Ask about American cuisine and most people will probably think of burgers and fries. With its origins in America, fast food is a popular meal because it is convenient, cheap, familiar and accessible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of children in the United States eat fast food on any single day, including restaurant fast food and pizza.
People may commonly associate fast food with popular franchises such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. However, fast food encompasses more than these brands. Fast food, or junk food, is actually more of a generic term for any kind of food that contains a lot of fat, sugar and salt, but is low in protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Although fast food may not exactly be a gourmet to food connoisseurs, the taste of fried food is enough to whet most children’s appetites. In addition, children are less likely to understand the implications of their diet on their health, especially because young people are typically at much less risk for complications such as high blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol.
The Attractiveness of Fast Food to Children
Children are one of the main consumers of fast-food chains, and the companies know this. If alone adult patronizes a fast food stall, the vendor will only profit from a single person’s meal, but if a child patronizes the stall, they bring the rest of their family with them. This is why fast-food chains often market their meals to children, including kiddy mascots and toys to attract children and their families. As previously mentioned, children are less likely to recognize the unhealthiness of fast food and what that can mean in their lives, and as such is easier to win them over with some goodies.
Children may also find fast food appealing because it may be “off-limits” to them. Most parents will teach their children that fast food is unhealthy and should not be consumed in place of regular food. Along with the stereotypical child detesting vegetables, they may begin to want to consume more fast food simply because they were told not to. Such children are also likely to appreciate the occasional time when their parents cave into their demands and allow them to have a meal of fast food. When the children become older and gain more independence over their lives, they may choose to consume fast food when away from their parents, perhaps as a sign of freedom or rebellion.
In addition, fast food is a convenient menu for those who are picky eaters or are unfamiliar with the local fare around them. Fast food is more or less the same all over the world, making it an easy choice regardless of whether the parents do not feel like cooking, are unable to find a dish their child will eat or are residing in a new place.
To the average child, fast food restaurants are special places they can visit on occasion, which give them toys and celebrate their birthdays for them. By working on creating fond memories for young children, fast food chains are paving the way for customer loyalty later on when the children grow up and reminisce about their childhood days.
Effects of Fast Food Consumption on Children
As most people would know, fast food is inherently unhealthy – it contains few nutrients, is packed with flavouring, and is full of fat.
Although fast food may not be very filling, it can pack a lot of calories. A single fast-food meal can contain anywhere from 160 to 310 kilocalories more than a regular meal, quickly adding to a person’s daily recommended intake. Without watching one’s diet, regular consumption of fast food is likely to put a person over their daily calorie limit. As such, children who consume fast food regularly are more likely to put on body fat, which can lead to obesity later on in adulthood.
Children who consume large amounts of fast food and little regular food may also be at risk for vitamin or mineral deficiency and osteoporosis later on in life. Fast food typically does not provide the nourishment that a body needs, such as vitamins A and C and the minerals magnesium and calcium.
Fast food also contains high levels of unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats. The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization found that the intake of saturated fatty acids is directly related to cardiovascular risk. Both saturated fats and trans fats increase the levels of bad cholesterol in the body, but trans fats also decrease the level of good cholesterol in addition. If these are taken in large amounts as with fast food on a regular basis, there could be a greater risk of heart disease. Trans fats also increase the risk of developing a myriad of other conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, liver complications and prostate and breast cancer. The recommended intake of trans fats per day is just two grams, but some fast-food items contain anywhere from 1.5 to five grams. While many fast-food restaurants have acknowledged the problem of trans fats and have attempted to remove them from their kitchens, trans fats are still a naturally occurring substance, especially in food items containing large amounts of meat, such as burgers with multiple patties.
Furthermore, fast food that is high in sugar content or the sugary drinks that often go with them can increase the chances of a child developing cavities in their teeth. In addition to the natural sweetness of food, many fast food items contain added sugars, which provide little nutrition but extra calories. For instance, one can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories, all of which come from the sugar content. The beverage itself does not contain any nutrients.
Fast Food Addiction
The strong taste of fast food can cause one to become addicted to it, especially early on in life when children have less self-control or rational thinking. Since fast food contains more salt and sugar than regular food, a child’s taste buds will quickly adapt and become used to the stronger flavours, thus causing them to become addicted. Additionally, old habits die hard – if a person grows up eating fast food on a regular basis, it is likely that they will retain the same eating habits in adulthood. To combat fast food addiction, it is imperative that the parents or caretakers of each child focus on highlighting the negative health effects of excessive fast food intake.