There’s little doubt that the healthy lifestyle movement in this country over the last decade or so has brought about many positive changes to America’s eating habits. Today, people are much more interested in the foods they eat and where it comes from, as well as in a more direct farm-to-consumer connection to the products they buy.
According to Innova Market Insights, 7 out of 10 U.S. consumers want to know and understand the ingredient lists on packaged goods. The most popular place to eat out this year may surprise you. It’s your home, says consumer trend tracking organization NPD. Today, approximately half of dinners purchased from a restaurant are consumed at home. Many of these meals are ready-to-eat from foodservice establishments, many of which are fast-food restaurants. It is here where the healthy lifestyle trend sheet starts tipping in the wrong direction.
According to new research from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, the number of children in the U.S. eating fast food remains a major concern. In fact, of those surveyed for the Rudd Center report, 91 percent of parents admitted purchasing a meal for their child at one of the four largest fast-food chains in the past week. Despite leading fast food restaurant chains’ commitment to offering healthier kids meal options, most 2- to 11-year-olds continue to get unhealthy drinks and side items with their meals.
The authors of the report remind people that even if the fast food offered at restaurants is billed as healthy, most fast-food meals still consist of chicken nuggets, burgers and fries. Researchers found that once families are actually in the restaurants, kids are still eating the less-healthy options. The healthier offerings, it appears, are not making much of a difference. While healthy choices seem to resonate with parents and get them in the door, in most instances, parents are not given healthy kids meal items automatically. Researchers believe the study is of additional interest because it demonstrates the power of defaults in consumer decision-making. If not offered a healthier choice, parents generally will not ask for one.
Past studies also show fast-food restaurants inconsistently follow voluntary pledges to make healthier fast food readily available. The study concludes voluntary policies as currently implemented are unlikely to substantially reduce children’s fast-food consumption overall, or to increase their consumption of healthy items.
“It’s important to communicate that fast-food meals are not healthy options,” Jennifer Harris, the director of marketing initiatives for the University of Connecticut Rudd Center, told CBS News. “Replacing soda with milk or water doesn’t make the meal healthy,” she adds. “It’s a small step, but in the right direction.”
California recently became to first state to pass a healthy kids meal initiative requiring establishments to make the healthier options known at the point of purchase. Similar regulations have been passed in cities such as Louisville and Baltimore, and others have been proposed in major cities like New York City and Washington, D.C.
Fast-food restaurants serve an estimated 50 million Americans every day. According to Business Insider, America eats more fast food than any country in the world. The disturbing fact is that these unhealthy eating habits are the No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S., according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Fast food is not the only contributor to the problem. We continue to consume more packaged food than fresh food – and by a wide margin. Then there is the wider category of food Americans love to eat. It is referred to as “junk food,” food that is high in calories and low in nutritional content – but hard to resist.
We are attracted to junk food for a number of reasons, including convenience, price and taste. Children who do not always understand the health consequences of their eating habits are most vulnerable to its appeal. For kids, junk food can be especially addictive.
For those who may think the term “addictive” as overstatement, consider a recent report published in Appetite, an international research journal. According to the report, junk-food lovers who try to cut back on fries or chocolate may experience symptoms similar to drug withdrawal.
As reported in Live Science, researchers found that participants in this self-reported study who were attempting to cut down on eating highly processed foods experience some of the same physical and psychological symptoms as withdrawal from drugs or alcohol; they include mood swings, cravings, anxiety, headaches and poor sleep.
According to the data, withdrawal symptoms were most intense between the second and fifth days after attempting to reduce junk-food consumption, which parallels the timespan people experience during drug withdrawal.
Until now, there has not been a reliable way to measure food-related withdrawal symptoms in humans. A next step would be to measure these effects in real time, while people are actually reducing their junk-food consumption.
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