Americans’ love affair with fast food may be far from over, but there are signs we may be cutting down on French fries, greasy burgers and other artery-clogging food, according to a new study.
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A survey released on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, on average, adults consumed about 11.3 percent of their daily calorie intake from fast food in the 2007-2010 period – a drop from 12.8 percent in 2003-2006.
The CDC noted that more frequent fast-food consumption is associated with higher energy and fat intake and lower intake of healthful nutrients.
During 2007–2010, the highest percentage of calories from fast food was consumed among adults aged 20–39, the survey said. But among non-Hispanic black adults in that group, 21 percent of their calories were consumed from fast food. Cheryl Fryar, one of the authors of the study, said that while calorie intake was higher in young blacks than young whites, there was little racial or ethnicity differences in older Americans. She noted that the percentage of fast-food calories in the diet dropped to as low as 6 percent in the 60-plus age group. There was little difference between men and women, she said.
Bethene Ervin, the other author of the CDC survey, declined to draw any conclusions from the results. “We do not do public health,” she said. “(But) the lower calories from fast food may indicate that the public health messages are getting through.” Other nutrition experts said it might show that Americans are eating more salads and other healthy alternatives offered by fast-food chains.
The survey results come almost 10 years after the film “Supersize Me” highlighted the danger of diets heavy on fast food, such as hamburgers, French fries and pizza. In the film, director Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald's food for 30 days. As a result, he gained 24.5 pounds (11.1 kg), his body mass increased by 13 percent and his cholesterol level shot up to 230. It took Spurlock fourteen months to lose the weight gained from his experiment. Madelyn Fernstrom, a nutritional scientist and diet and nutrition editor for TODAY, said the CDC numbers were “a big surprise for two reasons.
“Firstly, that it is not what we hear about everyone chowing down on fast food for every meal. It is surprising that fast-food calorie content is now only 11 percent, that’s a big drop. Is it that the message about excess fat, calories and salt is getting through? Or that people are choosing healthier options?”
Fernstrom said the second significant finding was that the fast-food calorie intake dropped dramatically as people age. “It could be cost related, or is it because people are becoming more health conscious?” She said it was expected that there would be higher calorie consumption in the 20-39 age group as younger people do not think so much about the health effects of food.
“Maybe you don’t listen at 30, but you do at 60 when you are more vulnerable to clogged arteries of high blood pressure.”
Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said there is evidence that the obesity epidemic in the United States is beginning to plateau, “so these results aren't hugely surprising.”
Commenting on the lower fast-food calorie intake, he said it was not clear if people were cutting back on how often they went to fast food restaurants or simply ordered healthier menu options. “Nowadays, they're offering a whole plethora of lower-calorie alternatives,” such as salads, low-fat dressings, low-calorie yogurt or desserts, smaller portions, low-fat and fat-free milk and water.
“It's no longer about where you eat, it's about what you choose when you're there. I can't say for sure, but I believe McDonald's is still doing robust business, and if more of that is coming from lower-calorie foods, salads, fresh fruit, etc., then that's terrific,” Ayoob told NBCNews.com.
“It takes people a long time to change their ways and habits, but when they change them for the better and learn to enjoy the change, that's a win-win,” he said.
Also on Thursday, the CDC released the results of another nutrition survey – on adolescents -- but its conclusions were less striking. Comparing 1999-2000 with 2009-2010, it found that boys and girls aged 2-19 both consumed more protein and fewer carbohydrates but there was no notable difference in fat consumption.