Fast food is a lot of things.
It is fast, convenient, and fun, but can it be healthy?
Are too many 'Happy Meals' the reason that more kids today are overweight?
The rise in families substituting a trip to McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, etc. for a family meal at home is likely one of the causes for the increase in overweight kids, but it is not the only cause. Other factors are also to blame, including an increased time watching TV and playing video games, decreased time in physical activity and unhealthy food choices.
An unhealthy food choices don't end at home, where kids may eat too many high fat and high calorie foods and snacks and sugary drinks.
The choices you make when eating fast food can also determine how healthy or 'unhealthy' it is.
How can you make fast food healthy?
One of the easiest ways is to just watch your portion sizes and understand how many calories and how much fat you add to a meal when you 'super-size' your order. It might seem like a good 'value' to go with the special or large meal sizes, but think about what those extra calories will cost you later as your child tries to burn them off to lose weight.
For example, at McDonald's, the difference between small (210 calories) or medium (450 calories) and Super Size french fries (610 calories) can be 160 to 400 calories! And if instead of a small (16oz ~ 150 calories) or medium (21oz ~ 210 calories) soda, you chose to Super Size it to 42oz (410 calories), you would have added another 200 to 260 calories to your child's meal. If instead of a soda, you went with a 32oz Triple Thick Shake, that would add another 1140 calories!
Your choice of sandwiches can also influence how many calories your child gets. At McDonald's, it can range from 280 (hamburger) or 330 (cheeseburger) calories to 580 calories for a Big Mac and 760 calories for a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
So, for example, at McDonald's, a more healthy choice for a school age child might be a:
- hamburger (280 calories) or cheeseburger (330 calories) or 4 piece (210 calories) or 6 piece (310 calories) McNuggets
- small (210 calories) or medium french fries (450 calories)
- 8oz of 1% Lowfat Milk (100 calories) or small (16oz) soda (150 calories)
- and maybe as an additional treat, a Vanilla Reduced Fat Ice Cream Cone (150 calories)
Understand, that still isn't a very 'healthy' meal, as if you go with the cheeseburger, medium fries, soda and ice cream, that is 1080 calories and 40 grams of fat. For a 7-10 year old, that would be 54% of their daily calorie requirements and 62% of their daily fat requirements, all in one meal.
An older child or teen who ate a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (760 calories), Super Size fries (610 calories) and 32oz Triple Thick Shake (1140 calories) would likely exceed their daily calorie and fat requirements in that one meal.
Although McDonald's is often used as an example for fast food nutrition, the same principles apply at other fast food restaurants.
At Burger King, calories and fat can range from 310 calories and 13g of fat from a simple hamburger to 1070 calories and 70g of fat for an Original Double Whopper with Cheese sandwich. And going from Value (340 calories and 17 g of fat) to King size (600 calories and 30g of fat) french fries will help make your meal less 'healthy'.
In addition to choosing smaller portion sizes, checking the menu at your favorite fast food restaurant will likely help you find other low calorie low fat alternatives to traditional fast foods that really are healthy. These might include a salad, baked potato, or grilled chicken salad.
With other types of fast food, like pizza, choose a thin crust cheese pizza and avoid adding a lot of cheese or extra meat toppings.
It can also help your child eat more healthy if you avoid 'fast food' at more traditional restaurants that you visit. It seems like almost every restaurant, whether it is Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc. has a kids' menu with high fat and high calorie foods, like chicken nuggets, french fries, etc. Instead of always relying on the kid's menu, consider getting a 1/2 order or child plate of a more traditional and healthier item at the restaurant.
And stick to sensible drink sizes. Keep in mind that a 42oz SuperSize drink at McDonald's is equal to 3 1/2 cans of soda (12oz).
This Fast Food Nutrition Facts Calculator can help you make healthier choices when you and your kids eat fast food.
Healthy Choices at Home
And of course, it is important to make healthy choices at home to help your kids stay at a healthy weight, including eating healthy and exercising regularly.
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