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Fast Food Creates Fat Kids

Kids Can Gain 6 Pounds a Year From Fast Food
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 5, 2004 -- When kids eat fast food, they eat more food all day long, a new study shows.

In fact, on any given day, nearly one-third of the nation's children eat fast food -- that includes boys and girls in all racial and ethnic groups, and in all regions of the country.

Over a year's time, a child can pack on 6 extra pounds because of high fast food consumption, writes researcher Shanthy A. Bowman, PhD, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Bellsville, Md. Her study appears in this month's issue of Pediatrics.

The fats, sugar, and salt in fast food draw kids like a magnet, largely because they appeal to a child's "primordial tastes," explains Bowman. This taste triggers more eating later in the day. And, because fast food doesn't contain much fiber, kids don't feel full afterward -- so they eat more later.

Large portion sizes served in fast-food restaurants further contribute to overeating and obesity, she notes.

Fast food compromises a child's overall diet because it takes the places of better options, Bowman says. "Children who ate fast food ... consumed more sugar-sweetened beverages, less milk, and fewer fruits and nonstarchy vegetables." These protect against weight gain because they have more fiber, less sugar, and fewer calories.

"The food industry claims their products are not the primary cause of obesity," writes Yale psychologist Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, in an accompanying editorial. "The nation's children deserve protection from damaging forces."

Fast Food Triggers More Eating

More than 6,000 children and adolescents took part in the nationwide study, completing surveys about food they ate during a typical week.

Researchers found that, on a typical day:

  • 30% of children ate fast food.
  • Fast food was the main food source for 29 to 38% of children.
  • Among 4- to 8-year-olds, those who ate fast food ate 6% more food the rest of the day than kids who didn't eat fast food.
  • Among 14- to 10-year-olds, fast-food eaters ate 17% more than other kids.
  • On average, fast-food eaters ate 15% more calories than other kids.

Researchers also compared each child's diet on fast-food and non-fast-food days. Compared with kids that did not eat fast food, fast food eaters ate an average of 187 more calories a day. Among kids that ate fast food on some days, they ate 126 calories more calories on days when they ate fast food.

"Children and adolescents who ate fast food ... consumed more total and saturated fat, more total carbohydrate and added sugars, less dietary fiber, and more [calories]," writes Bowman.

Fast food seemed to contribute an additional 57 calories a day to the average child's daily diet, she reports.

At that rate, the child would gain 6 pounds each year -- if they didn't get enough exercise to burn it off, she says.

Other studies show similar results, Bowman says. She advocates limiting the marketing of fast food to children.

Efforts are underway to remove "fast food, snack food, and soft drinks from schools, curbing food advertising directed at children, and enhancing opportunities for physical activity," Brownell explains.

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