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Kids' Cuisine is Far From Lean

Chain restaurants serve fare loaded with fat, report contends

FRIDAY, Feb. 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The nation's leading table-service chain restaurants score dismally when it comes to providing healthy food choices for kids.

In fact, says a new study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), families might do better eating at fast-food establishments for all the nutritional value they're getting.

The study found loads of calories, bad fats and salt in items on kids' menus at restaurants such as Applebee's, Chili's and Outback Steakhouse. The study was released Tuesday at a briefing in Washington, D.C.

"The trans fat, saturated fat and sodium that are in these meals are stunningly bad," says Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center in New York City, who was not involved with the research. "I think what parents need to understand is that letting your children eat this kind of food over time is like putting a loaded gun to their head."

Part of the problem, though, is that the consequences are not immediate, Heller says.

"The problem with these junk foods or restaurant foods is that they look good and they taste good and you don't see the harmful results for many years. And that's why people tend to think it's OK, because you don't see an immediate bad result," Heller adds. "You're not physically ill or breaking out in hives."

This does not bode well for the burgeoning waistlines of the nation's children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overweight and obese youth has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

Moreover, CSPI states, kids are getting a third of their calories from various chain restaurants. Studies show that kids eat nearly double the calories when they eat out versus eating at home.

In response to the study, the National Restaurant Association issued a statement saying: "This is yet another stale and worn-out attempt by CSPI to sensationalize an issue and feed the media and consumers with negative messages that vilify the food industry. The fact is that every day, our nation's 878,000 restaurants provide numerous options to accommodate all types of eating plans -- South Beach, Atkins, low-calorie, vegetarian, just to name a few. And, as the industry of choice and hospitality, restaurants have been incredibly responsive to meet the dietary needs and requests of all consumers, including using alternative food preparation methods -- baked, grilled, broiled, poached or steamed."

"CSPI seems to continually forget in their various attempts to target foods that 'calories in' is only one part of the equation to living a healthy lifestyle," the statement adds. "Balance and moderation in diet, complemented by physical activity, is key to healthier living. And, dietary experts maintain that there are no 'good foods' or 'bad foods,' and that all foods can be part of a balanced diet."

For the study, CSPI analyzed children's menus at 20 of the nation's leading table-service chain restaurants. French fries were available on all but one menu. Hamburgers were offered on 85 percent of menus. Many menus offered complimentary biscuits or cornbread and dessert.

The independent laboratory commissioned by CSPI analyzed typical foods from Applebee's, Chili's, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster.

Many of the menu choices met the government's daily recommendation (1,500 calories and 17 grams of saturated fat or more) in one meal.

In many cases, the children's meals surpassed those of adults in health dangers, CSPI says. Outback's Boomerang Cheese Burger with Fries, for instance, has 840 calories and 31 grams of saturated-plus-trans fat, the group says. An adult would have to consume a sirloin steak, a filet mignon and three pats of butter to achieve the same level of decadence.

Other key points, according to CSPI:

  • The worst kids' menu item was Outback's Spotted Dog Sundae with chocolate sauce and 730 calories and 27 grams of bad fat. A cheeseburger, fries, Coke and sundae at Outback provides 1,700 calories and 58 grams of bad fat -- or enough for three and a half days.
  • Applebee's grilled cheese sandwich has 520 calories and 14 grams of bad fat. Add fries with that and you have 900 calories and more than a day's quota of bad fat.
  • Chili's Little Chicken Crispers provide 360 calories and eight grams of bad fat. With fries, that comes to 710 calories and 15 grams of bad fat, the same as two McDonald's Quarter Pounders.
  • A cheeseburger and fries at Denny's will net you 760 calories and 39 grams of saturated fat.

There were a few lite notes in the study. Red Lobster's new menu offers a free appetizer of fresh carrot sticks and cucumbers or applesauce. It also offers three new, lower-calorie entrees: Snow Crab Legs, Grilled Mahi-Mahi and Grilled Chicken, all with steamed vegetables.

Macaroni Grill and Cracker Barrel offer grilled chicken (with a vegetable side, the Cracker Barrel meal has only 160 calories and one gram of saturated fat) and Olive Garden offers a relatively healthful Spaghetti & Tomato Sauce kids' meal (420 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat), the report states.

Dramatic nutritional differences between similar items at different restaurants prompted CSPI to call for nutritional information to be provided on menus. Legislation requiring such information is pending in five states and the District of Columbia. This week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced his plan to introduce the Menu Education and Labeling Act (MEAL) in the Senate. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced similar legislation in the House last year.

While much of the change must come from these higher levels, individual consumers can also make a difference, health experts say.

"People can go to their local restaurant where they probably know the manager and request healthier food options," Heller says. "It's a local restaurant even if it's a chain. The people working there are local and you get to know them."

And eating habits on the home front can make a difference when eating out. "If children are used to eating healthy choices at home, they are more likely to make healthy choices when eating out," Heller says.

More information

Go to CSPI for the full report on children's restaurant menus. For more on children's nutrition, visit USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

SOURCES: Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; statement from National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C.; Center for Science in the Public Interest report, Kids' Cuisine
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