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Oh, This Is Fattening? Teens Ignore Fast-Food Calorie Counts

"Make that a large fry and Coke!"

This is what came out of my 13-year-old son's mouth this weekend on the way back from a camping trip.

After I'd ordered him a kids' meal at the drive-thru, he interjected to change the order. (I let it go, this time, since he's lean and we don't frequently eat fast food.)

But think of those extra calories. Or not.

Apparently, not too many boys his age are inclined to check out calorie counts (or other calorie information) when they eat out.

A new study published in the Journal of Public Health found that about 40 percent of tweens and teens (ages 9 to 18) report paying attention to calorie information when it's available in chain or fast-food restaurants.

The question, as it was posed to some 721 youths in a mail survey, was this: "When calorie information is available at a fast food/chain restaurant, how often does this information help you decide what to order?"

It turns out, girls seem much more mindful. The study found that girls were about 80 percent more likely than boys to report using calorie information to inform their menu selections.

And the researchers also found that youths who were regular fast-food consumers (eating it twice a week or more) were about 50 percent less likely to report using calorie information, compared with those who ate fast food once a week or less.

Encouragingly, according to the study's author, youths who are overweight were much more likely to use calorie information. Obese participants in the survey were about 70 percent more likely to report using calorie information, compared with healthy-weight youths.

"Our findings are important given the high prevalence of obesity among youth and the adverse health effects associated with obesity," wrote lead author Holly Wethington of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity in a release on the study.

Wethington says it's encouraging that overweight youths are paying attention.

But awareness is just one step toward tackling the obesity problem. As Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the U.K. Faculty of Public Health, writes in a release about the study: "To tackle obesity effectively, we need to know more about why so many young people do eat fast food so often."

It's still early days for calorie postings. Last September, McDonald's announced it would begin posting calories on menu boards. And, as part of Obamacare (the new federal health law), chain restaurants and fast-food establishments with more than 20 locations nationally will be required to print calorie information next to menu options. But this part of the law has not yet been implemented.

So, for the record, dear son: McDonald's large fries have 500 calories, and a large Coke has 280.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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