More than 90 percent of kids’ meals offered by the nation’s chain restaurants fail to meet the National Restaurant Association’s definition of a healthy meal for children, according to new study released Thursday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Researchers analyzed 3,498 meal combinations on kids’ menus at eateries across the country, and found that 97 percent of them fell short of nutrition standards set out by a panel of experts, while 91 percent failed to meet the criteria for the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell, a program that recognizes and promotes healthy meal options for children.
In order to meet the Kids LiveWell standards, a meal must contain a total of 600 calories or less and represent 2 or more food groups. No more than 35 percent of the total calories can be from fat. The same percentage cap applies to added sugar.
The study found that 9 chains, or 26 percent of those studied, didn’t offer any meals that meet this criteria. And 56 percent of chains lacked a menu option that met the slightly stricter nutrition criteria outlined by a panel of nutrition experts, which allowed for only 430 calories in a kids’ meal.
“One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it’s as if the chain restaurant industry didn’t get the memo,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan, a co-author of the report. “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.”
The one chain whose meals for children all met the nutrition experts’ standards was Subway, according to the report.
While the study paints a grim picture of the nutritional quality of most fast food kids’ meals, it does report that these foods are healthier now than they were six years ago.
According to the study, only one percent of meals offered at chain restaurants met the expert panel’s nutrition standards in 2008, while three percent meet these standards today.
The National Restaurant Association defended its Kids LiveWell program, stressing the efforts of restaurants that are trying to offer healthier options to kids.
“Restaurants nationwide are providing innovative, healthful children’s options to their young guests,” said Joy Dubost, Director of Nutrition for NRA. ” One way restaurants are offering healthful kids’ meals is through the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, which is a first-of-its-kind, voluntary initiative that helps parents and children select healthful menu options when dining out at nearly 40,000 locations nationwide. The program, now with more than 120 restaurant brands, has achieved significant momentum in just 18 short months since first launching with 19 inaugural leaders.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom criticized CSPI’s study, saying the blame for childhood obesity cannot be put squarely on the shoulders of food.
“When it comes to childhood obesity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is missing the forest for the trees. Childhood obesity is a result of a myriad of factors, not just restaurant offerings,” said J. Justin Wilson, Senior Research Analyst at CCF. “Regulating kids’ menus to only offer quinoa salads isn’t going to make any measurable weight difference in America’s youth.”
“There are two sides to the obesity equation: calories in (food) versus calories out (exercise),” continued Wilson. “It is disingenuous to suggest some sort of French fry prohibition on kids’ menus will be the cure-all to children’s weight problems.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the National Restaurant Association.
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