Kids' Fast-Food Intake Isn't Alarming, Despite Recent News

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There are two new data points making headlines this week that appear to once again vilify the fast food industry. The first is an alarm that kids are consuming one eighth of their daily calories from fast food; the other bemoans that one third of U.S. kids eat pizza or fast food everyday. At first glance, both statistics sound like negatives for public health. However, taken with a dose of sound science, they both turn out to be fairly meaningless worthy of little attention.

These data come from the National Center for Health Statistics, a wing of the CDC. To acquire the data, the agency used the always-reliable (insert tongue in cheek) method of asking children or their parents what they ate over the previous 24 hours (certainly those answers are unbiased). The sample size was just over 3,000 and included data from children aged 2-19. The survey was conducted in 2011-2012 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Many are reporting that these data speak to the overall obesity epidemic, but when we look at the raw data, that could not be further from it.

First, one eighth of a day's calories, or 12 percent, from fast food or pizza is not really a whole lot. That's equivalent to about 245 calories, or the equivalent of one McDonald's hamburger. That's about the same as a Snickers bar or two large bananas and it is actually less than an avocado. Also worth noting: calorie intake among children and adolescents from fast food and pizza is actually fairly stable since the early 1990's and has risen just three percent, despite the fact percentage of children that are obese in this country has skyrocketed over this two-decade period.

The most interesting part of the study -- which is unsurprisingly not being reported by mainstream media -- is that when comparing obese and overweight children to normal and underweight children, total calorie intake was not significantly different. In other words, fat kids and skinny kids receive the same portion of their diet from fast foods.

This speaks to the point that fast food calories are no different than calories from home cooked or restaurant food. If fast food were a major part of the obesity epidemic, we'd expect to see obese children consuming a larger portion of their diet from these types of foods. The fact that we don't see that relationship supports the idea that all calories are the same. What really matters, in terms of obesity, is the total intake from all sources.

This is all not to say you can eat fast food and pizza all you like. The key to a proper, healthy diet is balance. It should also be noted that our government considers pizza to be a vegetable, so maybe that 12 percent figure isn't so bad after all.