Childhood Nutrition: A Closer Look at Popular Food Chains

Key Takeaways:

  • Many popular restaurant chains offer food for children that lack nutritional value and may contain high levels of calories, unhealthy fats and salt.
  • Nutritionally poor meals can have a delayed harmful impact on children’s health, potentially contributing to an increase in overweight and obese youth.
  • About a third of children’s calorie intake comes from restaurant chains, with evidence suggesting that eating out can lead to children consuming nearly twice as many calories as compared to eating at home.
  • Despite many restaurant chains offering unhealthy meals for children, some positive trends were observed such as the introduction of healthier, lower-calorie entrees, and accompaniments of fresh vegetables or applesauce.
  • Providing nutritional information on menus and instilling healthy eating habits at home were suggested as ways to improve children’s dietary choices when eating out.

Various popular table-service restaurant chains in the country are not performing well when it comes to offering nutrition-rich food options for children, according to a recent study.

A Study on Kids’ Nutrition at Restaurants

The study, performed by a reputed scientific centre in public interest, indicates that these restaurants’ meals for kids lack nutritional value and might be even worse than fast-food offerings. It discovered a copious amount of calories, unhealthy fats and high salt levels within children’s menu items at restaurants like those compared to fast food chains.

Permanent staff nutritionist at a renowned medical center in New York City, Samantha Heller, unassociated with the study, commented, “The meals are shockingly laden with trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium.” She further stated that letting children consume this type of food is akin to playing with their health in the long-term.

The Dangers of Poor Nutrition in Kids’ Meals

Heller articulated that these meals may taste good but comprise junk food items whose detrimental impact will only be visible years down the line. This delayed effect belies the harm being done, leading to disregard for the potential health risks.

A gloomy forecast arises from this for the increasingly overweight and obese younger population. The past couple of decades have seen a near doubling of overweight and obese youth, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Furthermore, it’s estimated that a third of kids’ calorie intake comes from such restaurant chains. Research suggests that eating out results in children consuming almost twice as many calories as compared to eating at home.

An Industry Response

In answer to the study, the National Restaurant Association stated: “We offer a plethora of options to suit all types of diets – low calorie, vegetarian, South Beach, Atkins and more. We use a variety of cooking methods – grilling, baking, poaching, broiling, steaming – to accommodate the dietary needs of our consumers.”

They also emphasized the importance of a balanced diet, complemented by physical activity for healthier living. They maintain that there is no concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food, and all food can be included in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

Diving Deeper into the Findings

In the study, kids’ menus at 20 such leading table-service chains were reviewed. Menu offerings such as complimentary biscuits or cornbread and dessert were found in various restaurants. Popular choices, like hamburgers, were present on 85 percent of the surveyed menus. Only one restaurant did not have fries on their menu for kids.

A broad spectrum of menu items made the daily nutritional need in a single meal. Critically, some kid’s meals were even unhealthier than adult offerings.

Positive Takeaways

There were a few light moments in the study. For instance, a few of the chains started offering lower-cal, healthier entrees, like Grilled Chicken, Snow Crab Legs and Grilled Mahi-Mahi, paired with steamed vegetables. Some provided a free appetizer of fresh veggies or applesauce.

Health nutrition differences across items in different restaurants led the study to call for mandating nutritional information display on the menus. Efforts are on in five states along with the District of Columbia to introduce legislation in this regard.

The power to effect change not only rests with the authorities, but also with consumers. Emphasizing on the importance of healthy eating habits at home, Heller suggests that we can shape our children’s food choices when eating out.

Find out more

If you’re interested in the full report on children’s restaurant menus, visit this link. For more on children’s nutrition, check out the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

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