I must have been nine or 10 when I stopped cashing in on my free Culver’s custard. My family would stop by the chain after church, and I’d receive a kids’ meal in a paper bag. The bag featured a detachable coupon that invited me to visit the counter for a free scoop of fresh frozen custard. It was a great deal—but I was already conscious of my baby fat, so I usually threw the coupon in the trash. When I did choose to use the coupon, I was wracked with guilt, though it would take me years to figure out why. Thus began a cycle of restriction, obsession, and guilt that I’m still trying to break. Now, Dutch authorities are working to ban children from fast food restaurants altogether. No way this could backfire, right?
Why Dutch lawmakers want to set age limits on fast food
Dutch politicians have proposed a “minimum age to purchase fast food,” reports NL News, an English-language Dutch news source. The recommendation comes in a new report published by the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), a major political party in the Netherlands. Specifically, the CDA’s scientific institute proposed banning young children, and possibly older students, from buying fast food. “Because unhealthy food and drinks are so freely accessible, people become unnecessarily ill,” the CDA writes, claiming that “unhealthy eating now causes more damage than smoking.”
Christ. Okay. Let’s get into it.
Is fast food really that unhealthy?
The suggestion that “unhealthy eating” is more harmful than smoking was likely inspired by a 2019 study published in The Lancet. In that study, researchers analyzed the diets of people in 195 countries using survey data, sales data, and household expenditure data. Researchers then estimated the impact of “suboptimal diet” on the population, determining which “dietary risk factors” were the most likely to contribute to premature death. They found that high intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains, and low intake of fruits were the “leading dietary risk factors for deaths... globally and in many countries.”
The study is pretty straightforward at first read. But look a little closer at how the most deadly offender—high sodium—was evaluated in terms of its mortality risk. The researchers write: “To estimate the impact of sodium on outcomes, we first estimated the relationship between urinary sodium and change in systolic blood pressure, and then estimated the relationship between change in systolic blood pressure and disease outcomes.” In other words, the researchers estimated how sodium impacted blood pressure, and then evaluated high blood pressure’s role in disease outcomes.
It’s true that high sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure. But factors like taking prescription birth control pills, living in underserved communities, drinking too much coffee, and experiencing high stress levels also contribute to high blood pressure. This is especially important given the fact that the study was based on observational studies, which always run the risk of highlighting confounding biases. For example, an observational study might find that people who regularly listen to Mozart live longer than those who don’t. But that correlation could be explained by any number of external factors—for example, the possibility that people who regularly listen to Mozart are also able to prioritize leisure time, ostensibly experiencing lower stress levels than someone living a high-stress lifestyle with no time to jam out to The Magic Flute.
Banning kids from fast food restaurants misses the point
Here’s my biggest issue with the CBA’s proposition to introduce a minimum age to purchase fast food: It emphasizes the “bad” foods (foods high in sodium) while failing to acknowledge the “good” foods cited in 2019 study discussed above. According to that study, high intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains, and low intake of fruits were the “leading dietary risk factors.” But forbidding kids from ordering fast food doesn’t teach them how to incorporate more whole grains and fruits into their diet. It just perpetuates the idea that some foods are evil, to be avoided at all costs, without offering any sort of nutritional education. It demonizes certain foods, creating that sense of guilt with which I’m unfortunately very familiar.
It’s also worth noting that some fast food picks, while certainly high in sodium, have their nutritional merits. A Whopper with cheese has 32 grams of protein and a little over 50% of a consumer’s daily recommended sodium intake. Keep the rest of your day relatively low in sodium, and you’ve got yourself a decent lunch.
The CBA’s report isn’t all bad; the report also proposes that the Dutch government expand free school lunch offerings while subsidizing fruit and vegetables. Finally, the report suggests that municipalities should have the power to limit the number of fast food restaurants in metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, that proposal isn’t backed in love for small food businesses; it’s a shortsighted effort to further the so-called fight against obesity. And that “fight against obesity” is absolutely not synonymous with an effort to further public health.
An effort to further public health would focus on minimizing food deserts, investing in underserved communities, reducing messaging that promotes eating disorders in elementary schoolers—and, for what it’s worth, campaigning against the “alarming” prevalence of smoking among young Dutch adults, which has increased in recent years.
Make no mistake: I don’t care if the world’s fast food companies sink or swim. As far as I’m concerned, they’re pretty much all evil. But if we’re going to talk to kids about nutrition, the focus needs to be on adding nutrient-dense foods, not demonizing “bad” foods. Otherwise, you’re raising a population fixated on avoiding nutritional boogeymen—and there’s nothing healthy about that.