Think fast when kids want fast food
To cut calories on a burger, hold the cheese and use mustard and ketchup instead of the special sauce. (Fotolia.com / March 27, 2013)
An army of nutrition experts is constantly reminding you that most fast food is bad for your health. But they're not around to back you up when your children or grandchildren unleash powerful weapons of cuteness to convince you to stop at a fast-food chain. It's hard not to give in when the ones you adore put on the pressure, even when they're older.
Case in point: My son, who's majoring in economics in college, recently informed us that he could reduce his expenses at school by 32 percent if he ate at fast food restaurants daily and ditched the dorm meal plan.
While I was impressed by his math skills and economic reasoning, I warned him that fast food could lead not only to weight gain but also to medical problems. Then I resorted to my own weapon: the latest research. Knowledge is power, after all, and two new studies gave me the confidence to hold my ground. They may work for you, too.
THE LATEST FINDINGS
One study, published online in the journal Thorax, looked at possible connections between consuming different types of food and the development of asthma, rhinitis (chronic stuffy nose) and eczema, a skin condition. The researchers surveyed 500,000 kids from 31 countries in two age groups: ages 6 to 7 and ages 13 to 14.
In both groups, kids who ate fast food three times a week or more had increased risks of asthma, rhinitis, and eczema--as much as a 39 percent increase in severe asthma risk for teens and 27 percent for younger kids. And wouldn't you know--just three or more servings of good old fruit appeared to reduce the severity of symptoms for all three conditions.
Another study, published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that teenagers and kids consumed far more calories in fast-food and other restaurants than they did at home. The numbers were alarming: Eating out was associated with taking in as many as 160 extra calories daily for younger kids and as many as 310 calories daily for teens. That information is troubling because obesity is a serious problem for children in the U.S. and around the world.
Potential weight gain is just one consequence of eating out often. Fast food and restaurant fare is often heavy on fat and sugar, both of which can lead to the development of chronic disease when consumed in large quantities.
So what's a parent or grandparent to do? I turned for advice to Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Nelson says it's not realistic to ban children from eating out, but to be careful when you choose to do so.
"Fast food is not health food and never will be, so the idea is never to make it a habit," she notes. "But when it seems like that's all that is available, there are always ways to make the best of a less than ideal situation."
She offers these tips:
1. Don't let kids drink their calories. Order water or fat-free milk instead of a soda, juice, milkshake, frappe, or smoothie.
2. Watch the side dishes. Get a side salad or baked potato, if possible, instead of French fries and onion rings, which can be laden with saturated fat.
3. Don't super-size. Instead, order smaller portions, such as items on the snack menu.
4. Choose grilled instead of fried foods.
5. Hold the cheese. This eliminates extra calories and fat.
6. Use mustard and ketchup instead of the "special sauce."