Quick, somebody get the nine-year-old media hero and her mom on the phone. Turns out that despite ads featuring cartoon characters and other means of “tricking” kids into eating at McDonald’s, very few of the total calories youngsters consume come from sodas and french fries consumed in fast-food restaurants.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that people of all ages consume a lot of junk they buy in grocery stores – which is a point I’ve made several times. The same people who like to heap blame on the fast-food industry are curiously silent about all the boxes of Cocoa Puffs and bags of potato chips sold in grocery stores.
In a study I read awhile back, researchers compared eating habits in areas with lots of fast-food restaurants and areas with almost no fast-food restaurants. They found virtually no difference in how much sugar and other carbage people consume. All that changes is where the sugar addicts go for their fix. Blaming a McDonald’s restaurant for the sugar addicts who live nearby is like blaming a tavern for the local alcoholics. Yes, sodas are cheap at McDonald’s … but if you want to see really cheap sodas, visit a Kroger. (Then write a thank-you letter to the USDA for subsidizing corn and thus corn syrup.)
But I digress.
The figures about where Americans get their calories come from a new study published in Nutrition Journal. Let’s look at some quotes about that study from an online article:
A new analysis of where Americans are getting their calories from has thrown up some surprising results, with the percentage of energy derived from so-called ‘junk-food’ such as soda, burgers and fries from fast-food chains proving to be somewhat lower than is often claimed.
Energy intakes of US children and adults by food purchase location and by specific food source, published in Nutrition Journal, is “the first-ever study of dietary energy intakes by age group, food purchase location and by specific food source”, claim its authors: Dr Adam Drewnowski and Dr Colin D Rehm from the University of Washington, Seattle.
As all foods consumed by participants in the government-run National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) are now color coded by location of purchase (eg. store, quick-service restaurant/pizza (QSR), full-service restaurant (FSR), school/workplace cafe, vending machine etc), it is possible to determine much more accurately where our calories are coming from, they explain.
The NHANES data is based on 24-hour recall. I’m not a big fan of food questionnaires that ask people to remember what they ate for the past year or more, but I think most of us can recall what we ate yesterday. The study’s authors note that people tend to under-report their junk-food intake, but I’m guessing that applies equally to fast-food junk and store-bought junk. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that the figures are reasonably accurate when it comes to food eaten out vs. food eaten at home.
Quoting from the actual study:
Contrary to popular belief, restaurant-sourced pizza, burgers, chicken and French fries accounted for less energy than store-sourced breads, grain-based desserts, pasta and soft drinks. For example, for adolescents in the 12-19y age group, QSR pizza accounted for 3.9% of total energy, whereas QSR French fried potatoes accounted for 1.7%. Interestingly, QSR sugar sweetened beverages provided 1.0-1.4% of dietary energy depending on age, whereas store-sourced beverages provided four times that.
So we’re looking at young people getting maybe 3% of their total calories from fast-food sodas and fries. Toss in the burgers and we’re up to about 5%. That would no doubt be a surprise to Roger Ebert and other people who believed Morgan Spurlock fingered the obesity-epidemic culprit in Super Size Me.
Fast-food consumption was highest among teens at about 17.5% of total calories. But teens still consumed nearly two-thirds of their calories at home, as did people in other age groups. But look at what they consume:
The top sources of energy for 6-11year-olds were grain-based desserts such as cakes, cookies, pies, pastries and donuts (6.9% of energy) and yeast breads (6.4% of energy). Those two food sources were among the top energy sources across all age groups.
Among adolescents, the top energy sources were soda, energy and sports drinks (8.2% of calories); pizza (7.2%); yeast breads (6.3%), and chicken and chicken mixed dishes (6.2%). Burgers contributed just 2% of energy and fries 2.7%.
Adults aged 20-50 derived 6.8% of energy from soda, energy and sports drinks; 6% from chicken and chicken mixed dishes; and 6.1% from yeast breads. 5.5% of energy came from grain-based desserts and 5.3% from alcoholic beverages.
Sounds like rather a lot of carbage. The online version of the study includes some tables, so I took the data for ages 12-19 and popped it into Excel. Then I marked the foods I consider carbage (sodas and energy drinks, pizza, pasta, fries, chips, donuts, cereals, breads, desserts and candy) and ran the numbers on those.
If the NHANES data is accurate, the nation’s teens are getting 47% of their calories from carbage — but only 9% of their total calories come from carbage consumed in fast-food restaurants. Just over 32% of their total calories come from carbage they consume at home. The remaining 6% of carbage-calories comes from full-service restaurants and “other” … whatever that means.
The same calculations for kids in the 6-11 group show that they consume slightly more carbage (49% of total calories) than their older siblings, but just 5.8% of their total calories come from fast-food carbage. So I have to conclude that cartoon characters, Happy Meals and other “tricks” aren’t the reason kids get fat. Kids consume five to six times more carbage at home than they do at fast-food restaurants. Hannah’s mom is going to have to start writing speeches the little media hero can deliver at grocery-industry conventions.
The online article about the study also notes that while Hizzoner Mayor Bloomberg exempted grocery stores from his large-soda ban, that’s where people buy the vast majority of their soda. There’s nothing I love more than a regulation that’s both onerous and ineffective.
Asked to comment on this interpretation of his data, co-author Dr Adam Drewnowski told FoodNavigator-USA: “Francis Collins and Griffin Rodgers (the director of the NIH and the NIDDK respectively) wrote in JAMA last year that faced with the obesity epidemic, public health authorities took whatever action they could, without necessarily waiting for data to arrive.
Government officials jumping in with recommendations and regulations without waiting for data to support their actions? Well, I am shocked.