NUTRITION
February 25, 2020

Drive By the Drive-In

Fast food is like a drug for preschoolers. It's a major contributor to the rise in child obesity.

Kids eat a lot of fast food, and many kids are overweight or obese. Is there a connection? A new study suggests the answer is yes. The amount of fast food that preschool children eat and their chance of developing a problem with their weight appear to be very closely connected, suggesting parents should be thinking twice before pulling into a fast food chain.

Almost one-fourth of preschool children (ages 2 to 5) in the U.S. are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This puts them at risk for a number of physical and psychosocial problems during childhood, including type 2 diabetes and depression. Roughly a third of children eat fast food every day, according to previous research, and links have been found between that lifestyle and children becoming overweight.

It may take several tries, but kids will learn to like healthy foods. Exposure to fast food only interferes with that.

Dartmouth College researchers followed a group of over 500 preschoolers and their families for a year. Children were weighed and measured at the beginning and end of the study. Parents kept track of how much fast food their children ate each week from 11 fast food restaurants and reported it in six online surveys that were completed every two months.

About 18 percent of the preschoolers were overweight and nearly 10 percent were obese when the study began. Over the course of the year-long study, eight percent of the children moved to a higher weight status.

The study was designed to show the degree to which fast food contributes to weight gain, explained Jennifer Emond, one of the authors. Factors that could explain away the relationship between weight gain and fast food, like screen time and physical activity, were taken into consideration, leaving fast food as the sole cause in this study.

"We now know from our studies and others, that kids who start on the path of extra weight gain during this really important timeframe tend to carry it forward into adolescence and adulthood, and this sets them up for major health consequences as they get older," said Emond, a member of the Department of Biomedical Data Science at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, in a statement.

She hopes that the findings from this study might be used to form guidelines and policies that would reduce fast food marketing exposure to children and help parents who are trying to adopt healthier eating habits for their children.

Parents, don’t let the creative marketing of fast food franchises or your children's pleas influence your choices about what to feed your children. The best idea is to simply not start your kids off eating fast food — even to see their reaction to their first French fry. That way they won’t “fall in love” with it.

Children should be offered a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy in age-appropriate sizes as soon as they are able to eat from the table. It may take several tries, but they will learn to like healthy foods. Exposure to fast food only interferes with that. Eating more meals at home is healthier than eating out anyway — that goes for you, too.

The study is published in Pediatric Obesity.

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