Almost one third of U.S. kids eat fast food on any given day, downing extra calories, sugar and fat in the process, a national study shows.
Researchers say their findings give weight to the notion that Americans' love of fast food has contributed to the nation's obesity epidemic. The study, based on national nutrition surveys from the 1990s, found that on a typical day, more than 30 percent of U.S. kids ages 4 to 19 ate burgers, fries and other fast-food fare.
On any given day, children who ate fast food consumed an average of 187 more calories than did those who didn't eat such food. And, on average, a child ate 126 extra calories on the days he ate fast food, compared with fast food-free days. These extra calories could translate into an additional 6 pounds of weight gain in a year, the study authors estimate.
The study included a nationally representative sample of 6,212 children and teens. It found that boys, older kids and children who were black, of higher-income families, or from the South were most likely to eat fast food. Overall, children who ate fast food ingested more calories, added sugars, "bad" fats, and carbohydrates, while getting less fiber, fruits and vegetables, and milk than other children.
Researchers have known that excess weight and obesity in the U.S. have risen in parallel with consumption of fast food. For example, in the late 1970s, children got about two percent of their overall calories from fast food; by the mid-1990s, that figure had jumped to 10 percent. But there's been surprisingly little hard data tying fast-food consumption to the nation's weight problem.
The researchers' advice to parents is to emphasize fruits and vegetables in their children's diets and to limit sugary beverages, a major source of empty calories. If the family does go on a fast-food outing, she said, parents should limit portion sizes - no "super-sizing" - or choose salads or more healthful fare over burgers and fries.
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