By M. Renee Edwards
There is growing alarm across the nation in relation to the ever-increasing number of our children being diagnosed as obese. But just how much of the problem is the result of the American lifestyle, one that embraces fast food meals over home cooked ones? And just how concerned should parents be?
Let’s look at the facts. Today, almost all fast food chains offer some type of “kids” meal, one that usually includes the smallest serving possible of the chain’s popular items. McDonald’s, for example, offers “Happy meals,” which consist of a burger (or cheeseburger or 4 chicken nuggets), a small French fries, a small drink and a toy. It is very popular. In addition, most chains also offer a “big kids meal,” ideally targeting the 8-10 year olds, and it replaces the single serving burgers and nuggets with either a double cheese or regular size burger, or 6 nuggets.
This is a concern that bears close scrutiny, according to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, who said, “Fast food companies are serving extremely high-fat food to people who are at the greatest risk of the health consequences from obesity [especially low-income families]. They could be selling low-cost food that doesn’t have the same health consequences, especially for children. The fast-food chains are creating eating habits that will last a lifetime.”
The habits in question include larger portion sizes that are outside the scope of what research has shown it is possible for our bodies to process properly. Yet, fast food manufacturers seemingly are unconcerned with the health of our children. In fact, Schlosser relates a story recounting the speech of a fast-food executive who, while extolling his colleagues of the profits of the previous year, had these comments to make: “As if things weren’t good enough, consumers also dropped all pretense of wanting healthy food.” He went on to explain that a 2001 survey showed that Americans’ concerns about fat, salt and food additives – the very things that make fast food taste good – were at their lowest since 1982. Of course, his colleagues exploded with applause.
Schlosser counters the tale with the information that the meat purchased by fast food chains is probably better than what you can get at the market. The reason for this, he says, is that the fast food industry helped industrialize our meat production system, and as a result, contributed to food safety problems. The same fast food chains demand tougher food safety rules to govern their purchases, and the same specifications are not required by the USDA for the ground beef shipped to retail supermarkets, meaning fast food chains get the cleanest beef.
Schlosser suggests that although fast-food companies are not solely to blame for the increase in the size of our youth, they have definitely played a substantial role. There can be no discounting this role – in countries where there is little fast food, such as Italy or Spain, there has been little change in the obesity rates of their young. Yet in the countries where American fast-food chains have flourished, like Japan and England, their childhood obesity rates have risen right along with the Americans.
There are other points of view. While not discounting Schlosser work and opinions, author and nutritionist Ellyn Satter warns that the reasons why U.S. children are fat should not be oversimplified. The author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, Satter says, “In fact, children are great regulators of what they eat. Let be, they will eat what they need of any food, whether it’s high fat, low fat or high sugar.”
Satter objects more to the hurried nature of fast-food meals than to the meals themselves. Maybe with good reason. It is well-established that it takes around 20 minutes for our brains and stomachs to let each other know that we have eaten enough and are full. Because children are so often blissfully unaware of time, they more often than not eat their entire meal in less than 20 minutes, including second helpings. Thus, the risk of their overeating is great.
Satter says that if we slow down our meals, we are able to focus on what we are eating. This focus can lead parents to an awareness that fast-food meals are possibly not nutritious or wholesome enough for the needs of their growing children.
Occasional fast-food meals are not reason for parents to carry guilt, Satter says. “The most important thing at the table for a child is the parents. It’s a chance to sit down together and for the child to get attention and be heard,” she adds.
Do your homework. Make your child’s meals as wholesome and tasty as possible. But remember also that your child has to live in this fast-good world, and if you completely deny them fast food, they’ll gorge on it when you’re not looking. Just as you have to dole out sweets with care to regulate sugar intake, regulate their fast-food exposure. They’ll live longer for it.