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Despite national initiative, dining out is still unhealthy for kids

National Restaurant Association Logo. (PRNewsFoto/National Restaurant Association)

By American Heart Association News

National Restaurant Association's initiative to help make kids' meals healthier hasn't worked as well as expected.
National Restaurant Association’s initiative to help make kids’ meals healthier hasn’t worked as well as expected.

Parents frustrated with a barrage of unhealthy meal choices for their children when dining out were supposed to get a hand when the National Restaurant Association started an initiative six years ago to help cut calories, fat and sugar in kids’ meals.

But a recent report finds the program has been largely ineffective at boosting the nutritional value of menu items aimed at children. The findings come at a time when an increasing number of municipalities are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to helping kids eat more healthfully.

“Because there’s been so little progress in improving the nutritional quality of restaurant kids’ meals, a number of states and localities have passed or introduced kids’ meal policies,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

So far, only four jurisdictions have passed such rules, all in California. San Francisco and Santa Clara County adopted laws in 2010 setting nutrition standards for any restaurant kids’ meal that offered toys or prizes. In 2015, Davis passed an ordinance making water and milk the default options for any menu geared toward children. Stockton passed a similar bill last June.

But Wootan said city councils or state legislative bodies in Chicago, New York, Hawaii and Vermont and other cities have introduced or are considering similar measures.

“It’s well within the authority of a state or locality to pass measures to protect the public’s health, and this is a business practice that contributes to heart disease, diabetes and childhood obesity,” she said.

Such measures bolster recent findings that self-regulation within the restaurant industry isn’t working.

The new study examined U.S. chain restaurants that made voluntary pledges to improve the nutritional quality of their children’s menu, as outlined in the Kids LiveWell program launched in 2011 by the National Restaurant Association.

By 2015, more than 150 chains with 42,000 locations participated in the program, which requires restaurants to offer at least one healthy entrée and one healthy side on their children’s menus.

But the restaurants failed to make any significant reductions in calories, saturated fat or sodium in their kids’ menus during the first three years of participating in the program, according to the study’s researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study also found that while soda gradually disappeared as drink options for kids, they were replaced by other sugary drinks and made up nearly 80 percent of beverage choices.

Dietician Alyssa Moran, the report’s lead author, described the Kids LiveWell program “as definitely a step in the right direction.”

“Their nutrition standards are actually quite strong,” she said, noting they include recommendations for more servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

“Ideally, we’d like restaurants to adopt these standards across all of the menu items that they’re marketing to kids,” she said.

Her study noted, citing federal statistics, that in 2011 and 2012, more than one in three children and teens ate fast-food meals every day. Children offered one nutritional option among more popular, but less healthy, items often won’t make enough of a difference for kids dining out.

“They see the hamburgers and French fries and chicken tenders, maybe next to one or two healthy options,” Moran said. “And it’s difficult for parents, when they have a kid pestering or nagging them for something less healthy, to make that more nutritious, healthy choice.”

The National Restaurant Association responded to the study’s findings in a statement.

“We have recently received this study and are currently reviewing it,” said Leslie Shedd, vice president of communications. “Kids LiveWell was started to promote healthy eating among children, and we welcome any opportunity to encourage children to make healthy choices.”

Wootan said part of the problem is that restaurants have failed to adjust their menus to reflect the fact that more people, especially families with young children, eat out far more often than they used to.

“It has become a way of life, and restaurants haven’t adjusted to that. Their menus still look as if we eat out very occasionally,” she said. “They’re full of high-fat, high-calorie splurges, when many times, it’s a Tuesday night when you have to work late, or your kid has soccer practice and you’d like to rely on a restaurant to feed your family. But too often it’s so difficult to find healthy options.”

That’s why she, like Moran, would like more Kids LiveWell restaurants to go far beyond offering the minimum one healthy menu option. Cities are looking for local laws to make a difference as well.

“It’s not enough to just have one grilled chicken breast amongst a minefield of fat, sugar and salt,” she said. “Because if your kid doesn’t like grilled chicken breast, you’re out of luck at a restaurant. Often times, there are no other healthy options.”