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Kids in the U.S. are eating more fast food, the CDC reports

Over one third of kids eat fast food on any given day.
Adorable cute little girl in white shirt and jean jumpsuit with hamburger
Traimak_Ivan / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Despite warnings about obesity and unhealthy diets, American kids and adolescents are eating even more fast food. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children and adolescents got 13.8 percent of their daily calories from fast food in 2015 to 2018, up from 12.4 percent in 2011 to 2012.

The report, from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, also found that Black and Hispanic kids eat more fast food than their white counterparts, and over one third ate fast food on any given day.

What’s more, the proportion of calories from fast food increased with age, with children ages 2 to 11 getting 11.5 percent of their daily calories from fast food, compared with ages 12 to 19, at 18 percent.

The report included data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is given to a sample of the U.S. population every two years to gather information on health and nutrition.

The rise in consumption among kids and young teens is not unexpected, experts say.

“These are not surprising findings when you think about how strapped families are these days for both time and money, and how fast food can be an easy option for stressed families,” said Dr. Eliana Perrin, professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine.

The report only included data through 2018, and therefore didn’t touch on how kids and families are eating during the pandemic, but Perrin speculated that it had most likely exacerbated the problem.

While some families are privileged to work and cook from home, “too many families are poorer than they were before, have more food insecurity and have more work to do with less support,” she said. “So fast food once again becomes, I think, a too-easy default for their stressed lives.” And it’s likely that these changes affected people of color more.

Eating too much fast food is bad for childrens’ health because of the high calorie count coupled with too few nutrients, Perrin said. A poor diet can also lead to heart problems and obesity.

Obesity affects an estimated 18.4 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 11 and 20.9 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19, according to the CDC. Obesity rates are higher among Black and Hispanic children.

Another factor that may have played a role in the increase in fast-food consumption is advertising, said Frances Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. A report from her institution compared the average number of TV advertisements viewed from 2007 to 2016. “We saw a big increase in ad exposure for preschoolers and children for particular fast-food restaurants,” she said.

And many of the ads were targeted at Black and Hispanic children.

“Compared to white youth, Black youth view twice as many ads for fast food and other restaurants,” Fleming-Milici said. On Spanish-language television, “about half of all the food ads that they view are fast-food restaurants,” she added.

Perrin said that targeted marketing contributes to health disparities.

“I think this is a major health equity issue,” she said.

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