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While the efforts of various restaurants to increase the healthfulness of their offerings continue to garner industry-wide attention, one key consumer group is rarely addressed: kids.
Despite the relative lack of media attention, a new study has found that the largest restaurant chains are working to rein in calories in their kids’ meals.
One of the study’s authors, Christina Economos, is an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She also serves as director of ChildObesity180, a nonprofit under the Friedman School that seeks to do real-world work in the field of childhood obesity.
“We do research and we scale up evidenced-based strategies that seem to work and we’re making progress in a lot of different areas. Working with restaurants and the industry is one of our priorities,” Economos says. “Our goal there is to help build healthier kids’ menus so that the healthy choices are the easier choices.”
The study, which appears in the April issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior studied the 2014 menus of 10 major fast-food brands (Arby’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Dairy Queen, Jack-in-the-Box, KFC, McDonald’s, Sonic, Subway, and Wendy’s) and 10 full-service restaurants (including Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Red Lobster). The results showed that 72 percent of the quick serves and 63 percent of the full-service chains offered children’s meal combinations that were below 600 calories.
These results are encouraging, but the study’s conclusion also hints at areas for possible improvement. Restaurants did well on the calorie front, but only 31.9 percent of quick serves and 21.7 percent of full-service restaurants met the standards for all four variables: calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium.
“We know that overall obesity is related to energy-in and energy-out, so a really important first step is to make sure that the portions are correct and that the amount of food that children are consuming at meals throughout the day is appropriate for growth development,” Economos says. “I can’t speak for decisions that restaurants make, but from a public-health perspective calories are a really good place to start because it’s easy to reformulate and work on portion sizes, but we really want to see additional changes toward all nutrients within food.”
She adds that these brands have tremendous potential to effect real change because they serve such a large number of children. She also points out that while the study examined the supply side of restaurant kids’ menus, it has yet to quantify the demand. Just because restaurants are offering lower calorie foods, does not mean that parents are purchasing them.
Economos says that a successful campaign will target both the supply and demand sides. Nutrition education might be a public policy problem to tackle, but she says restaurants can certainly help on that front, too.
“The prominence of the images [of healthier menu items] is really important because that’s what people see, that’s what they respond to,” she says. She adds that making those images more prominent as well as building menus where the healthier options are the default can also help move the needle.
By Nicole Duncan