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The Physicians Committee

The Fight for Truly Happy Kids Meals Is Just Beginning
June 12, 2012

Last week, dietitians at PCRM released a new report, Five Worst “Healthy” Kids Meals, which found that meals advertised as “healthy” by chain restaurants like Burger King, Chick-fil-A, and McDonald’s, are actually loaded with fat, sodium, and sugar.

The focus on junk food targeted to kids is important, given how miserably the fast-food industry has failed to live up to its promise of self-regulation. Last July, nearly 20 fast-food chains, including Burger King, Sonic, and Chick-fil-A, joined together for the Kids LiveWell campaign and pledged to create and promote healthier kids meals. Around the same time, McDonald’s announced it would make its Happy Meals more nutritious. But when PCRM dietitians revisited the menus of these restaurants a year after that promise, they found that the same unhealthy foods continue to sit at the center of a fast-food plate.

In fact, they found fast-food chains usually do little more than throw a few apple slices into kids meals in order to label them as “healthy.”

McDonald’s, for instance, now offers apple slices and smaller packets of french fries as side dish options. But its Happy Meal entrées—hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets—remain the same.

Chick-fil-A earlier this year introduced grilled chicken nuggets for kids as a healthier option to its fried chicken nuggets. But, as our report points out, one Chick-fil-A Kids Grilled Chicken Nuggets Meal contains the same amount of cholesterol as a Big Mac. A Burger King Hamburger Kids Meal contains almost as much cholesterol as six slices of pork bacon.

Also on our dietitians’ list are the Sonic Kids’ Jr. Burger Meal with more sugar than two Twinkies and the Denny’s Build Your Own Jr. Grand Slam with almost 100 more milligrams of sodium than the government recommends children consume at breakfast.

Frankly, passing off these meals as “healthy” ought to be a crime at a time when 16.9 million American children and adolescents are obese. Obesity in children has been linked to an increased risk for hypertension, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly one-quarter of U.S. adolescents have diabetes or prediabetes.

So far, the fast-food industry, subsidized by large federal agricultural subsidies for meat and dairy, has little incentive to offer healthier meals. Disney’s decision to ban junk food ads is a step in the right direction, but the fight to make kids meals healthier has only just begun. To force a real change, it is the true stakeholders in this debate: parents, pediatricians—and politicians, who need to keep up the pressure against the fast-food industry with their deep pockets and their “happy” meals that are threatening the very future of our children.


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