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Report finds kids' menus heavy on fat

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Restaurants and catering

(CNN) -- What's on the menu for kids at chain restaurants? Fat, grease and hidden calories, according to one nutrition advocacy group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest -- which has touted the health evils of movie theater popcorn and Chinese food in the past -- analyzed food choices for children at the top 20 sit-down chain restaurants. Results released Tuesday show that most kids' menus offer little variety and are loaded with foods that are fattening.

Hamburger or cheeseburgers were on 85 percent of the menus, and french fries accompanied almost all of the meals but one. Chicken fingers and pizza were also common items listed for youngsters, the report found.

The center said that many of the menu options met the federal government's daily recommendation for children of 1,500 calories and 17 grams of saturated fat -- or more -- in just one meal.

Healthy changes to adult menus at table service restaurants haven't transferred over to children's side, said study co-author Jayne Hurley at a press conference Tuesday in Washington.

"The kids' menus were replicating fast-food menus, except the portions are bigger so the calories and fat content are even higher at the table-service restaurants," Hurley said.

She said the research uncovered some startling nutritional information about food that's meant for children, including:

  • A Denny's cheeseburger and fries served up 760 calories and 39 grams of saturated fat. Substituting a healthier side item, such as the vegetable of the day, brought the calories down to around 380 and 19 grams of saturated fat.
  • A grilled cheese sandwich at Applebee's had 520 calories and 14 grams of saturated fat. Adding fries brought the total to 900 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat.
  • Outback Steakhouse offers a quarter-pound cheeseburger on its kids' menu, delivering 470 calories and more than a day's worth of saturated fat (18 grams).
  • The restaurants say they all offer healthy alternatives and if it isn't listed on the menu, parents simply need to ask.

    With families eating out more than ever, the center said these types of menus are affecting children's waistlines.

    The number of overweight and obese youth has nearly doubled in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and data suggests the levels are still on the rise.

    start quoteThe kids' menus were replicating fast-food menus, except the portions are bigger so the calories and fat content are even higher at the table-service restaurants.end quote
    -- study author Jayne Hurley

    Some restaurants did score well in the new study, and others have started to offer healthy options, such as vegetable sides or grilled instead of fried main courses.

    Cracker Barrel's menu offers grilled chicken tenderloins with a vegetable side, for example, weighing in at only 160 calories and one gram of saturated fat. The report said the Olive Garden's option of spaghetti and tomato sauce with a side salad had 420 calories and two grams of saturated fat.

    The group also said a recent overhaul of the kids' menu at Red Lobster has produced healthy results. The high-fat popcorn shrimp is still listed, but hamburgers and fried chicken have given way to grilled mahi-mahi or steamed crab legs.

    Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is introducing legislation Tuesday that would require large chain restaurants and vending machines to provide basic nutritional information about standard menu items.

    "This study shows that when it comes to diet and obesity, American parents are woefully uninformed," Harkin said at Tuesday's news briefing.

    "Parents still lack basic information on the calorie and fat content on the meals that they and their children eat at restaurants."

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