Convenience at a cost: Excessive fast-food consumption among Korean kids sparks concern – new data

South Korean youths are known to spend a significant amount of time at cram schools, making dining out a common phenomenon in the country.

The extensive selection of fast food, such as instant noodles and ready-made meals, available at convenience stores is particularly popular among local students for its low cost and accessibility.

This has raised concerns about the impact of fast-food consumption on child nutrition and diet.

According to the ‘Association of Household Type and Fast-Food Consumption in Korean Adolescents’​ study, 3,992 boys (4.5%) and 3,505 girls (3.4%) — among a total of 186,277 participants — consumed fast food five times or more per week.

The cross-sectional study analysed data from the Korea Youth Risk Behavior Web-based Survey (KYRBWS) conducted between 2017 and 2020.

Dietary behaviours affect the development and nutritional health of youths, and could potentially impinge on their lifelong health. These behaviours are influenced by factors such as food preferences, ease of access, visual appeal, parental guidance, family income levels and peer pressure.

Previous studies indicated that parents play an instrumental role in establishing children’s dietary patterns. In recent years, South Korea has seen notable changes in household types and weakening of family functions among its population. Specifically, the number of households comprising single parents has increased from 8.7% in 1990 to 9.7% in 2020.

In this study, it was found that adolescents who did not have parents had a higher risk of frequent fast-food intake than those who lived with both parents and with a single parent. Participants who lived in a dormitory, boarding house, or with other family members or relatives, also tended to consume fast food more regularly.

“These findings suggest that household types and living arrangements are closely linked to the frequency of fast-food intake among adolescents,”​ said the authors.

More practical solutions needed​

Limitations of the study included the anonymous and self-reporting mode of KYRBWS data collection, and the lack of evaluation on the association between the type of main guardian (grandparents and siblings) and fast-food intake among adolescents who did not live with their parents.

Nevertheless, the findings on dietary patterns of Korean youths offer points of consideration for public policies related to child nutrition and diet quality.
Since 2009, ‘children’s meal cards’ have been issued to students from low-income or single-parent families in Korea to defray food expenses outside of school. However, the minimum amount of US$3 per card was only enough for instant cup noodles or snacks in convenience stores.

Although the amount was increased to US$4 in 2018 and US$5 in 2020, the study revealed that boys in single-parent households and girls who were living apart from their parents in 2020 continued to have a higher likelihood of frequent fast-food intake.  

“Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that the revised minimum amount is sufficient to reduce the children’s food insecurity. Further studies that examine the effects of the ‘children’s meal card’ on dietary behaviours are needed. More practical revisions or initiatives should also be implemented to guarantee a well-balanced diet that reflects real-world costs,”​ said the authors.

Source: PubMed Central​

“Association of Household Type and Fast-Food Consumption in Korean Adolescents”​

Authors: Hwa Sook Kwon, et al​

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