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NYT: Does Fast Food Make Children Happier?

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Probably unnoticed by grown up people, food is not only meant to eat one's fill, it also provides happiness. This even seems to be more true with children.


Does Fast Food Make Children Happier?


<!-- By line --> <address class="byline author vcard">By Lisa Belkin, April 16, 2009, 3:59 pm</address> <!-- Summary --> <!-- The Content --> 22_food_weight.jpgFood/Weight

(Illustration by Barry Falls)

Fat and sugar makes children overweight, yes, but they also make children happier. Or, technically, less unhappy.

Those are the conclusions of two nutrition researchers published this month in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The authors, Hung-Hao Chang of National Taiwan University and Rodolfo Nayga, of the University of Arkansas, used data collected from 2,366 Taiwanese children in 2001, and looked at the relationship between how much fast food (defined as French fries, pizza and hamburgers) and soft drinks (defined as beverages containing sugar) the children consumed and their psychological health.

Their central finding was that while children who ate more of the above were more likely to be overweight, they were also less likely to report being unhappy.

So what are parents supposed to do with this information?

It’s not like we didn’t already know this. Our children have made it clear, what with their clamoring for chocolate and McDonald’s. That’s because fat and sugar taste good. “How do they know they like the French Fries better than the broccoli?” I mused to a friend while we lunched with our toddlers one day. “Because they’re not stupid,” she answered. “The French fries ARE better.”

And in spite of knowing this, we think it’s good parenting to limit unhealthy foods. Nayga, himself the father of a 13-year-old, still thinks that’s a good idea; his data has not changed his long-standing policy of “moderation” and “balance” at his house, as opposed to “extremes,” he told me in an e-mail interview.

The lesson of the data, he says, is, in effect, “lighten up.” Once in a while is more effective than an outright ban, he suggests, and our parental attempts to control a child’s diet — by limiting fast foods, and encouraging healthful ones — might be more successful if we recognize the link between food and happiness, and find ways to create that “happiness” in less caloric ways. With non-food treats, perhaps, or meal time traditions, or whatever works for your particular child.

There are different facets of well-being, the authors write in their journal article: “objective (i.e. obesity)” and “subjective (i.e. unhappiness),” and “policies and programs that aim to improve children’s overall health should take these effects on children’s objective and subjective well-being into account to facilitate the reduction in childhood obesity without sacrificing children’s degree of happiness.”

In other words, have a few French fries with that broccoli and everyone will be happier. Or, at least, a little less unhappy.

Update from Lisa Belkin: A few of the comments have noted that the study was of Taiwanese children, and wondered whether the results tell us much about American kids. The researchers have the same questions. Says Nayga: “I do believe that cultural norms could lead to different results in the US. However, food preferences especially among the young seem to be converging across cultures due to various reasons. Hence, it is possible that what we found using Taiwanese data could also be true in many other countries such as the US.”

This study, he says, is not prescriptive so much as informative. An added data point to the discussion about food choices, and a hint that the equation has emotional as well as nutritional components.

I see it not as definitive so much as “food for thought.” Like so many of the posts I write here, the point is the conversation that follows, the way an idea resonates, or doesn’t, with parents.

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Respected Suchandra,


Indeed a great article.


I like to mention that it is also important to get the reason behind children being happier eating junk food.


The reason may be the better taste gives good stimulation to child mind, or high blood glucose levels due to high calorie junk food or the third reason although less important may be the gratification of social need (The same phenomenon is behind the brand mania in children and youngsters).


If first two factors are important, then home made food should also arouse the same happiness in children, but in most cases it is not true.


Kind Regards


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