Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
The Rudd Center Health Digest

November 2010

Rudd Center Releases Unprecedented Report on Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth


Children as young as age 2 are seeing more fast food ads than ever before, and restaurants rarely offer parents the healthy kids' meal choices, finds a new study from the Rudd Center.

The evaluation, the most comprehensive study of fast food nutrition and marketing ever conducted, shows that fast food marketers target children across a variety of media and in restaurants. In addition, the study finds that restaurants provide largely unhealthy defaults for the side dishes and drinks that come with kids' meals.

The report's authors studied marketing efforts of 12 of the nation's largest fast food chains, and examined the calories, fat, sugar, and sodium in more than 3,000 kids' meal combinations and 2,781 menu items. Their evaluation of marketing practices revealed that the fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising in 2009, focusing extensively on television, the internet, social media sites, and mobile applications.

"Despite pledges to improve their marketing practices, fast food companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids," said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, MBA, Rudd Center Director of Marketing Initiatives. "Today preschoolers see 21% more fast food ads on TV than they saw in 2003, and somewhat older children see 34% more."

Additional key study findings include:

  • Out of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations, only 12 meet the researchers’ nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.
  • Even though McDonald’s and Burger King show only healthy sides and beverages in child-targeted advertising, the restaurants automatically serve french fries with kids’ meals at least 86% of the time, and soft drinks at least 55% of the time.
  • Forty percent of children ages 2-11 ask their parents to go to McDonald’s at least once a week, and 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day. Eighty-four percent of parents report taking their child ages 2-11 to a fast food restaurant at least once in the past week. 
  • The average preschooler sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children ages 6-11 see three-and-a-half ads; and teens ages 12-17 see almost five ads per day.
  • Fast food advertising targeting preschoolers focuses on building brand loyalty rather than promoting specific food items.
  • McDonalds’ 13 websites get 365,000 unique child visitors ages 2-11 and 294,000 unique teen visitors ages 12-17 each month. Targeted marketing for fast food starts as young as age 2 through websites such as McDonalds’
  • Hispanic preschoolers see 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads each year. McDonald’s is responsible for one-quarter of young people’s exposure to Spanish-language fast food advertising.
  • African American children and teens see at least 50% more fast food ads than their white peers. McDonald’s and KFC, in particular, specifically target African American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites, and banner ads.

“Our results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough,” added study co-author Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, Rudd Center Director. “If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it.”

Major media outlets reported on the study, including Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, Time, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.

The website for the study,, includes the full report, report summary, and information and tools for consumers and researchers.

San Francisco’s Proposed Restrictions on Fast Food Toys

A struggle is occurring in San Francisco about a proposed requirement for fast food meals to meet nutrient standards in order to include toys. Sponsored by Supervisor Eric Mar and approved by the Board of Supervisors, the proposal was vetoed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. The Board’s eight of 11 votes in support of the proposal will allow it to override Mayor Newsom’s veto.

Under the proposed legislation, to include a toy meals must contain fewer than 600 calories, less than 35% of total calories from fat, fewer than 640 milligrams of sodium, fewer than 0.5 milligrams of trans fat, and at least half a cup of fruit and three-quarters a cup of vegetables (half a cup of either fruit or vegetables for breakfast meals). The law would take effect in December 2011.

New Public Policy Resources

Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Fact Sheets

The term “sugar-sweetened beverages” is usually associated with traditional carbonated beverages. However, this category of beverages has expanded substantially and now includes sports drinks, enhanced water, and energy drinks. Recent legislation calling for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has proposed including these drinks as taxable. However, some people may question their inclusion, believing these beverages are healthy. These Rudd Center fact sheets give the rationale for including sports drinks, enhanced water, and energy drinks in the sugar-sweetened beverage category, and offer guidelines for avoiding weight bias in sugar-sweetened beverage media campaigns.

Policy Strategies to Prevent Overweight and Obesity

As overweight and obesity rates continue to climb in the United States, public health researchers and advocates across the country are identifying the most promising strategies to reverse the epidemic. Many solutions focus on changing the environments in which people live. The Rudd Center created a list of policy strategies to highlight those with the greatest potential impact.

Upcoming Seminar Speakers

December 1, 12:30 pm
Dana M. Small, PhD
Associate Fellow, The John B. Pierce Laboratory; Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry; Yale School of Medicine
The Dynamic Interaction Between Brain, BMI, and Food

December 8, 12:30 pm
Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH
Professor of Epidemiology, Associate Dean for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
Expanding the Obesity Research Paradigm to Include the Community: Finding Solutions to Obesity in African Americans

Unless otherwise noted, seminars are held at the Rudd Center. The seminars are free and open to the public. Seating is limited. The full schedule for our Fall Seminar Series is available online and for download.

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive reminders of upcoming seminars and schedule changes.

Rudd Center's Marlene Schwartz Named Yale's Working Mother of the Year

Yale chose Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD, Rudd Center Deputy Director, as its representative Working Mother of the Year for Working Mother magazine’s Best Companies Initiative. The magazine invited its top 100 best company winners to submit representatives “who are committed to their work, children, communities, and colleagues.”

For almost 20 years, Dr. Schwartz has studied food psychology and advocated for nutritionally healthful environments for children at school and at home. At the Rudd Center, she and Director Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, have cultivated an environment that promotes flexible work arrangements to help working parents. Meanwhile, at her other job as a mother, she and her husband manage a household that includes three daughters.

The Connection Between Obesity and Stress in Children

The American Psychological Association hosted a media luncheon on November 9 to share the results of its annual nationwide survey, Stress in America, and provide an in-depth look at how stress affects U.S. families. Now in its fifth year, the report examines attitudes toward and perceptions about stress across the country. It also focuses on ways in which stress affects individuals based on gender, ethnicity, region, income, age, and marital and parental status.

An expert panel of psychologists explored the relationships between obesity and stress in children and shared strategies on managing stress in healthy ways. Panelists included Kathryn E. Henderson, PhD, Rudd Center Director of School and Community Initiatives.

“Children who self-identify as overweight report more symptoms of stress, such as depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms, and also report eating and sleeping to cope with stress more than their normal-weight counterparts,” according to Dr. Henderson. “These symptoms are also consequences of experiencing weight stigma.”

Rudd Center Spotlight: Terry O’Toole, PhD, FASHA

OTooleTerry O’Toole, PhD, FASHA, Health Scientist for the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), presented Your Money or Your Health: Selling Junk Food in America’s Schools on November 10 during the Rudd Center’s Fall Seminar Series.

Dr. O’Toole’s permanent role at the CDC is to provide technical and scientific planning, implementation, dissemination, and analysis of healthy eating directed at school-age populations.

Currently, he is temporarily serving as a Senior Advisor for a Department of Health and Human Services initiative to prevent chronic disease and promote wellness. The initiative, called Communities Putting Prevention to Work, focuses on chronic diseases related to obesity and tobacco. Among the objectives is addressing the roles that nutrition and physical activity play in improving the public’s health and preventing and controlling chronic diseases.

Dr. O’Toole previously served on the faculties of Lynchburg College, University of West Georgia, Indiana University, and Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He earned his PhD in Health Behavior from Indiana University, MEd in Health and Physical Education from the University of Louisville, MDiv from Southern Seminary, and BS in Mathematics Education from the University of South Carolina.


School Food Psychology

Slight changes in school cafeterias such as making the plain milk the star beverage, beautifying the home of the fresh produce, and requiring cash for dessert can persuade youth to mindlessly make healthier choices in lunch lines. The USDA will award $2 million to food behavior scientists to study using psychology in the Federal School Lunch Program to fight childhood obesity.

Just Published by the Rudd Center

Response of the Food and Beverage Industry to the Obesity Threat

The food and beverage industry has used several strategies to prevent public criticism and preclude government regulation. They include creating public-private partnerships and emphasizing caloric balance.

Industry self-regulation can have positive and negative impact, according to a commentary coauthored by Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, Rudd Center Director, published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article provides lessons learned from other industries’ efforts and common industry attitudes and practices. Dr. Brownell wrote the commentary with Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, MPH, Vice President for Global Health at Emory University.

Join the WIC Food Package Evaluation Symposium

With the revisions to the food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) comes a unique opportunity to determine how these policies have affected WIC participants, retailers, the program’s state agencies, and the wider community. The WIC Food Package Evaluation Symposium will provide a forum for researchers to share information with other researchers, policymakers, program administrators, and others to better understand the potential impact of the new WIC food package.

The symposium will be at the Hilton Washington Hotel in Washington, DC, on November 30. It is organized by the Altarum Institute in partnership with the National WIC Association, Association of State and Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program.

The Latest Rudd Center Podcasts

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD
Professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health; Adjunct Professor, Department of Pediatrics; University of Minnesota

Kevin W. Concannon
Under Secretary; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; USDA
National Nutrition Policies

Richard F. Daines, MD, FACP
Commissioner of Health, New York State Department of Health
Taxes on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

The Rudd Center’s extensive library of podcasts is available for download on iTunes U, under the Yale University Health & Medicine – Nutrition & Obesity section, or can be subscribed to through an RSS Feed that automatically updates when new content is released. Podcasts can be listened to on a computer or downloaded to a music player.

Front Burner News

Food Association Plans a Package-Front Label Showing Nutritional Data

Responding to pressure from federal regulators, the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that it would develop a labeling system for the front of food packages that would highlight the nutritional content of foods, including nutrients like calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Read more.

USDA Aims to Create Simpler Food Pyramid

Policymakers are reinventing the current food pyramid to provide simple and coherent advice to curb the obesity epidemic. The guidelines influence what is served in school meals, affect education materials for food stamp recipients, and provide information for food labels. Read more.

Tendencies Toward Obesity Start at Young Age

Researchers at the University of Alberta found that children who demonstrate approach behaviors to food, such as eating when upset or bored, are more likely to be overweight than children who demonstrate avoidance behaviors, such as fussy or slow eating, according to a study published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. The results suggest that the home environment influences children’s relationship with food. Read more.

Report Suggests Food Labels List Harmful Nutrients

A report recently released from the Institute of Medicine suggests to the FDA and Congress that easy-to-grasp nutrition information on the front of food packages should focus on the nutrients most responsible for obesity and chronic diseases: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Read more.

Obesity Leads to Disturbing Diabetes Projection

The CDC predicts that one in three American adults will have diabetes by 2050 unless something is done to curb unhealthy lifestyle trends in the United States. The rise in obesity is one of the largest contributors to this disturbing projection. Read more.

Obesity Costs United States $168 Billion


According to researchers at Cornell and Lehigh universities, obesity is responsible for nearly 17% of U.S. medical costs, or about $168 billion annually, suggesting that the nation's weight problem may be having close to twice the impact on medical spending as previously estimated. Read more.

Unhealthy Fundraisers Send Mixed Messages to Children

"McTeacher's Night," a fundraiser hosted by McDonald’s, allows teachers to stand behind the fast-food counter and serve students soda, ice cream cones, and Happy Meals to garner 20% of the proceeds to benefit their school. Many nutritionists feel that unhealthy fundraisers send confusing messages to children. Read more.

Schools with Healthy Makeovers Awarded Money

The HealthierUS School Challenge is a voluntary initiative recognizing schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity. Last February, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative began giving monetary awards to schools that meet the criteria. Read more.


Encourage Healthy Eating Through SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to ensure that low-income people can afford nutritious food. Unfortunately, under the current SNAP program, public funds are helping to pay for beverages that play a large role in rising obesity. According to the USDA, 6% of food stamp benefits nationwide are being used to buy soda. Read more.

NYC’s New Anti-Obesity Video Shows Sugary Side of Soda

As part of the “Pouring on the Pounds” anti-obesity campaign in New York, this 50-second video highlights the sugar content in a bottle of Coke. Read more.

Food Addiction May Explain Obesity Epidemic

The government and food industry both encourage more “personal responsibility” when it comes to battling the obesity epidemic and its associated diseases. However, new discoveries in science prove that industrially processed, sugar-, fat-, and salt-laden foods are biologically addictive. Read more.

Former FDA Commissioner Analyzes Urge to Overeat

According to former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler, America’s obesity epidemic stems from our innate drive to consume sugar, salt, and fat, and on the food industry’s success in making foods that fill this need. Read more.


Healthy-Eating Advocates Seek Solutions to Unhealthy Food Advertising

Children are bombarded with messages pushing unhealthy foods and drinks all day. Healthy-eating advocates say the abundance of food marketing is making it difficult for children to resist the temptations and for parents to say no to unhealthy foods. Read more.

On the Web, Children Face Intensive Tracking

Popular children’s websites use tracking technologies to collect visitor information more often that adult websites, according to a study by The Wall Street Journal. Read more.

Designing a Healthy Snack Vending Machine

A new type of vending machine aimed to encourage Americans to snack on healthier foods is being designed by the Wittern Group Inc., to dispense whole bananas, fresh-cut fruits, and vegetables. Read more.

Ban on Fast-Food Ads Could Reduce Childhood Obesity


Researchers at Lehigh University declared that banning fast-food advertising on U.S. television could reduce the number of overweight children by as much as 18%. Read more.

Children's Junk Food Ads Claimed to Target Adults

In an effort to bypass rules aimed at curbing junk food marketing to children, advertisers are claiming that their ads are targeting adults rather than children despite the presence of children in the commercials. Read more.