The billions of dollars spent on marketing and the proliferation of fast food restaurants over the last several decades have essentially programmed many of us to frequent fast food restaurants. Whether we're short on time, traveling, have many mouths to feed or simply want to settle our stress, a burger and fries has come to epitomize the ultimate—and affordable—comfort food fix for parents and children alike.
Although eating fast food is not the sole cause of current high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet-related diseases, it is likely a key contributor—especially among children. Studies suggest that children who eat more fast food tend to take in more calories and fewer nutrients than those who consume less or no fast food. Including more fast food in the diet may be a marker for less healthful habits overall. Perhaps families who eat a lot of fast food have fewer home-cooked, family meals and eat more often—and less nutritiously—when they're on the go than those who eat less or no fast food.
Despite calls for smaller portions and more nutritious fare at fast food chains by health advocates—registered dietitians, physicians and organizations including the Washington, D.C.-based Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)—there's evidence that fast food won't become health food anytime soon. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the menus of eight popular fast food chains over a 14-year period and found only modest improvements in the nutritional quality of menu offerings.
In the study's press release, Margo G. Wootan, DSc, of the CSPI says, "This tiny increase is disappointing, and a bit surprising, given the many pronouncements by companies that they have added healthier menu options, switched to healthier cooking fats, are reducing sodium, and are touting other changes in company press releases and advertising."
Another recent study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who ate from Subway—a chain marketed as a "healthy" one—ordered meals with just as many calories (though they had more vegetables) as those from McDonald's. Researchers concluded that meals from both restaurants are likely to contribute to overeating among teens.
As a registered dietitian and nutritionist who advocates an "all foods can fit" approach to eating, I have always allowed my sons, who are now 14 and 11 years-old, to have occasional fast food meals. They love cheeseburgers and French fries (admittedly, so do I, though I don't have either often). But in many ways, I regret having ever introduced my children to fast food in the first place.
Because we live in an environment that encourages overconsumption of nutrient-poor foods (including fast foods and desserts) in oversized portions, from the get-go, we parents have our work cut out for us. The chips (or should I say the fries) are stacked against us when it comes to raising healthy eaters. But instead of giving into temptation, we can take steps to help children at any age--but especially when they're young and make few food decisions—develop more healthful eating habits and food preferences. Exposing them to a variety of nutritious foods that are minimally processed, serving foods in appropriate portions, and limiting nutrient-poor foods are small steps we can take to help our children learn to appreciate the tastes, textures and flavors of healthful foods. It may also reduce the likelihood they'll get hooked on less healthy options.
I'm not saying an occasional order of French fries, an ice cream cone or a slice of birthday cake can't fit into an otherwise healthful diet. But teaching children the difference between everyday foods and once-in-a-while foods is an important lesson. And when you think about it, eating fast food is not much different than eating out at any restaurant. I'd argue that most restaurants tend to overfeed and undernourish us. New studies suggest that we may consume even more calories when dining at sit-down restaurants than when grabbing fast food. So whether we go for fast food, go out to eat or grab takeout, we need to ask for nutritious foods that are prepared in healthful ways and to make sure we eat them in portions that are appropriate for our age and stage of life--and not in the portions that are usually served. And we need to teach our children to do the same.
In a perfect world, fast food would be less pervasive and more healthful. It would provide us with the convenience and comfort many of us need and want with fewer calories, less saturated fat and less sodium. If you choose to give your children fast food, you shouldn't feel guilt. But proceed with caution, and make sure you include it as a once-in-a-while treat rather than a dietary staple. And if you just say no to fast food, bravo! Kids just don't need fast food calories to crowd out other options that support their overall nutrient intake and contribute to their overall health and sense of well being.
Although my children are fit, are at healthy body weights, and have relatively good eating habits, it's too late for me to undo those first trips through the drive-thru. But perhaps you will reconsider the role fast food has—if any—in your family's diet.
How do you feel about fast food?
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
Image of kid boy eating a delicious hamburger via Shutterstock.