is trumped only by the 12.1 percent of American kids who obtained more than 40 percent of their calories each day from fast food. In a time when we’re concerned about health problems linked to obesity, weight gain and high blood pressure, kids as young as two years old are eating significant quantities of food that is detrimental to their health. Why are we seeing this trend? It’s likely due to a couple of different factors.
Marketing targets kids
Sandra Hassink, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told USA Today that marketing plays a key role in fast food appeal. “It’s very well-advertised, and the marketing is working,” she told the news outlet.
In November 2013, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity published its report “Fast Food FACTS 2013: Measuring Progress in Nutrition and Marketing to Children and Teens,” which seems to reinforce Hassink’s statement. The report states that “on average, US preschoolers viewed 2.8 fast food ads on TV every day in 2012, children (6-11 years) viewed 3.2 ads per day, and teens viewed 4.8 ads per day.” McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Domino’s, Yum! Brands — the parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC — and Wendy’s produced over 70 percent of these ads. The only bright side to this report is that research shows that fewer ads are specifically targeting teens than the previous report published in 2010.
Convenience over price
Not only is fast food being marketed to kids, but it’s also convenient for families. The report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) states, “No significant differences in caloric intake from fast food were noted by sex, poverty status, or weight loss.” In fact, despite moves to lower the cost of fresh, healthy food, there’s a large amount of evidence that it’s the convenience factor, and not price, that plays a larger role in food choice.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) struggled to eat diets that were as nutritious as income-eligible nonparticipants and people of higher incomes. However, it didn’t have anything to do with the number of calories consumed.
“Daily caloric, macronutrient, and micronutrient intake of SNAP participants did not differ systematically from those of income-eligible nonparticipants,” the study said. Using the Healthy Eating Index to measure nutritional quality, the study found that both children and adult participants consistently ate less healthy food than other people.
Lead author Tatiana Andreyeva told The Washington Post that SNAP participants “don’t eat nearly enough fruits or vegetables, and they consume too many fats and sugars.” As The Washington Post article points out, lower-income individuals and families may be pressed for time. For such families, highly processed, convenience food makes more sense in terms of time management.
Part of the solution may not be easy, but it is simple. Meal planning and getting kids involved in their own nutrition seem to be instrumental in helping kids make better diet decisions. Taking time to prep meals and snacks helps children eat well. Getting them involved during mealtimes gives kids a sense of pride in their meals, and nothing beats family time, not even a fast food meal with a fun toy. Organizations like Common Vision are working not only to provide kids with better options but also to foster positive relationships with healthy life choices.
We’d love to hear about other ways of inspiring kids to eat healthy food. How do you help the kids in your life make better food choices?
—The Alternative Daily