Kids' menus at top restaurant chains often exceed recommended calorie limits

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That surprise in your kid's meal isn't a toy — it's a big calorie count.

Most so-called kid's menu items sold by the top 200 restaurant chains in the United States contain more calories than are recommended by nutrition experts, according to a new study.

The average a la carte item on a kid's menu contained 147 percent more calories than what was recommended by a panel convened for the RAND Corporation study — which says "current kid's menu offerings are likely to be partly responsible for childhood obesity."

Fried potatoes were the biggest offenders, according to the study, published online Monday in the journal Nutrition Today. The average calorie count for any order of fries was 287 — almost triple the recommended amount for that item.

Researchers found that McDonald's was the only chain out of the 200 restaurant chains studied that served french fries in the recommended 100-calorie portions.

"The public may want to consider how they are at a disadvantage to prevent childhood obesity when so many food outlets serve foods in quantities that put their children at risk," said Dr. Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist at RAND, and co-author of the study.

Cohen and the other researchers said that a panel of 15 child nutrition experts convened for the study agreed that main dishes in kids' meals should not exceed 300 calories, with the entire meal consisting of no more than 600 calories.

The maximum recommended limits for side dishes were 100 calories for fried potatoes, 150 calories for soups, appetizers and snacks, and also 150 for vegetables and salads that included added sauces.

But restaurants regularly blew by those limits when serving children, the study found.

Burgers, which should contain 300 calories or less according to the panel, on average contain 465 calories. Macaroni and cheese, another main dish, contain an average of 442 calories.

Among the chains studied, an entree of two mini-Angus cheeseburgers had the most calories: 1,170 calories, or more than 770 calories beyond the recommended maximum, according to the report, which did not identify the outlet.

"Outlets most likely to serve kid's menu items in excess of 600 calories were full-serve restaurants," the report said.

The study noted that the excess calorie levels are worrisome both for the fact that children often eat in restaurants, and are not apt to watch their calorie intake or have it watched for them.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 1 out of every 3 kids in the U.S. eats at a fast-food restaurant on any given day. And more than 40 percent of teenagers hit a fast-food place each day.

At the same time "dozens of studies have shown that when adults are served more than they need, they eat more than they should. The same is true for children," the RAND report said.

Researchers said that many adults either ignore or don't understand calories information and added that it is "unrealistic to expect that, if served too much, children younger than 12 years will be able to limit what they consume."