By Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc., Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest
Soda and sugar drinks are the single largest source of calories in children’s diets. They provide nearly half of kids’ added sugar intake. They promote obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, yet more than three-quarters of the top restaurant chains offer sugar drinks with their kids’ meals. Moreover, these disease-promoting drinks are usually paired with food that is too high in calories, salt, and saturated fat. Our last study showed that 97 percent of kids’ meal combinations at the top chain restaurants are of poor nutritional value.
What’s wrong with this picture?
With one in three children overweight or obese, it no longer makes sense to include sugary beverages in restaurant meals for young children. McDonald’s announced last fall that it will stop listing soda as an option on menu boards for its Happy Meals, joining Subway, Chipotle, Arby’s, and Panera, which already dropped sugar drinks from their kids’ menus. But most of the top chains, including Wendy’s, Burger King, and Chili’s, still promote sugary beverages as part of their children’s menus. Disease-promoting beverages like Coca-Cola and Pepsi never should have become the default restaurant beverage for adults, let alone children. A 2001 study published in the Lancet found that drinking just one additional sugar drink a day increases a child’s chances of becoming obese.
That’s why more than 160 health organizations and nutrition experts sent letters to the largest restaurant chains asking them to remove soda and other sugar drinks from their children’s menus.
But now we need your help. Please take a minute and send a letter to restaurants, asking them to take soda and other sugary drinks off their kids’ menus. Or tweet at your favorite restaurant and urge them to stop promoting sugar drinks to kids.
Another way you can help improve the nutritional quality of restaurant kids’ meals is to support state and local kids’ meals policies. There are a number of different approaches advocates can take including:
- Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from children’s menus;
- Setting nutrition standards for restaurant children’s meals;
- Setting nutrition standards for children’s meals that can include toys or other incentives, like Santa Clara County, CA and San Francisco have.
Nutrition standards for restaurant children’s meals are not big government interfering with parental responsibility. Restaurants should do more to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings to help parents feed their children healthfully. If restaurants won’t do that on their own, cities and states should nudge them in the right direction. One of our coalition partners, the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN)—a project of ChangeLab Solutions—has drafted a model policy that can be used by states or localities to set nutrition standards for kids’ meals that come with toys and is currently drafting a model ordinance for the other policies. The Food Marketing Workgroup, which I co-chair, has additional resources on the topic, and CSPI is available to provide technical assistance, strategic advice, and support on the issue.
In addition to working on a state bill or city ordinance in your community, you can also work with your local restaurants, museums, parks, zoos—any place that kids spend time and eat. Encourage them to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from their children’s menus and offer water, seltzer, or low-fat milk instead. You also can encourage them to join the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, which helps restaurants offer healthier kid options.
Parents face an enormous uphill battle when it comes to feeding their kids a healthy diet. Restaurant chains make that job much harder by making a sugary beverage the automatic drink in kids’ meals. It’s time for restaurants like Wendy’s and Applebee’s to follow McDonald’s lead.
If you would like more information about how to support a kids’ meal policy in your state, city, or county, please contact me or my colleague, Kate Klimczak, at email@example.com.
Margo G. Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one of the country’s leading health advocacy organizations that specializes in food, nutrition, and obesity prevention. Dr. Wootan received her B.S. in nutrition from Cornell University and her doctorate in nutrition from Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Wootan co-founded and coordinates the activities of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) and the Food Marketing Workgroup. She has coordinated and led efforts to require calorie labeling at fast-food and other chain restaurants, require trans fat labeling on packaged foods, improve school foods, reduce junk-food marketing aimed at children, and expand nutrition and physical activity programs at CDC. Wootan has received numerous awards and is quoted regularly in the nation’s major media.
feature image credit: https://flic.kr/p/cpqedy