Fast Food Consumption by U.S. Children

Childhood obesity has been on the rise in the United States for several years now, although recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that obesity rates among children may finally be plateauing. However, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents is still high. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), approximately one in three children and teenagers is obese or overweight.

Boy eating cheeseburger
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As the AHA notes, this rate is nearly triple what it was in 1963. And at least one of the many causes of the childhood obesity epidemic has to do with food sources for children—where today’s children and teens are getting their calories.

Where U.S. Children Get Their Calories

According to a report recently released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, over one-third of children and adolescents are consuming fast food on any given day.

The CDC researchers analyzed data based on where respondents reported getting their food over a 24-hour period; food that was reported as “restaurant fast food/pizza” was counted for the purposes of this report.

Based on these data, the CDC report found that in 2011 – 2012 (the most recent time period for which data could be analyzed), “children and adolescents consumed on average 12.4% of their daily calories from fast food restaurants.”

The report also found that calorie intake in the form of fast food was higher among teenagers than among younger children.

There also appeared to be a breakdown by race, speaking to ongoing health disparities: according to this report, Asian children were less likely to get their calories from fast food than were white, black or Hispanic children.

Interestingly, the report did not find any differences in fast food consumption according to weight status (using body mass index, or BMI) or to poverty status. Thus, children with normal weights were as likely as those who were overweight or obese to eat fast food, and children from low-income families were as likely to get as many calories from fast food as were children from higher-income families.

Also, the report did not find any significant difference between boys and girls overall in terms of the percentage of fast-food calories consumed.

Fast Food Linked to Weight Gain

As the CDC notes, “Consumption of fast food has been linked to weight gain in adults.” Poor nutrition choices with calorie-dense foods have also been linked to childhood obesity.

In addition, fast food is known to have high sodium and saturated fat contents, which are known to lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease over the long term. It is difficult to find truly nutritious choices in the fast-food realm, which also tends to be scarce when it comes to whole fruits and vegetables.

The National Center for Health Statistics has noted that 17% of children and adolescents in the United States are currently obese.

Aim to prepare a home-cooked meal for your children whenever possible--and, even better, let them help you with the preparation so they can learn firsthand what it is like to experience healthy cooking. Studies that have looked at the frequency of home meal preparation have found that people who eat more home-cooked meals are less likely to gain weight.

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  • Vikraman S, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Caloric intake from fast food among children and adolescents in the United States, 2011 – 2012. NCHS Data Brief No. 213, September 2015.

  • Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011 – 2012. JAMA. 2014;311(8):806-814.
  • Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA 2014; 311:806-814.

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.