Impact of the Most Popular Fast Foods on Children's Health

Our children may love fast foods, but they contain ingredients that can affect their physical and even their mental health.
Impact of the Most Popular Fast Foods on Children's Health

Last update: 26 June, 2023

Fast foods are among the best-selling foods in the world, but also the most addictive. Their taste, the speed of preparation, and how appetizing they can be are the characteristics that tempt us the most. However, science assures that they’re linked to certain diseases from an early age. Therefore, in this article, we’ll address the impact of the most popular fast foods on children’s health.

Excessive consumption of fast foods can jeopardize children’s nutrition, either by deficit or excess. What consequences can they cause in children, how do they affect their requirements, and how can they be replaced by healthier foods? These are some of the points that we’ll address in this article.

What are fast foods and how do they affect our children’s nutritional requirements?

As explained in a review of the journal Medical & Clinical Reviews, fast foods are those that can be served “ready to eat” in a short time. This term and “junk food” have been used synonymously, but there are some differences. Therefore, some fast foods, depending on their ingredients, can be considered junk food. For example, if their ingredients are very caloric, have excess sugars, salt, additives, and trans fats.

Among the fast foods popular with children are hamburgers, pizzas, nuggets, fried chicken, french fries, tacos, hot dogs, prepared sweets, ice cream, desserts, donuts, and sodas, among others.

How do fast foods affect the nutritional requirements of children?

The rapid growth and development of children require a balanced diet with an appropriate distribution of nutrients. The Spanish Society of Outpatient Pediatrics recommends distributing total daily calories as follows: 50-60% carbohydrates (only 10% refined), 10-15% protein, and 30-35% fat (balanced between animal and vegetable).

Are fast foods balanced? Let’s look at a personal-size extra cheese pizza of 232 grams. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) this is what it provides:

  • Calories: 630 Kcal
  • Protein: 26 grams
  • Fat: 25 grams
  • Saturated fat: 10 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 74 grams

For a school-age child between 7 and 12 years old, 2000 calories per day are recommended. This personal pizza provides 30% of all their calories for the day. Of the nutrients to be ingested, proteins account for 50 %, fats for almost 40 %, and carbohydrates for 30 %. Undoubtedly, these values represent a surplus, as the rest of the meals must also be taken into account.

A young girl grabbing a slice of pizza from a delivery box.
The excess of fast food in children’s diets leads to imbalances in their nutritional requirements.

Learn about the impact of fast foods on children’s health

With an eye on the effect of fast foods on children’s requirements, it’s logical to think that their frequent consumption affects their health in the short, medium, and long term. Let’s see what the evidence shows.

Digestive problems

In the short term, excessive consumption of fast foods can cause digestive disorders in children. These foods are characterized by an excess of saturated and trans fat, which leads to slower digestion, accompanied by reflux and heartburn.

Possible sleep disturbances

Sleep disturbances may appear in the medium term, depending on the frequency of consumption. In this regard, the journal Public Health Nutrition studied the patterns in children who consumed sugary drinks on a regular basis. They found that the consumption of soft drinks (at least once a day) caused shorter sleep. On the other hand, those who drank these drinks once a week or never had longer and deeper sleep.

Obesity and excess weight

In the medium term, obesity and excess weight are among the most feared consequences in the child population. As stated by the authors of an article published in BMJ Open, there’s a significant relationship between fast food consumption and a higher body mass index (BMI) in children and adolescents.

Furthermore, different studies analyzed in the journal Obesity Reviews in 2019, conclude that excessive visits to fast food restaurants also become a risk factor for childhood obesity. It’s important to remember that obesity can be a starting point for other chronic non-communicable diseases in adulthood, such as type-2 diabetes, metabolic disorder, or cardiovascular disease.

Behavioral problems and hyperactivity

Child and adolescent behavior is also altered by fast food. In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, a higher rate of suicide attempts was detected in the young people studied who consumed this type of food compared to those who didn’t. However, due to the type of study design, it’s not possible to establish a causal relationship between the two phenomena.

At the same time, in 2022, the journal SAGE Open reported a positive correlation between the frequency of fast food consumption and the development of aggressive behaviors in adolescents.

In addition, another study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded something surprising: 33% of children who ate “junk food” in early childhood scored higher than others on the hyperactivity subscale of a parent questionnaire taken at 7 years of age.

Decreased academic performance

In the long term, the frequency of fast food consumption could also affect children’s school performance. In this regard, Drs. Purtell and Gershoff found that high levels of fast food consumption would be a negative indicator of the development of academic skills. And it’s worth mentioning that high levels of intake referred to the consumption of hamburgers, pizzas, fried chicken, tacos, and soft drinks more than 4 times a week.

A young girl coughing into her hand.
According to several studies, fast foods are also related to asthma, allergic rhinitis, severe eczema, and severe rhino-conjunctivitis, among other problems.

Asthma and allergic diseases

According to the sensitivity of the child, this health problem may occur in the short or medium term. In this regard, the journal Respirology, made it clear in 2018 that the consumption of hamburgers and the probability of developing severe asthma would be a dose-dependent association.


As stated in the journal Annals of Continuing Pediatrics, depression in children and adolescents affects development, academic performance, and interpersonal relationships. Likewise, a study conducted on adolescents published in the journal Nutrients indicated that high consumption of ultra-heavy foods may increase symptoms associated with poor mental health.

Don’t stop reading: Careful! These Foods Are Not Safe For Children

How to adapt fast foods to make them healthier

Fast foods are characterized by fatty, salty, caloric, and nutrient-poor ingredients. However, by substituting some of them, we can transform them into healthier preparations. Here are some tips:

  • Hamburgers: You can replace refined wheat bread with whole wheat bread covered with sesame seeds. Prepare meat with lean cuts or skinless chicken, grilled or broiled. Lentil or soy meats are also good options.
  • French fries: Substitute them for baked potatoes with a little rosemary and thyme.
  • Pizza: Prepare it with whole wheat pita bread, cottage cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, and natural tomato and onion sauce.
  • Fresh whole fruits: Use them as dessert preferably in restaurants and salads as appetizers.
  • Soft drinks: Instead, you can offer natural fruit juices, tea, or cold milk.

Should children forget about fast foods altogether?

The impact of the most popular fast foods on children’s health is overwhelming. The frequency of consumption and the excessive use of harmful ingredients are what affect children the most. Therefore, alternatives should be sought so as not to completely deprive our children of an appetizing meal that also brings them joy.

To do so, healthy ingredients can be used to increase the value of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial fats. For example, whole-grain flours, lean proteins, olive oil, and yogurt-based dressings.

Also, don’t forget to provide health and nutrition education with family modeling, from food shopping to preparing healthy recipes and promoting good eating habits. Finally, it’s not unreasonable to invite them once a month to have a fast food meal, although always with the guidance and orientation of what they’ve learned at home.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.