July 13, 2011— -- Nineteen fast food chains plan to offer healthier meal options on children's menus as part of a new initiative launched today by the National Restaurant Association.
The participating chain restaurants include Burger King, Chili's, IHOP, and Friendly's. The more than 15,000 restaurants that participate in the program will offer at least one meal combination that totals 600 calories or less, including a side dish of 200 calories or less.
"It's giving parents choices," said ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, who welcomed the news.
The types of food offered will also follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food guidelines. The offerings include more fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
"These are the kinds of things you want your child to be eating," said Besser.
But for many restaurants, the number of less-healthy options could outweigh the new healthier options. In one recent study, researchers at Yale University looked at 20 fast food chains that provided nearly 3,000 different food options for children. Only 27 of the food options met the required standards set by the initiative.
Another challenge might be getting kids to choose the more healthful parts of the menu.
"The big issue is, will they be promoting the healthy guidelines, or will it just be one item on the menu and kids will still go to the fries," said Besser.
Nearly 20 percent of children aged 6 to 11 are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While a myriad of factors contribute to the growing rate of childhood obesity, a fierce debate brews on how to address the problem.
A group of Harvard researchers suggested that morbidly obese children should be taken away from their parents, according to an editorial the researchers published 2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But according to Besser a better solution is to modify fast-food company's marketing strategies to children, revitalize physical education programs in schools, and provide more access to healthier foods in lower-income neighborhoods.
"Demonizing parents is not the way to go," said Besser. Some parents may be part of the problem, but educating parents is a better alternative than taking children away, he said.
"Hopefully this will help with the conversation, but it's not the solution," he said.