Overweight teens are more vulnerable than lean teens to one of the hazards of fast food — gaining weight. That new finding is prompting some experts to call for parents to talk to their kids about the risks of fast food in the same spirit they would talk to them about the risks of smoking.
A new study reports that not only do overweight teenagers consume more calories in a single fast food meal, but they are less likely to compensate for eating the fast food by making more healthful choices throughout the day.
"Our findings provide a basis for how fast food could promote excessive weight gain," says lead author Cara Ebbeling, a research associate at Children's Hospital, Boston. "In that context, our findings also add to the argument for the decrease in marketing of fast food to children, eliminating fast food in schools and promoting nutritional food campaigns for children."
The study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, had two parts. First the researchers measured how many calories teens consumed from one extra large meal while eating in a food court. Secondly, the researchers asked, do teens who eat more fast food compensate by eating less in later meals?
According to experts, the results are compelling.
Overweight teens consumed 400 more calories than lean teens in a single fast food meal, although both groups put away more calories than needed. Ebbeling says that the key finding is that overweight adolescents did not compensate for consuming the extra calories in a fast food meal by eating less throughout the day, whereas the lean kids did.
"The study really shows how kids could overeat fast food, that they probably are overeating fast food, and how that could contribute to adolescents being overweight," says Simone French, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. "It's another peg in the literature that supports fast food is a risky food."
Parents' Advice Is Key
Some nutrition experts say that parents need to take an active role in keeping their kids away from fast food.
"What's being offered in the home, the food environment in the school setting, and also the amount of physical activity — these are all part of the equation," says Nancy Krebs, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado at Denver and co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Obesity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages family meals as a way to combat the rise in pediatric obesity.
"It's [eating out] like letting your child play in the street. Families who are eating out three to four times a week, that's asking for a dietary pattern that encourages overconsumption," says Krebs. "We ask families to come up with strategies for not overeating when they are out."
"I think that parents need to pay attention to this kind of information early," warns Howard Eisenson, director of Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. "Just like talking to their children about the hazards of smoking, they need to talk to them about the hazards of harmful eating."
With 75 percent of U.S. teens eating fast food one or more times a week, many experts feel studies such as Ebbeling's are critical to understanding the role of fast food in the pediatric obesity epidemic.
"We chose to study fast foods because consumption increased in the 1990s during the same time period that we've seen the increase in pediatric obesity," says Ebbeling.