About A Third Of U.S. Kids And Teens Ate Fast Food Today

Sep 17, 2015
Originally published on September 21, 2015 12:06 am

Fast food is an undeniable part of American culture. We've probably all encountered the McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" jingle and the white-goateed Colonel Sanders of KFC at least once, if not hundreds, of times.

The big fast-food chains market their foods to us constantly. And our children see, on average, three to five fast-food ads per day.

So perhaps the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new findings shouldn't come as a surprise.

"About 34 percent of all children and adolescents, aged 2 to 19, consume fast food on a given day," says Cheryl Fryar of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

In other words, every day about 1 in 3 kids in the U.S. is chowing down on fries, burgers, pizza or other fast-food favorites.

And despite all the promptings to eat more healthfully, this rate of fast-food consumption hasn't budged in the past 15 years.

So even if McDonald's bottom line is hurting right now, it seems Americans' overall appetite for fast food is as strong as ever. The CDC has found that adult consumption of fast food mirrors what it is seeing in kids.

Part of the appeal is price. For example, a burger or ice cream off the dollar or value menu is cheap. And c'mon, admit it: French fries can be hard to resist. Fast-food menus are geared to our most basic desires.

"We're programmed to seek sweet and salty foods, and fast food knows how to pander to those cravings," says pediatrician Stephen Pont at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, who is chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on obesity.

And once kids have a habit of eating these foods, it's hard to break it.

"A particular challenge with teenagers is that they all feel invincible, and they're not as sensitive to the long-term impacts of [diet] on their health," Pont says.

So it seems fast food's trifecta of marketing, affordability and taste has a hold on America's youth. And even as fast-food giant McDonald's is increasingly competing with fast-casual chains such as Five Guys and Chipotle, the basic formula remains the same.

"I think it speaks to how big a role fast food plays in how we eat in America," says Julia Wolfson, a doctoral student and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Shifting our preferences away from salt, sugar and fat is no small task.

But, Wolfson says, there seems to be some progress. She points to evidence that the major fast-food chains are trying to make their menus more healthful.

McDonald's, for instance, downsized its Happy Meal portions. And it has introduced new kinds of salads and added kale to its breakfast bowls in some locations.

As we've reported, Wolfson's research points to changes across the board. "We have found that fast-food restaurants have been introducing new menu items that are on average 60 calories lower than old menu items," Wolfson says.

Wolfson says if this trend continues, it could make a difference.

Kids are eating about 190 calories per day in fast-food calories. So if you think about shaving 60 calories off, "that's a good chunk out of the total."

Of course, there's lots of room for improvement.

There are still lots of sugary drinks, double burgers and dollar desserts to tempt us — and our offspring.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fast food is an American invention and an enduring part of American culture. How enduring? Well, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that consumption of fast food by U.S. children has remained stubbornly high. That's according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control, and it is despite efforts to get people to eat healthier meals.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: How many American kids are eating fast food every day? Here's the CDC's Cheryl Fryar.

CHERYL FRYAR: About 34 percent of all children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 consumed fast food on a given day.

AUBREY: In other words, every day, about 1 in 3 kids is chowing down on fries, burgers or pizza. And here's the thing. This is the same as it's been for over a decade. And something else that hasn't changed...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Bah-duh-bah-bah-bah. I'm lovin' it.

AUBREY: Mcdonald's ads are everywhere. Same with Taco Bell, Burger King and KFC. They're masters of marketing, especially to children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now that there's a 3-D action cup from "The LEGO Movie," rated PG, in your McDonald's Happy Meal.

AUBREY: That gets the kids in the door. For parents, it's price. It's hard to eat out for less.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A mouthwatering double cheeseburger and small fries for just two-fifty.

AUBREY: Pediatrician Stephen Pont says this food is also geared to our most basic desires.

STEPHEN PONT: We're programmed to see sweet and salty foods, and fast food knows exactly how to pander to those cravings.

AUBREY: Pont serves as chair of the section on obesity at the American Academy of Pediatrics, and he says when he talks to his own patients about the downside of eating too much fast food, it can be hard to get through.

PONT: A particular challenge with teenagers is that they all feel invincible, and they're not as sensitive to the long term impacts on their health.

AUBREY: This trifecta of marketing, affordability and flavor seems to have a hold on America's taste buds, and it's part of the reason why experts like Julia Wolfson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aren't surprised by the new CDC number.

JULIA WOLFSON: I think it speaks to how big a role fast food does play in the way we eat in America.

AUBREY: She says shifting people's eating preferences away from the salt, sugar and fat we desire is no small task, but she says there is some progress. Turns out, some of the major players in fast food are trying to make their menus healthier. McDonalds, for example, shrunk the portion sizes in Happy Meals, and there are other changes across the board.

WOLFSON: We have found in a couple of studies that fast food restaurants have been introducing new menu items that are, on average, about 60 calories lower than old menu items.

AUBREY: Wolfson says if this trend continues, it could make a difference, even if kids keep eating fast food.

WOLFSON: Kids, on average, are eating about 190 or so calories per day in fast food restaurants. And so if you think about that, 60 calories is a good chunk out of that total.

AUBREY: But even with healthier options on the menu, kids can still choose from plenty of sugary drinks and dollar desserts. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.