I’m going to approach this topic in a way most people may not be used to. First let’s be clear about one thing. Contrary to what you might read in many sensationalized news stories, fast food isn’t poison. It’s food. It has more fat, sugar and salt than healthier meals, certainly, but it also has protein, vitamins and minerals. A happy meal on occasion isn’t going to send our children spiraling into a manic fast food frenzy that ends with them breaking into McDonalds restaurants after dark in order to get their fix. Fast food on occasion is fine. Absolutely, 100%, completely and totally fine.
Also, most treatments of this subject conflate fast food and junk food, using the terms interchangeably. But this isn’t accurate. Consider that a happy meal with a cheeseburger, small french fries, apple slices and chocolate milk is reasonably nutritious. You get protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, iodine, potassium, phosphorus, fiber, and vitamins C, B2, B6 and B12. Compare that to junk food, e.g. cookies, chips, snack cakes, sugary beverages, and candy. This class of foods has little in the way of redeeming nutritional value, consisting almost entirely of sugars, simple carbohydrates, salt and fat. Junk food is worst parts of fast food without any of the nutritional value. It’s not fair or useful to lump fast food and junk food into the same category.
So how does fast food, not junk food, affect our children’s health?
This can be a difficult question to answer because all the fearmongering out there makes it difficult to get good, impartial information. What we can say is this. Limiting fats, particularly saturated and trans fats, sugar, sodium and excessive calories in our kid’s diets is important. And while fast food provides perfectly ample nutrition it also comes laden with more of these problematic food components than we’d like. But we can see that the issue isn’t fast food. It’s bad food.
Consider this study that was published in January 2013 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It found that both fast food and full-service restaurants contributed nearly equally to higher caloric intake among children and lower quality diets. And yet we don’t hear people issuing dire warnings about children eating at non-fast food restaurants.
People can eat poorly at home just as easily as they can at a fast food restaurant. There’s no magic process that guarantees that home made meals are nutritious simply because they were made at home. If we want our children to be healthy we need to make certain they’re getting the nutrition they need while limiting the bits that aren’t good for them. This means you don’t want to eat fast food three, four or more times per week. But more important than restricting bad food is making certain that the other meals your children eat are healthy ones, high in lean proteins, vegetables, whole grains and fruits.
Having fast food occasionally poses no threat at all if your child
is eating well the rest of the time.
So how does frequent fast food, or bad food, affect our children’s health?
Certainly there are obesity issues. Diets heavy with fats, sugars, salt, and excess calories can lead to chronic weight management issues. And we know the trends are poor. Obesity in the UK has been on the rise for decades. By 2050 it’s estimated that 60% of men and 50% of women will be considered obese. Poor diets in children contribute to childhood obesity which then predisposes them to obesity as adults, along with increased rates of diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis as well as certain cancers.
These are damaging trends that will have lasting consequences for the population. Key to overcoming these issues is to teach our children early about proper nutrition, and to get them eating well as early as possible. This means limiting fast food, certainly, but also selecting healthy options when eating out in general. And it means taking the time to prepare wholesome meals at home instead of eating pre-packaged meals out of boxes and cans.
Because there is just as much poor food to be found at your local grocery store as there is at a fast food restaurant. Just because you never let your child set foot in a McDonalds doesn’t mean they’re eating well. If we could stop demonizing fast food and realize that we have a problem with bad food and convenience foods in general we may be able to reverse the current trends.