Despite pledges made by some of the leading fast food chains, many seem to still be promoting mostly unhealthy meals and choices to children, according to a new report by researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity in New Haven, Conn.

The latest report examined the marketing of 12 top fast food chains, and then looked at the amount of fat calories, fat, sugar, and sodium in 3,039 kids' meals and 2,781 menu items. The findings are slated to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Denver.

Unhealthy Food Choices Are the Default

Of the 3,000-plus kids meals, just 12 met the nutritional criteria for preschoolers, and just 15 met the nutrition criteria set for older children, the study showed. In fact, one particular meal from most fast food restaurants contains at least half of young people's daily recommended sodium.

Fast food marketing to kids also leaves much to be desired, the researchers report. Preschoolers see 21% more fast food ads today than in 2003 and older children see 34% more fast food ads, the latest report found.

"There is a staggering amount of exposure to fast food advertising that begins when children are as young as 2," says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiative at the Rudd Center.

McDonald's and Burger King have upheld their 2008 commitment to show healthier meals in TV ads directed to children under 12.

This is "a start, but it's not enough," says Harris.

Fast food ads don't always run during children's TV programs, and many ad campaigns, with social media advertising, are about building brand recognition instead of food choices.

"About 60% of ads are not on kids programming, but a lot of children are seeing them and having a large impact," says Harris. For example, "American Idol, Glee, or sports programs are places where we will see a lot of unhealthy fast food ads."

Bait and Switch?

"There is still a lot of fast food advertising aimed at kids," says Margo G. Wootan, PhD, the nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C.

Other options aimed at curbing marketing unhealthy food choices to kids include the recent San Francisco ban on giving away toys with unhealthy children's meals.

"The goal is not take the happy out of happy meal, but to put the happy and healthy together," she says. "It's nice that some companies have changed their advertising, but we need to address all ways that they market to kids," Wootan says.