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More U.S. Children Eating Fast Food, Despite Health Concerns

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Friends having a meal in a fast-food restaurant. mediaphotos / Getty Images

The number of U.S. children eating fast food is on the rise.

That is the finding of a University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity study published this month.


The study consisted of three online surveys conducted in 2010, 2013 and 2016 asking parents whether, in the past week, they had bought food for their children at one of the nation's top fast-food chains: McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's or Subway.

The number who answered "yes" rose steadily over the course of the three surveys, from 79 percent in 2010 to 83 percent in 2013 to a whopping 91 percent in 2016.

Despite the fact that many restaurant chains have added healthier drink and side options to kids' meals since 2010, the study found that the percentage of children who received a healthier drink option as part of their kids' meal remained steady at around 59 percent from 2010 to 2016, while the percentage who received a healthier side option actually decreased from 67 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2016.

Lead study author and director of marketing initiatives for the Rudd Center Jennifer Harris said the study indicated restaurants needed to do more to promote healthier menu options.

"While most fast-food restaurants do have healthier kids' meal drinks and sides available, many do little to make parents aware of the healthier options or to encourage parents to choose the healthier options instead of unhealthy ones. If restaurants are serious about children's health, they will make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for parents and the most appealing choice for children," Harris said in a UConn press release published by ScienceDaily.

Parents surveyed liked the idea of healthier meals and said that they would be more likely to visit restaurants that offered them. However, for each of the top four restaurants besides Subway, the parents' main reason for taking their children there was not health, but cost, convenience and the child's own preferences.

"We know that fast food offers parents a convenient, affordable option for feeding their families. But restaurants have a responsibility to make these affordable, convenient foods healthier. Most fast-food meals—even kids' meals—have more fat, sugar, and sodium than children need, and eating this kind of unhealthy food can have negative health consequences over time, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health issues," Harris said.

Study authors said that healthier menu options had failed to make a dent because sugary sodas and french fries were still the default drinks and sides for kids' meals and were heavily promoted on signs inside restaurants.

Harris recommended that restaurants address this by making healthier options, like 100 percent juice, water and low-fat milk for drinks and oranges, apple slices and yogurt for snakes, the default for kids' meals.

She also recommended they work on providing healthier main courses for children as well.

"Given parents' positive attitudes about kids' meal policies, and how often families are visiting these restaurants today, fast-food companies have a substantial marketing opportunity to better promote the healthier options inside their restaurants," Harris said.

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