When you live a busy, on-the-go lifestyle, the occasional fast food stop is bound to happen. As Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, "Is it realistic that a parent isn't going to feed their child fast food as they're running from one practice to the next? Chances are, at least once a week they're going to consume some type of fast food."
After all, restaurants with drive-thru windows and smiling cartoon faces are around every corner and are so readily available.
But as tasty and convenient as these meals are, they have many components that make them less desirable as a consistent feature in your family's menu.
"Fast food is very high in fat," says King. "As your children are continuing to grow, we want to put the best source of fuel in them so that they continue to grow properly. We're limiting how much saturated and trans fats they're getting. Recently, fast-food restaurants are working on their processing so we're seeing the trans-fats come down, but it's still high in saturated fats."
King says that part of the problem is that this is what the customer wants.
"I think that's just because it tastes good," she says. "That's what people like and hamburger meat with a lot of fat tends to be a lot cheaper than hamburger meat that's lean or super lean. If they're trying to mass market in a cheaper way, that hamburger meat with a higher fat content is going to be easier for them to use and to purchase and to sell."
"The killer ingredient in regards to obesity is MSG," Yolanda Bergman, Los Angeles-based certified nutritionist and author of Food Cop: Yolanda, Tell Us What to Eat and Diet 911, says of the amino acid salt and flavor enhancer used regularly in fast food preservation and preparation. "What it does for water retention and addiction is that you can't stop," meaning that children will continue to indulge in foods with little nutritional value, eating more calories than needed for healthful living.
MSG can be found in items such as fried chicken and French fries on many fast food menus.
Sugar and Salt ... Not So Nice
Both sugar and salt are prevalent in fast food menu items like hamburgers, hash browns, French fries and, of course, sodas. Aside from contributing to problems like childhood diabetes, they can also cause problems when children reach adulthood.
"If there is a history of blood pressure problems, heart disease issues in the family, we really want to watch the salt intake with the kids because they're going to be at a higher risk of developing that when they're older," says King.
Portion sizes at American fast food restaurants have continued to grow since the industry first came to its own in the 1950s, says King. This is a result of growing appetites—both for the food itself and for the bargain.
King says to keep this in mind when stepping up to the counter or driving up to the window.
"We don't need the super duper extra size," she says. "I see a lot of times at fast food restaurants they have big kid meals. Those big kid meals are more calories than what I should be consuming in the day, much less an eight year old."
She also says to make compromises, such as ordering the chicken sandwich, but getting a side of apple slices instead of fries and dessert.
What's In a Name
It's called fast food for a reason.
"It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you're full," says King. "If we are scarfing down hamburgers and French fries as we're driving down the road, we're not thinking about the food and the taste. And the next thing you know, your stomach starts to hurt."
Instead of eating on the go, King says to take the time to slow down and eat. Eating in the parking lot before racing off to the next event or—if possible—bringing the food home to eat at the dinner table not only helps combat overeating, it can also be a good time to get in a few precious bonding moments with the family.