In the vast majority of popular U.S. restaurant chains, the menu items geared toward kids aren’t meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional recommendations, according to a new study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Instead, most meals on the kids’ menus contain too many calories, too much salt or fat, and not enough nutrients from fruits and vegetables.
CSPI surveyed almost 3,500 combinations of menu items at the top 50 restaurant chains in the country — including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, McDonald’s, Subway, and Panda Express — and found that kids’ meals fall short of the USDA’s standards a staggering 97 percent of the time. That’s only a very slight improvement from 2008, when the organization found that 99 percent of kids’ menus weren’t meeting the recommended nutritional standards.
About one-third of U.S. children are currently considered overweight, and 17 percent are considered obese. The childhood obesity rate in this country has tripled since 1980 — and some nutrition experts at least partially fault the food and beverage industries for resisting regulation efforts and continuing to market their unhealthy products specifically to appeal to children. According to CSPI, some of the responsibility to encourage healthy eating habits among American youth also rests with popular restaurants.
“Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries, and soda,” Margo Wootan, CSPI’s nutrition policy director, told Reuters. “It’s like the restaurant industry didn’t get the memo that there’s a childhood obesity crisis.”
The one exception that CSPI found was Subway. All eight of Subway’s kids’ meals, which offer children smaller portions, apple slices, and low-fat milk or bottled water, met CSPI’s nutrition criteria. And that emphasis on healthier options certainly isn’t hurting the company’s bottom line. The sandwich chain now has more stores in the U.S. than McDonald’s does — and in order to catch up, the McDonald’s corporation is scrambling to recast its own products as healthy, too.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control confirmed that children are still consuming too many of their calories from fatty foods, even as American adults have begun to cut back on their own calorie intake. But there’s some hope. Cities with aggressive nutrition policies have seen significant drops in their childhood obesity rates, suggesting that there are some concrete policy solutions — like holding school cafeterias to nutrition standards, launching anti-obesity marketing campaigns, or even limiting the portion sizes of unhealthy options like sugary drinks — that could help reverse the national trend.