Fast Food Restaurants Not Fighting Child Obesity

A kid at McDonald's plays with a toy that came in a Happy meal. From the CBS Evening News, Nov. 8, 2010.

In a perfect world, American families would gather each night for a healthy, home-cooked meal. For many, dinner means fast food. Three years ago, the big chains promised to fight childhood obesity. A report out Monday suggests they've done the opposite.

The report is the most comprehensive study ever into fast food nutrition and marketing. It shows that out of more than 3,000 possible kids' meal combinations at the major chains, only 12 meet nutritional guidelines for pre-schoolers.

Last year, children ages 6 to 11 saw 26 percent more ads for McDonald's than they did just two years earlier.

First there's the hot new movie kids just have to see, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. Then there's the fast food movie toy tie-in they just have to get. And with the toys come things like a Happy Meal packed with calories and fat.

"They watched the movie, they wanted the toys. And it was a plus; they get something to eat they get a toy," says a parent.

It's of course a happy deal for marketers but an unhealthy deal for children.

A standard McDonald's Happy Meal of Chicken McNuggets, small fries and juice drink has 510 calories, 22 grams sugar, and 23 grams of fat.

Burger King's cheeseburger Kid's Meals contains 580 calories, even more sugar (27 grams) and slightly less fat (21 grams). By comparison, Subway's turkey sub kid's meal has 325 calories, more sugar (32 grams) but just 2.5 grams of fat.

The fast food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising last year and it's not just television. McDonald's has 13 different websites. Each month 365,000 kids and 294,000 teens visit those sites.

"If you look at television alone the average preschooler sees 2.8 ads on TV for fast food every day," says Jennifer Harris from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

And the ads work.

"Every time we pass by it he'll say he wants to go in," says a mother of a fast food restaurant.

Forty percent of young children ask to go to McDonalds every week. Fifteen percent of preschoolers ask every day. So 84 percent of parents say they've taken their kids for fast food at least once in the past week.

"The industry has been promising for years that it would do something about this," says Allen Kanner, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Self regulation is a trick, it's a farce, it's a joke."

Some think government needs to get involved. San Francisco just banned restaurants from handing out toys with meals if they contain more than 600 calories and more than 10 percent saturated fat.

In a written statement McDonald's tells CBS News "McDonald's remains committed to responsible marketing practices, including advertising and promotional campaigns for our youngest customers. We are proud of our menu."

McDonald's and Burger King both say they're only going to show their so-called "better for you items" in their advertisements from now on, things like low fat milk from McDonalds and apple slices from Burger King. Parents really have to ask for these things. If you go in and just order a kids meal, you're likely to get fries and soda.

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    Ben Tracy is a CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent based in Washington, D.C.