Can Fast Food Really Make America Healthier?

McDonald's restaurants
McDonald's restaurants

McDonald's (MCD) and other fast-food establishments recently garnered praise from First Lady Michelle Obama for making great strides toward "making America healthier." But how admirable have their efforts really been?

When Michelle Obama recently announced that her "Let's Move" Campaign would shift its focus to physical activity, she affirmed that the country still needed to make more progress toward promoting better nutrition, while also praising McDonald's and other fast food establishments.

The changes to McDonald's happy meal include a reduction in the amount of fries and the addition of apple slices. The fast good giant is also adding fat-free chocolate milk and 1% white milk to its beverage options, in addition

to maintaining its previous drink offerings.

McDonald's restaurants
McDonald's restaurants

Glowing Praise, Growing Waistlines

While some restaurants have made noteworthy progress toward promoting the campaign's nutrition objectives, McDonald's changes are but a token effort.

The happy meal adjustments simply offer fewer calories and smaller servings. What's been overlooked is the fact that the portions in happy meals were already too large, with huge calorie counts. Children usually only ate about half of their portion of fries anyway; now they'll just have apple slices to throw away after finishing their fries.

The real victory in the McDonald's happy meal hype is for the company's PR department. The golden arches has boosted its reputation through its association with Michelle Obama's campaign and media coverage of her compliments. But the happy meal makeover is unlikely to have a real effect on the health of American children.

If parents aren't encouraging their children to eat healthier foods in the first place, there isn't much reason to believe that they'll make their children eat the apple slices before consuming the high-fat items, or drink the milk instead of the soda.

What Really Needs to Change in the McKitchen

Without an ongoing commitment from McDonald's to controlling portions or reducing calories, there is little reason to believe this change reflects more than a temporary move to save face in response to public criticism.

Restaurants have tended to follow a trend of increasing portions over time to justify higher prices. Because labor is more expensive than ingredients, restaurants see this as a strategy to increase prices without alienating customers. McDonald's is no exception, with increases of 500% in its burger sizes since it opened in 1955. Granted, this is a comparison from their largest burger currently offered to their original and only burger in 1955, but the point still holds.


Where to Get a Health-Happy Meal

There are restaurants that have made significant strides toward promoting healthier menu options for kids.

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Want to take the family out for some good-for-you fare? Then head to Au Bon Pain, Bonefish Grill, Burger King, Burgerville, Carabba's Italian Grill, Chevy's, Chili's, Corner Bakery Cafe, Cracker Barrel (CBRL), Denny's (DENN), El Pollo Loco, Friendly's, IHOP, Joe's Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, Silver Diner, Sizzler, T-Bones Great American Eatery, or Zpizza.

All of these restaurants are participating in a program called "Kids Live Well," launched earlier this year by the National Restaurant Association. Participating institutions are committed to offering at least one meal option on the menu that meets the following criteria:

* It must contain 600 calories or less.
* Less than 35% of the calories can be from fat.
* Less than 10% of the calories can be from saturated fat.
* It must contain less than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fat.
* Less than 35% of the calories can come from sugar.
* It must have less than 770 mg of sodium.
* It must include at least two sources of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, or low fat dairy.

While these standards may still be low, they represent a well-defined effort that not only strives for improvement on already poor offerings, but for the achievement of a clear goal.

What's On the Inside Counts

Darden Restaurants (DRI) -- which includes popular chains like Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Olive Garden -- has also joined the Kids Live Well Program, committing itself to a reduction in the sodium and calories contained in its meals by 10% over the next five years and by 20% over the next 10 years.

It's not just lip service, either. Darden has gone even further in its commitment to healthy fare by pledging to change the way it markets junk food to kids, making the healthy fruit and vegetable sides, rather than fries and other junk food, into menu illustrations. Fruits and vegetable dishes have become default sides (fries are available only by request), 1% milk the default drink option; the chains are also refraining from promoting sugary drinks like soda.

This is not simply a temporary change intended to promote the Darden brand as long as the health food movement is popular. The company has signed a legally binding agreement to stick to these goals.

Like Darden, other companies need to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the causes they currently claim to support. Anything less is simply cosmetic.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., owns shares of McDonald's. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's.

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