January 24/Chapel Hill, N.C./University of North Carolina -- According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, overall dietary habits have more to do with childhood obesity than did a diet of fast food; it just so happened that children with poor Western diets also ate more fast food than children with healthier meal plans.

“While reducing fast food is important to improve dietary quality, we [also] need to focus on the rest of the diet,” said study researcher Jennifer Poti, a doctoral candidate in nutritional epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Fast food is still a very important factor and associated with poor diet quality and overweight and obesity,” Poti said. “When we think about trying to improve our child’s diet, we need to think about all the places our kids eat and encourage better choices.”

For the research, experts evaluated the diet diaries of more than 4,000 children up to age 18 for a period of three years. Approximately 50% of the study participants ate fast food, with nearly 40% of kids eating up to 30% of their total calories from such meals. Approximately 10% of the children consumed more than 30% of their calories from fast food.

The fast food percentages were not the link between childhood obesity and diet, however. According to the study authors, the remainder of the diet from the journals had a greater impact on a child’s weight even when exercise levels were factored in than did the amount of fast food they ate. Children who ate more fast food than others also tended to have a Western diet heavily comprised of salty foods, high soda consumption and less fruit and milk intake compared to children who ate 29% of their calories or less from fast food.

“The fact that fast-food diners -- especially adolescents -- tend to choose nutrient-poor foods outside of the fast-food meal demonstrates the need for better nutrition education and a focus on the whole diet to meet health needs,” stated Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved with the research.

The data should not be misconstrued to indicate eating fast food habitually is healthy; according to the Ohio Medical Group, one out of every four Americans eats fast food every day, and eating a Big Mac, large fries and large Coke will require an individual to walk non-stop for six hours to burn off the calories gained. Generally speaking, one fast food meal contains enough calories to meet the dietary needs of an individual for an entire day.

Fast food undoubtedly contributes to an unhealthy diet leading to obesity, and experts caution being overweight can eventually lead to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems and other illnesses.