Study Shows Fast Foods Not a Cause of Childhood Obesity . . . Right!

Fast Foods and Childhood Obesity: Should Parents be Concerned?

Fast foods are a definite emotion-producer, especially when they are tied to large and potentially wondrous activities like a reality show (Hmm what about those beverages on the judges’ table) or major sporting event such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics (Seriously? Chicken nuggets in “fan” size packaging?). I’ll save for a future blog post my ranting about whether or not I think fast food superpowers should be the official restaurant of an event showcasing the world’s top athletes, however, and instead today look generally at the degree to which parents should be concerned about their children’s fast food intake.

The reality is that most people either love fast foods or hate fast foods. And those of us concerned about childhood obesity, usually fall into the “hate them” camp. A new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina1, however, that shows fast foods may not play as big a role in childhood obesity rates as previously thought, may cause some parents to re-think their “just say no to fast food stand.” Just for the record . . . I’m going to suggest you don’t let go of that position too quickly!

Are Fast Foods “Neutral?”
Many times research such as this puts parents like us in a bit of a dither. Have we been too hard-lined on an issue? Is this still a battle we want to pick? Is it time to re-think, re-group and come up with a newly re-evaluated approach? First let me be very clear that the study did not say that fast foods were good for you. In fact it was acknowledged they are indeed part of the childhood obesity problem. The study of more than 5000 children, however, showed that it is a child’s broader diet that plays the more significant role. For us as parents trying to grow as healthy and as lean as is appropriate for body type children and teens, I think there are two clear takeaways from this research.

Real Food Trumps Fast Food
You simply can’t beat a real food and healthy lifestyle approach to childhood obesity (or any other type of obesity for that matter!). If it is the broader diet that is the biggest contributing factor to health then that broader diet better darn well contain: real food (vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, butter, olive oil, coconut oil, beef, lamb, chicken, salmon), in a form that is as close as possible to its natural state (not processed, sugared, salted and chemical-laden; unrefined rice and quinoa, pesticide-free vegetables and fruit, hormone-free meats and poultry, free run eggs).

An “Old-Fashioned” Diet Trumps a Modern Day Diet
The bottom line is that the way we ate for hundreds and thousands of years is better suited to health and wellness than the way we have eaten for the past six decades. When in doubt, choose foods that have a long history of use. What exactly does that look like? Well, it looks a lot like the food your grandparents ate. Choose from age-old food groups, which in today’s terms means food items you:

  1. pluck (berries, tomatoes, other fruits)
  2. gather (eggs, vegetables, legumes, nuts)
  3. hunt (wild game, wild fowl, domesticated and safely-raised animals) and
  4. fish (wild fish, some shellfish)

For those of us not raising our own food that means sourcing pesticide-free produce at farmers’ markets, and non-medicated meat at the local butcher shop and perhaps finding a neighbor that sells free range eggs. Even regular super markets can fit the bill if you shop from the perimeter of the store and stock up on fresh produce (emphasis on vegetables and modest amounts of low-glycemic fruit such as berries, citrus fruits, apples and pears), well-raised meat products, organic dairy products such as yogurt and cheese, whole food starches (sweet potatoes, potatoes, quinoa, rice) and sprouted grain baked products (non-gluten is usually best for most people).

Fast Food is Not Your Child’s Friend!
For a number of reasons, I’m still going to suggest keeping fast foods on the “never” or “almost never” food list. I know many people think they taste good . . . but that’s because they are engineered (and no, I didn’t misuse that word and really meant to say “created lovingly in a test kitchen”) with scientifically precise amounts of sugar, salt and fat to trigger a “bliss point” in your brain that:

  1. Makes it difficult for your body to recognize fullness.
  2. Makes you want more of whatever type of fast or processed food you are eating.

So while a part of your brain experiences fast foods as “good” that is about the only part of your body to do so! Avoiding fast foods means avoiding the potential food addictions their combination of ingredients are designed to induce.

Bliss point aside, the fact that most ingredients in fast food do not fall into the real food category means fast food intake supplies a high degree of calories with a relatively small positive nutritional impact.

Finally, fast foods are just “fast.” That means we miss out on all the other benefits of a home-prepared meal, even one that is prepared relatively quickly. There is minimal control over quality of ingredients, less portion size regulation, an inability for family members to work together on joint food preparation and less likelihood of the meal being relaxing, calming and an opportunity for bonding/engaging family discussion.

So where does that leave parents who may be sitting on the fast food fence? I’d say err on the side of “our family just doesn’t do much fast food” and keep that “much” to almost never. If you want help on moving your family to that philosophy, need ideas on what to healthily eat on the run or are looking for fun and tasty recipes to replace fast food options, be sure to contact (hyperlink contact us page) In Balance. Our Kids in Balance programs give you all the tools you need to raise healthy and lean as can be children (who, you never know, with the right combination of BALANCEd input, may just end up on one of those reality talent shows or in a world class sporting event!).


1 Nutritional epidemiology and public health: Jennifer M Poti, Kiyah J Duffey, and Barry M Popkin, Am J Clin Nutr 2014 99: 162-171; First published online October 23, 2013. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.071928


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