New study confirms our worst fears about why kids are getting fat

You hear scare stories about how kids in the U.S. are gaining weight because of our fast food culture. But is there science to back up the anecdotes? Now there is.

Sometimes science makes us say "Duh." This is one of those times. But a seemingly obvious finding — that children consume more sugar and calories when eating out than eating at home — isn't the result of useless science; science is at its best when it's applying rigor and rationality to anecdote and dogma.

At last we have strong evidence that when kids eat out, they gain weight from those augmented portion sizes, delicious cheesy carbs and sugar-saturated sodas. The more you eat away from home, the more calories you will consume.

In a study published in the latest issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researcher Lisa Powell and her colleagues at the Institue for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the eating habits of close to 10,000 kids between the ages of 2 and 19. (Data was collected from the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Survey.) The investigation was the first to examine fast-food and full-service restaurants separately in comparison with meals eaten at home, with home-eaten meals defined as having been a) prepared at home, or b) brought home from a restaurant in the form of takeout.

Some key findings from the study:

  • Kids in this country eat out ALL THE TIME. About one third of kids ages 2—11 consume fast food on any given day. If you look just at adolescents, that number jumps to over 40%.
  • Nutrient intake in kids falls to shit when eating outside the house. Overall consumption of sugar, total fat, saturated fat and sodium were all shown to be significantly higher at fast food and full service restaurants alike than meals eaten at home.
  • Want specifics? On days that adolescents consumed fast food, they took in an additional 309 calories, while 2 through 11-year-olds took in an additional 126. Full-service dining led to a daily caloric surplus of 267 in teens and 160 in children.
  • Just being out of the house is bad for you. Kids who picked up food to go and ate it at home were found to consume half as much soda as those who opted to eat at the restaurant. "We attribute that to the free refills," said Powell in a statement.

There's more, of course. The researchers add even more data to the growing body of evidence that suggests fast food has an even more detrimental effect on health and diet in poorer populations. Low-income teens, for example, took in more sugar, total fat, saturated fat and sodium than their higher-income peers.

"When lower-income youths are eating fast food, they are choosing more energy-dense, lower quality foods that tend to be higher in fats and sodium and can be purchased cheaply," said Powell. "They are not going to the fast-food restaurant and getting a salad or the healthier turkey sub with lots of veggies."

Powell's study is published in the latest issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Top image screencapped from Parks and Rec