Calling them contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic, a non-profit advocacy group made up of nutritionists and physicians has named the five worst "healthy" fast-food meals for kids -- and some longtime favorites are on the list.
For the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) study, dietitians took a look at the calories, fat, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol content using data from the fast-food restaurants' websites. They focused on many of the 53 large and small chain restaurants that participate in Kids Live Well, a program aimed at increasing the "healthful" options on their menus. (McDonald's ubiquitous Happy Meal was also included in the study, even though the chain isn't part of the Live Well campaign.)
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"Frankly, passing off these meals as 'healthy' ought to be a crime at a time when 16.9 million American children and adolescents are obese," PCRM president Dr. Neal Barnard wrote in a blog post this week. "The focus on junk food targeted to kids is important, given how miserably the fast-food industry has failed to live up to its promise of self-regulation."
"Fast-food chains usually do little more than throw a few apple slices into kids meals in order to label them as 'healthy'," he added.
Number one on their worst-for-kids list is a "healthier" option from Chick-Fil-A: The Grilled Nuggets Kids' Meal, which comes with 6 chunks of grilled chicken, waffle potato fries, and low-fat chocolate milk. When you include fat content from the fries and the milk, the entire meal has 570 calories, 19 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 75 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,150 milligrams of sodium, and 23 grams of sugar.
In second place: McDonald's Cheeseburger Happy Meal. The combination of Cheeseburger, fries, apple slices, and low-fat white milk (plus a toy) contains 520 calories, 20 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 50 milligrams of cholesterol, 920 milligrams of sodium, and 22 grams of sugar.
Sonic's Kids' Jr. Burger Meal, with a burger, apple juice, and apple slices with fat-free caramel dipping sauce came in third with 550 calories, 17 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 35 milligrams of cholesterol, 715 milligrams of sodium, and a whopping 42 grams of sugar, thanks to that caramel sauce. "This meal contains more sugar than two Twinkies," the report points out.
Burger King's Hamburger Kids Meal, with fat-free milk and apple slices, has 380 calories, 10 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 40 milligrams of cholesterol, 615 milligrams of sodium, and 24 grams of suers, making it one of the best of the bunch. Still, 40 milligrams of cholesterol, the PCRM points out, is equal to six slices of fatty pork bacon.
Even family-style restaurants caught criticism for their so-called healthy options. Denny's Build Your Own Jr. Grand Slam -- egg whites, two slices of turkey bacon, hash browns, and orange juice -- has 332 calories, 11 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 40 milligrams of cholesterol, 570 milligrams of sodium, and 30 grams of sugar, and the PCRM takes issue with the fact that turkey bacon, while lower in fat than traditional bacon, is a processed food.
The recommended daily allowances for a child age 4 or older is 2,000 calories, 65 grams of fat, 20 grams of saturated fat, 300 grams of cholesterol, 2,400 milligrams of sodium (sugar is not a daily nutritional requirement). All five of these meals fall well within that range, though it's easy to see that there's still room for improvement, especially in terms of fat and sodium levels.
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PCRM is a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to good nutrition, preventive medicine, and higher ethical tankards in research. But they also have a long-held pro-vegetarian/vegan mission and have argued that eating meat is a major reason why so many people are obese in the United States. (In 2010, PCRM's director of nutrition education, Susan Levin, told the Washington Post in 2010 that when it comes to added fat, salt, and sugar in non-vegetarian foods, "You might as well just put heroin in it.") And the PCRM report seems to indicate that one reason they consider these particular kids' meals unhealthy is because all of them contain meat and dairy products.
"Kids are still getting cholesterol-laden chicken, artery-clogging cheeseburgers, and cancer-promoting processed meats," the report says. "Reduced-fat and fat-free plain or chocolate milk is often offered as a 'healthier' beverage option, but it still contributes to a meal's overall cholesterol and sugar counts."
Switching from fried to grilled doesn't make the meal healthier, either, as far as PCRM is concerned. Chick-fil-A's four-piece Kids Grilled Chicken Nuggets may have less fat (1 gram, per their website's meal calculator) than the six-piece fried version (9 grams), but "Grilled chicken is the largest source of PhIP, a potent carcinogen that may play a role in the development of breast, prostate, and other cancers," the report points out.
"PCRM does single out cholesterol on two occasions -- and I think that's a stretch," Dr. David Katz, the director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University, told The Huffington Post. "Dietary cholesterol is not a significant factor in cardiovascular health. So that's the one instance where their general opposition to animal foods shows through."
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