Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Children's Meals and Diet Quality

   Most of my reading and therefore my writing, has to do with environmental factors that increase the risk of adults becoming overweight, but the same issues apply to children.  Children are especially vulnerable to advertising and branding, which shapes their preferences, but they are less vulnerable to the low price allure.  It is their parents who fall into that trap, sometimes out of  necessity. 
   Menu labeling, providing nutrition information, is one way to address the issue of over consumption of calories and non-nutritive foods when eating away from home.  This is something I blog about often.  Recently, I read a report from researcher Ameena Batada, Dr.PH, that shed some light on the nutrition status of children's meals.  It was pretty bad - not the study!  the meal outlook.  
   For her study, which she completed with the assistance of Margo Wooten, D.Sc and  CSPI,  the nutrition content of  children's meals  from 34 of the top 50 restaurant chains (who had children's menus and nutrition information for those meals) was evaluated.  The researchers considered the meals to be meant for children aged 4 to 8 years.
   Of note, Dr. Batada shared the Expert Nutrition criteria that was used to evaluate the meals (to determine if they were a healthy option) as well as the criteria used by the National Restaurant Association.  The National Restaurant Association has a special Kids LiveWell program and I have to say, its impressive.  Both groups (expert panel and NRA) look at the amount of calories, fat, sugar and salt in the meals.  The Expert Nutrition standards disqualify a meal if it has more that 450 calories (the NRA, 600).  The Expert Nutrition standards disqualify the whole meal if it comes with a beverage that has been determined to be unhealthy.  This should be an eye opener for parents.  An unhealthy drink is defined as a soda, a sports drink, a fruit juice that is less than 50% juice OR has added sugar, anything with caffeine(except naturally occurring in choc. milk) AND milk that is 2% or higher in fat.  That is right, if the children's meal comes with whole milk it is NOT healthy.  The NRA criteria excludes any meal that comes with a fried item, including potato chips!  Both standards also have inclusion factors, i.e., the meal must have some things to even be considered (e.g., 1/2 c of fruit, 1/2 c veggies, whole grains).
   With the criteria in hand, the researchers rated the meals at the top chains.  They listed the percent of the meals at each place that met the Expert and the Kids LiveWell standards.  Nine of the restaurants in the study met neither standard, including, Chipotle, Dairy Queen, Hardees, McDonalds and Panda Express.  Chiptole lost out because every child's meal comes with potato chips.  Some of the chains at the top of the list include Arby's, Burger King, Red Lobster, IHOP (what?!) and Subway.  However, the percent of the meals sold that met either criteria was NOT high.  E.g., 28% of Red Lobster children's meals met the expert standard and 42% met the NRA standard.  Red Lobster offers fruit and vegetable as the default option in their children's meals.  That means you don't have to ask for it!  Only one  restaurant had more than 42% of its meals quality and most scored lower.  The winner, Subway.  They only serve apples and low fat milk and do not provide any soft drinks with children's meals.  At Subway, 100% of the child's meals met both standards.
   The report can give you an idea of which restaurants will offer you a healthy option for your children, but you still have to make that choice and you can only do that if you have all the information at the time that you need it.  That is when you are standing at the counter or the server is at your table. 
   Last fact.  The most commonly sold item, 83% of the restaurants sold fried chicken fingers.  
Thanks to Drs. Batada and Wooten for this great report.
See it here.

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