Fast food isn't causing childhood obesity - parents are, study finds

A new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that fast food consumption isn't responsible for rising childhood obesity rates.

The problem, researchers say, is poor dietary habits that originate in the home. Eating out at fast food restaurants is only part of the problem, but it does contribute to a pattern of consuming large amounts of processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found.

"Eating fast foods is just one behavior that results from those bad habits," said lead study investigator Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health. "Just because children who eat more fast food are the most likely to become obese does not prove that calories from fast foods bear the brunt of the blame."

The research

Popkin and his team studied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2007 and 2010. Factors like where children consumed food, how much they ate, what percentage of calories were coming from fast food, and how dietary habits were related to obesity risk were measured.

While only about 10 percent of children consumed 30 percent or more calories from fast food, the study presented evidence that dietary choices outside of fast food consumption had a bigger impact on overall nutrition and risk for obesity.

"While reducing fast-food intake is important, the rest of a child's diet should not be overlooked," Popkin said.

Assessing risk

Knowing where the childhood obesity problem is originating will provide better clues about how to address it, Popkin stressed.

"Children who rely on fast foods may tend to have parents who do not have the means, desire or time to purchase or prepare healthy foods at home," he said. "This is really what is driving children's obesity and what needs to be addressed in any solution."

Source: University of North Carolina

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