It's Not Just Baby Fat!

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The Happy Meal Goes on a Diet, or Does It?

Will reductions in the Happy Meal help fight childhood obesity?

Score one for the kids? Maybe, but maybe not. McDonald's announced that their new Happy Meal will have a smaller portion of French fries and will now include fruit. These changes will slim the meal down from 520 calories to 410 calories. Of course, if soda is substituted for the 1% milk the total amount of sugar would double. While this change is an implicit acknowledgement from McDonald's that their current meals contribute to childhood obesity, it's not a great victory. The new Happy Meal will still include toys to entice the kids making it that much harder for parents to "just say no" to meals that are still nutritionally dubious.

Every day about one third of American kids and teens eat fast food. Eighty-four percent of parents surveyed reported taking their child to fast food at least once a week. According to one estimate only 17 percent of fast food restaurant's offerings are considered healthy and they are not heavily promoted (Subway is an exception offering healthy side dishes and drinks 60 percent of the time).

For teens, fast food represents 16 percent of their total caloric intake. The typical teen meal at a fast food restaurant has between 800-1200 calories, 30 percent coming from fat and sugar. Given the rapidly increasing prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity any reduction in fast food calories is to be welcomed.

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While reducing the calories in a fast food meal is helpful, the increased advertising directed towards youth by the fast food industry offsets any benefit from fewer calories. In 2009 the industry spent a total of 4.2 billion dollars on advertising. In a six-year period ads directed to preschoolers increased by 21 percent while ads aimed at teens increased 39 percent. Minority youth are especially targeted. Hispanic kids see Spanish language ads while African-American kids see 50 percent more ads than their white classmates.

Marketing efforts intended to increase kid's fast food consumption go far beyond advertising. McDonald's has 13 websites that garner 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 adolescent views per month. Web based marketing includes games and virtual worlds to engage the kids and maintain their interest. Eight fast food chains have smartphone apps so that kids are never far away from enticements to indulge.

Even if Happy Meals have slightly fewer calories the ever-increasing efforts to entice children will continue to contribute to the juvenile obesity epidemic. It would be unrealistic to expect McDonald's to abandon their highly profitable menu but if they were serious in combating childhood obesity there are helpful modifications they could make that would be accepted by kids. For example, Jack-in-the-Box has stopped putting toys in their kids' meals, although, to be fair, their meals were never as popular with children as McDonald's are.

If McDonald's was seriously interested in combating childhood obesity they could actively promote healthier fare. Getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Psychologists at the University of Wales in the U.K. developed a program called "Food Dudes" which features cartoon super heroes who get special powers (their "life force") from eating fruits and vegetables. Research in the U.K. and Ireland shows that the program resulted in significant increases in kids' healthy choices in school lunches. Although this type of program is intended for schools rather than fast food restaurants, it does suggest that children can be persuaded to choose healthier foods.

It's encouraging to see McDonald's acknowledging that their offerings for children and teens are part of the problem, but if they are really serious about helping to combat childhood obesity there's plenty that they could be doing. To start they could offer more fruits and vegetables and devote a portion their considerable marketing expertise and advertising budget to promoting healthier choices for kids.

Edward Abramson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, the author of It's NOT Just Baby Fat! and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University.

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