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Fast Food Leads Teens to Overeat

Lean Adolescents, but Not Overweight Teens, Tend to Compensate and Eat Less Later
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WebMD Health News

June 15, 2004 -- Are those super-sized fast food meals really to blame for the supersizing of America's kids? The debate continues, but new research offers some of the best direct evidence yet that they are at least part of the problem.

Researchers found that all teens tended to overeat when served a typical "extra-large" fast food meal, but normal-weight teenagers were more likely than overweight teens to make up for the overindulgence by eating less later on. The findings are reported in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Overweight teens averaged a whopping 400 extra calories on days when they ate one meal at a fast food restaurant, says researcher Cara B. Ebbeling, PhD.

"Overweight kids tend to be less able to compensate for the extra calories in a fast food meal," she tells WebMD. "These findings provide a basis for how fast food could promote excess weight gain."

Food Fight

Fast food consumption in the U.S. has risen by 500% during the last three decades, while the number of children who are obese has tripled.

While many nutritionists say the growth in popularity of fast food is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic in America, industry supporters counter that there is little scientific evidence to prove this.

The popularity of the documentary Super Size Me, which is now in theaters, has raised the debate to deafening levels. In it, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but Big Macs and other McDonald's fare for 30 days and claimed it left him more than 20 pounds heavier and a physical wreck. Fast food industry spokespeople charge that the experiment was far from scientific, and they say they are offering a wider variety of healthy food options than ever before.

The Research

In a prior study, published early last year, Ebbeling and colleagues first reported kids who eat fast food tend to take in more total calories in a day than those who do not. Their research showed that on any given day, a third of the children in the U.S. eat fast food, and that the additional calories could account for an extra 6 pounds of weight gain per year.

Their new research consisted of two studies designed to assess the impact of fast food consumption on total calorie intake among both overweight and lean teenagers. In the first study 26 overweight teens and 27 normal-weight teens were taken to a food court and served a super-sized McDonald's meal, consisting of nine chicken nuggets, extra-large fries, a 20-ounce cola, and two individual bags of cookies. The meal lasted for an hour, and the teens could ask for extra portions if they wanted them.

Researchers found that both groups overate during the meal, taking in an average of 1,652 calories, or 61% of their total daily calorie requirements just from this one meal. The overweight teens ate approximately 400 more calories than the lean teens did.

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