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Fast Food Calorie Info Could Cut Children's Intake


If you knew the number of calories in your children’s fast food, would that influence which items you chose for them? Yes, according to a new study, in which parents selected an average of 102 fewer calories when the fast food menus showed calorie content.

Americans have a love affair with fast food and spend more than $140 billion a year to prove it. Fast food restaurants spend a lot of money to attract their customers, with $294 million spent on advertising targeted for children alone in 2007. What children get in return is largely high calorie, high-fat food. A cheeseburger Happy Meal with French fries and a soft drink at McDonalds has about 640 calories and 24 grams of fat, more than 50 percent of the total calories many children should be consuming each day. Considering that one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, along with the popularity of fast food, parents may make more judicious selections if they knew the calorie count of items served at fast food restaurants.

The new study, which was conducted by researchers from Seattle Children’s Research Institute, is the first to show that menus that provide calorie information may lead to significantly reduced calorie intake in fast food restaurant meals purchased for children. To arrive at this conclusion, 99 parents of 3- to 6-year-olds were asked to select what they and their children would eat at a typical meal. The parents were given sample McDonald’s menus which listed current prices and images of many popular items, including Happy Meals. Half of the menus listed calorie information for each food item and the other half did not.

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The parents who had menus with calorie information chose foods with 102 fewer calories on average for their children compared with the parents who did not have calorie information. Although 102 calories may not sound like a lot, eating 100 extra calories per day can equal about 10 extra pounds of weight gained per year, according to Pooja S. Tandon, MD, who led the study.

Dr. Tandon notes that the results of this study are encouraging and indicates that parents would like to make informed decisions about the foods their children eat, but that they need readily available nutritional information to do so. Many fast food restaurants provide calorie and other nutritional information for their items on their websites, but not in the restaurants themselves. This is slowly changing, however, as laws are being enacted around the country that require chain restaurants to make nutritional information clearly visible for customers when they order their food.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest website provides information on menu labeling, current bills throughout the United States that would require nutritional information to be displayed in fast food restaurants, fact sheets, and how consumers can get involved in this campaign. More than 30 states or localities are currently considering policies that would require fast food and other chain restaurants to provide calorie and other nutritional information on menu boards and menus. When consumers are provided calorie and nutritional information, they can make better decisions for their children’s health and their own.

Center for Science in the Public Interest
Healthy Eating Guide.com
Seattle Children’s Research Institute news release, Jan. 25, 2010