girl eating burger

Most kids and teens eat the calorie equivalent of one small McDonald’s hamburger per day.

According to a new CDC study, up to one-third of children in the United States eat fast food every day – receiving 12 percent of their caloric intake from the drive-through. That’s the equivalent of a child eating a small McDonald’s hamburger for lunch seven days a week.

Fast food is considered high in calories and low in nutrients, and it is often blamed for contributing to the rise in childhood obesity rates. “Kids are consuming more fast food than needed, and this is really a testament to the marketing strength of the fast-food industry,” said David Leal, a diabetes health educator and nutritionist with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center.

For the study, the CDC asked roughly 31,000 children from age two to age 19 – or their parents – what they ate during the previous 24 hours. This survey was completed in 2011 and 2012.

The CDC report found:

  • Teenagers consume more fast food than younger children. In fact, adolescents receive 17 percent of their daily calories from fast food compared to nine percent in younger children.
  • Income levels did not make a difference. Kids from wealthy families consumed just as much fast food as those from low-income households.
  • The study did not release calorie totals, but other government research indicates kids consume 1900 calories per day. This means children average about 245 of their daily calories from fast food.

Leal noted these findings aren’t surprising. “Parents are working harder than ever to provide for their families and even the most health-minded, well-meaning parent will succumb to the convenience of running by the drive-through window to save time,” he said.

Adolescents and teenagers often have more autonomy than younger children, which makes it easier for them to indulge in a pizza for lunch or dinner. However, teaching young children to make healthy decisions can still be a struggle.

According to Leal, sometimes it’s much easier for a parent to give their children the food they want instead of fielding a dispute at the dinner table. “Parenting is not an easy job, and it’s often a daily battle to get kids to eat healthy foods and vegetables. It takes a lot of energy.”

Leal emphasized the amount of high-calorie sugary beverages consumed by children is just as harmful as their fast food intake. “It’s important for kids to limit or avoid sugary beverages. Even drinking a glass of fruit juice can be as bad as drinking a soda,” he said.

With the obesity rate in America skyrocketing – from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012 – cutting empty calories is important. “It wouldn’t matter nearly as much that kids get 12 percent of their calories from fast food as long as their calorie intake wasn’t in excess of the requirement,” Leal said. “Any child who consumes more calories than necessary will gain weight quickly.”

— Lauren Thompson

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