Filling up fast?

I saw a report on the Wall Street Journal’s health blog that 84 percent of parents who have a 2- to 11-year-old take their child to a fast food “restaurant” at least once a week. My first reaction was horror. My second reaction was to ask myself, “Why exactly am I so horrified?”

I mean, eating a fast food meal once a week is not then end of the world. Assuming (conservatively) that you eat three meals a day, that adds up to 21 meals a week. One fast food meal means 20 meals that are not fast food.

And then I got real. First, please note the “at least.” That means some, probably many, kids are eating these high-calorie, high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, low-nutrient meals more than once a week.

Fast food establishments try to give themselves an “aura of health” by offering healthier menu options like salads and whatnot, don’t kid yourself. Most adults are not ordering salads instead of burgers, and most kids are not getting apple slices instead of French fries. As the Huffington Post pointed out:

“While fast food chains such as McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King have made great strides to bolster healthy eating options, servers rarely present them to parents, the study found. Startlingly, in a sample of over 250 fast food restaurants, when ordering a kids’ meal parents were offered a healthy option only 6-8 percent of the time.” 

In fact, I read one study over a year ago that found that a decent number of adults actually go to fast food places because of the newer, “healthier” choices, only to end up deciding to go with the big greasy combo meal once they are actually approaching the register.

Fries or salad with that?

I also know that we human mortals are creatures of habit and routine. If stopping at fast food places is part of your routine, at least occasionally, it is much, much easier to not only keep going back, but to go more often because you are tired, or busy, or you know your kitchen is a mess and you can’t face actually cooking in it.

That’s one reason I avoid the places like the plague. I think I’ve averaged one visit a year over the last several years, and I actually did order salads (to be fair, each of the fast food big boys does have at least one really good, and healthy, salad on their menus…you just have to dodge the ones that pack on the unhealthy “extras.”). I get my burger fix at home, or at real restaurant. I’ll take Cafe Campagne’s lamb burger with grilled balsamic onions, pommes frites and aioli anytime over a cheap, mass-produced BK or McD offering anytime, thank you. And I do, about once a year.

Sure an occasional fast food meal is fine if it’s rare, if the rest of what you put on your plate is giving you the nutrition you need to be healthy and energetic. Unfortunately, that scenario is very likely the exception, and not the rule. Don’t agree? Think about this country’s obesity statistics, and then get back to me.

I worry about little children in their formative years getting too many calories from non-nutritious fast food. Ditto for people who are of an age when preventing heart disease, cancer and whatnot becomes an issue. This age is way lower than you might think, considering that teenagers are developing high blood pressure, clogged arteries and type 2 (“adult onset”) diabetes.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, fried potatoes (aka French fries) account for 46 percent of the total vegetable consumption for kids ages 2-18. That is not a lot of variety, and eating a variety of vegetables helps you get the nutrients you need for good health. While potatoes are technically a vegetable, and yes, do have nutrients, they are best viewed as a starch, much as you would view rice, pasta or bread. In fact, the United Kingdom’s National Health Services specifically does not count potatoes toward the recommended five servings a day.

The survey referenced by the WSJ was done by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. Concerned about what your own, or other people’s, kids are eating? The Rudd Center has another great website, Fast Food F.A.C.T.S., full of information about how fact food companies market their products to kids and teens. Check it out.

Photo: © Dmitry Maslov | Dreamstime.com