Fast Food and Childhood Obesity in America

Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past three decades 1. In 2010, nearly 18 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 were considered obese. While genetics, individual behavior and environment all play a role in obesity, the rise of fast-food consumption is partly to blame 2.

Consequences of Obesity

Being obese in your childhood has both short-term and long-term consequences. Obese children are more likely to have prediabetes and high cholesterol and high blood pressure, two risk factors for heart disease. Obese children are also more likely to have bone and joint problems, as well as sleep apnea. Obesity doesn’t just affect physical health -- it can take a toll on a child’s mental health, as well. Obese children often have low self-esteem and feelings of alienation from their peers.

Stats on Fast Food

Approximately 42 percent of children and adolescents reported they eat fast food regularly, the results of a survey in a 2003 issue of the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association” indicated 4. Fast food is especially popular among adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18. The journal also reported that children in this age group eat fast food at least twice per week. Children who eat fast food regularly have a higher intake of hamburgers, pizza, fried potatoes and soft drinks and a lower intake of fruits, vegetables and milk than children who don’t eat fast food as often. Children who eat fast food regularly are likely to gain an extra 6 pounds per year.

Nutritional Impact

Fast food packs a wallop when it comes to calories, total fat, saturated fat and sodium. A large hamburger contains about 600 calories and 35 grams of fat, while a small order of fries adds an additional 200 calories and 10 grams of fat. Add a small soda to the mix, and you’re looking at nearly 1,000 calories for one meal. The problem with fast food is not just which nutrients children consume; it’s also which ones they don’t. Children who eat fast food regularly are less likely to meet their nutrient needs and fall particularly short on vitamins A and C.

A Word on Soft Drinks

With the rising consumption of fast food also comes an increased intake of soft drinks, which are high in calories and sugar but offer no nutrients whatsoever. According to a 2003 article in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” 64 to 83 percent of school-age children and adolescents consume soda. An increase in soft drink consumption comes with an increased risk of obesity, as well as other nutritional health implications. As soft drink consumption rises, milk and water consumption decreases. Milk is rich in several nutrients, including vitamin D, vitamin B-12, vitamin B-2, protein and calcium. Many children are falling short on these nutrients because of the decreased milk consumption, the report contends.