In February, a new report was released that showed a staggering 43-percent drop in the obesity rates of 2-to-5 year olds.
The report, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and originally published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cited a number of factors for the downward trend, including:
But what about the restaurant industry and its efforts promoting healthier kids' offerings? Although not mentioned specifically in the CDC report, Joan McGlockton, vice president of Food Policy for the Kids LiveWell program, said the industry has "absolutely" helped make a difference.
Kids' nutrition consistently a top trend
Kids' nutrition has been listed near the top of on the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot" survey for the past three years. Brands have both driven and responded to this trend. For example, McDonald's began offering its "healthier" Happy Meal in 2011, with apples and a smaller portion of French fries. Last year, Wendy's added a grilled chicken wrap to its kids' meals and KFC rolled out its Li'l Bucket Kids Meal, with a grilled drumstick, green beans and applesauce.
And, just last month, Burger King made its lower-calorie Satisfries the standard for its kids' meals. The company also includes apple slices and fat-free milk. In a news release, nutritionist Keri Gans said BK's move was important because "it can be a challenge to get (kids) to enjoy eating these choices. Making small changes like including Satisfries can definitely make a difference."
Another indication of the restaurant industry's embrace of this trend is the Kids LiveWell program's fast growth. Since its initial launch less than three years ago, it has grown from 19 participating brands to more than 145.
The initiative was launched in 2011 by the NRA and Healthy Dining and included 19 initial chains "striving to provide parents and children with healthier food and beverage selections when dining out." The voluntary participation entails qualifying criteria based on leading health organizations' scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. The primary focus of the program is to encourage an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, grains and low-fat dairy, and to limit unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.
"Kids LiveWell is one example of how much effort the industry has put into making sure our children are eating healthier. We've seen this as a top trend consistently for the past several years. It's clear the consumer demand and interest is there and the restaurant industry has responded," McGlockton said.
Restaurants' responsibility to participate
Part of the reason the industry has responded to an increased demand for healthier kids' options is because it has an obligation, McGlockton added. The restaurant industry, after all, is the second largest in the U.S., and is expected to pull in about $683 billion in sales this year.
"More consumers are eating at restaurants now. The industry needs to own part of the approach to solving childhood obesity," McGlockton said. "How they're doing that is by offering more choices and options for consumers."
For example, since the Kids LiveWell program launched, 435 full meals (entrée, side and beverage) have been introduced meeting the program criteria. Also, 512 servings of fruit have been added to menus, as well as 393 servings of vegetables, 294 servings of lean protein, 172 servings of low-fat dairy and 91 servings of whole grains.
But although progress has been made, much work is left to be done, McGlockton said. The biggest approach the industry has taken so far, and will continue to take, is reformulation — or what McGlockton calls "stealth-health" — which is reducing sodium levels and "those types of ingredients."
Also, chefs and R&D departments have been experimenting with healthier, flavorful, options for kids. These types of recipes are also encouraged through the Kids LiveWell recipe challenge, now in its second year.
"We just started reviewing these recipes and to see the creativity with the use of fruits and vegetables and ingredients you haven't seen in kids' meals in the past is really exciting. This isn't about just changing the breading on chicken tenders, it's about making pasta out of squash, or chocolate ice cream out of hummus," McGlockton said.
In addition to depending on the chefs for a healthier shift, it's also important for operators and brands to work with their supply chain to ensure healthier ingredients, and to even include kids in the process as part of focus groups. All of these efforts can help the industry maintain momentum on the falling obesity rate trend, McGlockton said.
"I joined the association three years ago and then it was a discussion. But now the industry is actually coming together and making things happen. We're on the right path, we just have to keep moving in that direction," she said. "Obesity is so complicated — there are a lot of factors we can't control. But what we can control in the four walls of our restaurants is expanding options and educating customers so they know those options are there."