Happy meals for whom? Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was involved in a 15-year study (the CARDIA study, Lancet 2005, 365:36-42) that took a long, hard look at what happens when young people eat fast food on a regular basis. We found those kids eating fast food more than twice a week gained an extra 10 pounds and insulin resistance increased twice as fast as those who ate it once a week or less. And that was way back then, when eating fast food often was eating it twice a week. Today young people from toddlers to teens may be tucking into fast food four times a week or more.
Did someone say happy meals? These are sad meals indeed. Why? Most people think of fast food as being loaded with fats. Yes it is. But it is also packed with an even greater amount of high GI carbs – think of those spongy soft burger buns, fries, soda, apple pie and cookies. Not to mention the massive portion sizes, high energy density, minimal fibre, few vitamins and minerals and a heavy hand with the salt shaker. And if that isn’t enough, fast food is designed to be eaten, well, fast. Children can easily consume almost an entire day’s calorie requirements from such meals in a matter of minutes, long before their bodies have time to recognise and respond to the incoming calories. It takes 20–30 minutes for those ‘I’m full now’ satiety signals from the stomach to reach the brain.
The evidence is piling up just like those extra pounds are piling on – overweight or obesity in adolescence increases risk of heart disease in adulthood. And early data from Canada is showing that adolescents with type 2 diabetes will be at high risk of limb amputation, kidney failure and premature death.
Very sad meals indeed.
Of course, parents need to take responsibility for their children’s welfare by providing high quality food, limiting television viewing and time spent in front of small screens and setting an example with a healthy lifestyle. But why should their efforts be undermined by the billions of dollars in junk food advertising from the food industry or by farm subsidies in the US for example that favor high fructose corn syrup over fruits, vegetables and other wholesome foods?
Like governments around the world, there are things that our US government needs to do. It needs to develop a comprehensive national strategy that encourages children to eat a healthy diet and be active. I am not talking good intentions and fuzzy words here. I am talking serious teeth in the form of legislation that:
Regulates junk food advertising
Provides adequate funding for decent school lunches and regular physical activities at school
Restructures the (US) farm subsidy program to favour nutrient-dense rather than calorie-dense foods, and
Mandates insurance coverage for preventing and treating pediatric obesity.
What can you do? Take a minute to promote America’s health says the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Send a message to Congress.
Dr David Ludwig
– Dr David Ludwig is Director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) program at Children’s Hospital Boston and author of Ending the Food Fight
Dr David Ludwig discusses the impact of childhood obesity and what needs to be done.