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Survey Links Fast Food, Poor Nutrition Among U.S. Children

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
January 5, 2004

A collaborative study conducted by Agricultural Research Service and Harvard University scientists showed decreased nutritional dietary quality and increased caloric intake among U.S. children on days when they consumed fast food. The study, which appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, confirms other similar, previously published studies.

The authors analyzed existing dietary intake data from 6,212 children and adolescents, aged 4 to 19, from a nationally representative USDA Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, 1994-1996, and the Supplemental Children's Survey, 1998. The survey data are collected on two non-consecutive days by ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

U.S. children who ate fast food, compared with those who did not, consumed more total calories, more calories per gram of food, more total and saturated fat, more total carbohydrate, more added sugars and more sugar-sweetened beverages, but less milk, fiber, fruit and nonstarchy vegetables. The study also revealed out of the two days surveyed, those children who consumed fast food on only one day showed similar nutrient shortfalls on the day they had fast food. But they did not show these shortfalls on the other day.

The study's coauthors include nutritionist Shanthy A. Bowman with the ARS Community Nutrition Research Group, Beltsville, Md.; David S. Ludwig and colleagues with Children's Hospital Boston, Mass.; and Steven L. Gortmaker with Boston's Harvard School of Public Health.

Some experts estimate that childhood consumption of fast foods increased fivefold, from 2 percent of daily meals in the late 1970s, to 10 percent of daily meals by the mid-1990s. During that time, the number of fast food restaurants more than doubled to an estimated 250,000 nationwide.

The findings are important because childhood obesity is increasing in prevalence. Inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables has been associated with obesity-related problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Fruits and nonstarchy vegetables may protect against excessive weight gain because of their low energy density and high fiber content.