Forbes Will Mandating 'Healthy Happy Meals' Solve Childhood Obesity? by Arlene Weintraub
Last year, a member of the New York City council proposed the “Healthy Happy Meals” bill, which if passed would require that fast-food meals marketed to children comply with several nutritional guidelines, including that they contain no more than 500 calories worth of food. It’s one of many legislative moves meant to counteract childhood obesity by taking direct aim at McDonald’s Corp. and other fast-food chains.
But will it make a dent in the obesity epidemic? A study out today is sure to fuel the ongoing debate.
The Healthy Happy Meals bill, proposed by NYC council member Benjamin Kallos, would require that fast-food meals marketed with toys or other merchandise meant for kids include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain, with no more than 35% of calories coming from fat. Furthermore, the meals must contain fewer than 10% of calories from saturated fat or added sugar, and they can’t have more than 600 milligrams of sodium.
To determine whether those changes would affect how children eat, a team of researchers from New York University analyzed receipts from 358 purchases made at McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s restaurants in the NYC area. The purchases included 422 meals for children. Not surprisingly, the NYU researchers found that 98% of the meals did not meet the proposed guidelines, according to the paper, published online by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. On average, adults purchased 600 calories per child, and 36% of those calories came from fat.
Had those meals complied with the proposed guidelines, they conclude, the same purchase patterns would result in a 9% drop in calories consumed by kids at fast-food restaurants, plus a 10% drop in both sodium consumption and calories from fat.
Those numbers might seem hopelessly small when you consider the scope of the childhood obesity problem in this country. Obesity affects one out of every six children and adolescents in the United States, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years, the CDC says.
An NYC bill proposes to limit the fat and calories in McDonald’s Happy Meals and other fast food marketed to children (Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
What’s more, the NYU study revealed that only one-third of the fast-food meals being purchased for children were Happy Meals or other dishes marketed to youngsters—the rest of what those kids were eating came from the calorie-laden, fat-infused adult menus. So even if the calories go down on the children’s meals, it won’t help much if Mom is ordering her kids Big Macs.
That said, the Healthy Happy Meals bill may prove to be a good first step, says the study’s lead author, Brian Elbel, associate professor of population health and health policy at the NYU School of Medicine. “No single policy is going to be enough by itself to counteract childhood obesity,” he says. “But we’re not looking for a single slam-dunk. What we’re looking for is any potential movement or calorie reduction. Any change in a more healthful direction has to be a good thing.”
When the three fast-food chains targeted in the study were asked to respond, a spokesperson for Burger King said in an e-mail that the company “is committed to providing a variety of menu options for our guests and their children that meet their individual nutritional needs.” The company added that it “reviews its menu and nutrition criteria on an ongoing basis to ensure it is consistent with established scientific and government standards,” and that it follows recommended nutritional standards of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not respond to requests for comment. But McDonald’s has been quite vocal of late about its own initiatives to offer more nutritious meals. The company stopped listing soda as a Happy Meals menu option last summer, for example, and in June it reported that the percentage of customers who choose sodas with those meals anyway dropped from 56% to 48%. McDonald’s also introduced apple slices and yogurt as Happy Meal options, and recently it committed to stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics by March 2017.
Despite such moves by the fast-food industry, politicians continue to take aim at the obesity epidemic. A Staten Island assemblyman has introduced legislation that would ban the sale of sugary drinks over 16 ounces in size to minors, as well as requiring warning labels on any food or drink with at least 40 grams of sugar. This despite former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed (and widely lampooned) effort to ban the sale of super-sized sodas.
The benefits of legislating nutrition continue to be widely debated. After the FDA banned trans fats in June, for example, some experts questioned whether food makers would skirt around the restriction by swapping in other ingredients that are equally harmful. In fact, when New York City banned trans fats in restaurants, studies showed that the amount of calories consumed actually increased.
What’s more, one county in California has already tried legislating children’s fast-food meals, with decidedly mixed results. In 2010, Santa Clara County implemented a law prohibiting restaurants from distributing toys with meals unless those meals met certain nutritional guidelines. A study showed that some restaurants got around the ordinance by changing how they market toys. All in all, the law didn’t change the number of healthy foods offered.
The New York City Healthy Happy Meals bill is still on the table, and Elbel believes some celebration will be warranted if it passes—though he cautions against assuming it will solve childhood obesity. Children just have too many options for getting those lost calories elsewhere, he says. “If they have that one calorie reduction, they could just compensate for it later in the day” by choosing a high-calorie snack at home or school, he says. “We need to think more broadly about what a suite of solutions to obesity might look like.”