McDonald's restaurantsMcDonald'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 restaurantsGlowing 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.

Denny'sWhere to Get a Health-Happy Meal

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


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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36 Comments

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Mike

don't like it, then don't buy it! But get the he ll out of my way! My food is not YOUR choice get in my way and pay with your face!

January 02 2012 at 11:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hlogan1863

many things successful start small

try eating less mayBe ??

December 30 2011 at 8:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Reviews Expert

I'm from sri lanka. and now lives in america.This post is so important. It was a big help for me.thanks,,

December 30 2011 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
savemycountry911

I once got a chicken salad thinking it would be healthier than the fried chicken at a popular fast food chichen rest. IT TURNED OUT TO BE WORSE.

December 29 2011 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dana Seilhan

Recommended reading: Ancel Keys and his semistarvation study. (Ignore his Seven Countries junk.) Mary Enig, PhD and her work on dietary fat. Weston A. Price, DDS and his studies of traditional diets and how they affect facial development. The doctors and researchers advocating low-carb, high-animal-fat diets. I know the information is scattered around and the experts don't always agree on fine details but the fact is that we still don't know nearly enough about what human beings need to eat and we've destroyed most of the traditional cultures that had anything useful to teach us in this regard. And that should worry you because the low-fatters and low-calorie nuts know even less than the people who have better information--and the more ignorant are the ones getting more attention from the public. You have been CONNED. Wise up.

December 27 2011 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dana Seilhan

The experts have been telling us for fifty years now to cut back on animal fat, cholesterol, and calories in our diets and I don't see that that's working out so well. Most of us are ignorant of the KNOWN, ESTABLISHED science about how people get fat and otherwise develop metabolic illness--and you are NOT off the hook if you're not fat; people can get metabolic syndrome and even type 2 diabetes without ever venturing out of normal BMI range. If your doctor ever told you that you have "hereditary" high cholesterol or high blood pressure or hypoglycemia and you're slender, assume you're on the way to diabetes and clean up your diet. Except the experts won't tell us how to do that. They just keep telling us to do more of the same that made us sick in the first place.

Of course we're going to get sick from fat consumption when the fat we are eating is supposed to be used as paint varnish but is going into our arteries instead. I have cooked with canola oil, and I have cooked with butter and lard, and I know which is easier to clean out of a pan once it's baked on. Try it yourself, if you dare. You are putting that plastic crap into your body and you wonder why you're getting sick.

Quit listening to them. Go read you some Gary Taubes. If the low-fat, low-calorie crowd had ever gotten it right, we shouldn't be seeing any fat vegans, crazy vegans, vegans with their bones dissolving or vegans dying of breast cancer (hello, Linda McCartney?). If grains are so good for us, anthropologists shouldn't be finding ancient grave sites of ancient farmers where the people were shorter than their genetic potential and full of disease lesions. They can tell farmers from hunter-gatherers just by looking at the skeletons. Did you know you're supposed to have room in your mouth for your wisdom teeth? You can blame nutrition for that one too. You were stunted. You are deformed. By poor nutrition and a grain-based diet.

This is about a lot more than whether anyone gets fat. We're all being slowly starved and none of us have noticed. Yes, even the fat people. Obesity is a symptom of malnutrition. Quit listening to the idiots with too many degrees and not enough sense, quit yelling at the fatsos and educate yourselves about this stuff before you really get hurt.

December 27 2011 at 1:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rtgarton

What a lot of Crap. Michelle are you looking for greater campaign contributions for your husband from the fast food industry? Ever look at a McDonalds and see all the cars going through the drive thru. Not only are most of these patrons are overweight but lazy as well. They will waste a gal of gas to slam down a big mac. Wont even get out of their cars. Its one thing to have a weight problem due to genetics its another to purposely eat yourself to death. Are these people that dumb not to know what they are doing to themselves. You know what a double wide is? Its a gal 5 ft tall and 5 ft wide.

December 26 2011 at 6:36 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
mcb2578

Its starts with the fast food by not being healthy enough, next they will say the burger and fries are killing the earth.

December 26 2011 at 1:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike

don't like it, then don't buy it! But get the he ll out of my way! My food is not YOUR choice get in my way and pay with your face!

December 26 2011 at 11:01 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mike's comment
mcb2578

I agree, well sais

December 26 2011 at 1:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

Fast food is too healthy and too packed with nutrition. Is also the greatest amount of nutrients for the dollar spent.
Split a Big Mac and fries with someone. Save money, and still get enough energy to sustain you.

December 26 2011 at 9:08 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply