Two-thirds of children between the ages of two to five years old eat fast-food at least once a week in California, according to a study released Monday by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
The study gathered data from the 2007 and 2009 California Health Interview Survey and found that 60 percent of children are eating fast food at least once a week, and one in 10 is eating three fast food meals a week.
“That’s too high for me,” says Susan Holtby, the lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Public Health Institute in Oakland. “To have that many children that young eating fast food every week calls for attention. Those are the years where you really set the pace and set the tone for what a child’s diet will be like going forward to teens years.”
One in three children and adolescents in the U.S. are either overweight or obese — which increases their risk of eventually developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and a host of other health problems. Holtby says previous research has shown the link between fast food consumption and obesity, so cutting down the amount of fast foods young kids eat may help curb the country’s obesity epidemic.
“We know that children who are overweight when they’re very young can continue to be overweight,” Holtby said. “That can be more difficult to reverse once you get to the pre-teen puberty years. To a set a course like that in a child’s life is really doing a disservice to health effects later on.”
The study shows fast food consumption is even higher for children in low-income families or communities of color. Latino children eat the most fast food — about 70 percent eat it at least once a week. In California, half of all children under the age of five are Latino.
The UCLA study also shows that Asian children are eating less fruits and vegetables than kids in other ethnic groups. Forty percent of Asian families reported their child ate at least five fruits and vegetables the previous day, compared to a 57 percent state average. Holtby says while Asian children are below the other groups, fruit and vegetable consumption needs to be bumped up for all kids.
“One easy things parents and daycare providers can do is provide fruit instead of fruit juice,” Holtby says. “Fruit juice is really high in sugars. When it’s pressed to make juice a lot of the nutritional value is gone. Present the fruit in a way that kids like to eat. If you hand a kid an apple in his or her lunch tray, they might not eat it. If you slice it up they’re more likely to eat it.”
The study also looked at soda intake. The more fast food young kids eat, the more they’re likely to drink soda. But overall, soda consumption for this age group has dropped drastically in the past few years. Holtby says the 2003 California law banning sodas in schools sent a strong public health message.
“Taking sodas out of schools was a huge move,” she says. “Kids spend a lot of time in school each day and if they don’t have access to soda, it’s just reducing the number of hours in the day they have to drink it. We can’t show causality but certainly the soda bans runs parallel to the decline in soda consumption. The recent McDonald’s announcement saying that they’re not going to provide soda with Happy Meals any more shows that in the fat food industry there is a shift in what consumers want. It’s not a top down industry decision.”
Holtby says California was already looking at banning fast foods from being sold in public schools, but that was put on hold while the national set of standards were being formed.
“I think there are ways to tie the public dollars to policies that promote healthy policies,” Holtby says. “[Public] schools are a really good place to start because they are implemented in one large arena.”
Holtby says her research group focused between the ages of two to five because what children in this age group eat sets the stage for they’ll eat when they get older.
“As these kids grow older they’re out of the house more and are able to get food on their own,” says Holtby. “Parents have control over what their two to five-year-olds eat. As their kids get older, they have less control.”
Holtby says improving a young child’s eating habits can improve a family’s eating habits overall.
“The longer you wait to introduce high fat, high salt, and sugary foods, the less likely they’ll eat it. If that food is not in the home, you’re not going to eat it either.”