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Fast food -- and other pre-prepared foods -- linked to spike in kids' calories

July 26, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Children are eating more calories than they did three decades ago, and these calories are coming from outside the home in the form of fast food or store-prepared food, new research from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds.
Children are eating more calories than they did three decades ago, and these… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

Fast food has become an easy target for folks looking to blame something -- anything -- for the prevalence of childhood obesity. And, true, such food can be high in both calories and fat. But it appears the blame might also be shared by other foods eaten outside the home.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assessed the food intake of nearly 30,000 children between 1977 and 2006 using four surveys. They found that children are consuming 179 more daily calories now than they were in the late 1970s -- and that the increase is driven mostly by food eaten outside the house.

In 1977, about 23% of kids’ calories came from outside the home; by 2006, 34% did.

Fast food accounts for some of the increase. But store-bought food eaten away from home also drove the growth in calories, especially between 1994 and 2006. That includes hot-and-ready food at grocery stores (think fried chicken) and pre-packaged sandwiches — food that doesn’t require home prep.

Meanwhile, children aren’t eating that many fewer calories at home than they did three decades ago, the researchers found. The results were published online in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. The researchers wrote in the discussion of their paper:

“This finding is supported by studies suggesting that overweight individuals do not compensate for increased consumption at away-from-home meals by decreasing intake for the remainder of the day.”

To get an idea of the changes in calories in the three-decade period: The 179 extra calories come from 255 extra calories outside the home, offset by 76 fewer at home. That’s forgoing one small apple at home for a small pack of French fries at McDonald’s. Or, perhaps, eating two fewer Reese’s peanut butter cups at home to have a Lunchables Chicken & American Sub Sandwich.

Just because the food isn’t ordered at a counter doesn’t mean it’s healthful.

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