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Originally published Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Happy Meals: hidden calories

Happy Meals make sorry nutrition, and most kids would be better off brown-bagging it than reaching for a bucket of the colonel's fried chicken...

Cox News Service

WASHINGTON — Happy Meals make sorry nutrition, and most kids would be better off brown-bagging it than reaching for a bucket of the colonel's fried chicken, a study released Monday asserts.

Fat-laden children's meals that pack up to 1,000 calories at a sitting are contributing to obesity and the long-term onset of heart disease and diabetes, warned Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based here.

The group surveyed 13 popular chain restaurants that offer children's menus and provide nutritional data.

The healthful choice: Subway, where a "Fresh Fit for Kids" meal — a half sub with turkey or ham, apple slices or raisins and low-fat milk — contains fewer than 430 calories, the limit the center considers healthy for children 4-8 years old.

The gut-buster was Chili's country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk, weighing in at a hefty 1,020 calories.

At five other places — Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Sonic, Jack in the Box and Chick-fil-A — every possible combination of a child's meal exceeds the 430-calorie limit.

McDonald's fared little better: 93 percent of its Happy Meal and related choices packed in too many calories, not to mention lots of fat and salt, said Wootan.

The typical American child now gets a third of his or her food from eating in restaurants, where he or she is being conditioned, she said, to expect limited offerings of high-calorie foods.

"Chain restaurants have not worked hard enough to come up with creative, healthy foods for children," Wootan told reporters here. "There's this myth out there that they will only eat burgers and pizza," she said. "It's just not true."

McDonald's fired back, saying it cooks up what its customers demand.

"McDonald's promotes a fun restaurant experience with well-balanced menu choices, which our customers appreciate and want," Neil Golden, chief marketing officer for McDonald's said in a statement.

Since last January, he said, McDonald's has advertised a 375-calorie Happy Meal of Chicken McNuggets, Apple Dippers and low-fat milk.

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Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC, cut heart-clogging trans fat from its kitchens last year. Its Web site touts its "lower fat, lower calorie choices," including vegetables and salads.

But one KFC children's option — called a Kids Laptop Meal — comes with popcorn chicken, baked beans, a biscuit, Teddy Grahams and fruit punch, teaming up for 940 calories, more than two-thirds of the 1,300 calories an active child needs all day, said Wootan.

There's a better way, said Cathy Nonas, director of nutrition programs for New York City. "I don't think they're offering what people are asking for. I think they are offering it and people are taking it," said Nonas. "People want healthier choices; when they're offered healthier choices, they'll take it."

New York is one of the few places in the country that makes fast-food restaurants show calorie counts on overhead menus. Wootan's group is pressing to extend such requirements around the country, so at least customers can make informed choices.

There's no turning back the clock to the days when fast-food outings were the once-in-a-while exception to the home-cooked meal.

"People are eating out more and more. It's really become a way of life," said Wootan.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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