Although we're not the biggest fans of fast food, in today's culture its pervasiveness is an inescapable fact. So any effort to make what will inevitably be consumed a little healthier gets a thumbs up from us. A bill in New York that seeks to improve the nutritional value of fast food marketed to children — such as McDonald's Happy Meals — in an effort to help reduce their intake of calories, fat and sodium might be the (slightly slimmer) shape of things to come.
The so-called "Healthy Happy Meals" bill, currently being considered by the City Council, is similar to legislation recently enacted in California and was first proposed by City Council member Benjamin J. Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. It would require fast food meals that target children — by including toys or other promotional items — to include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain. They must also keep to a limit of 500 calories — with less than 35 percent of calories coming from fat, less than 10 percent coming from saturated fat and under 10 percent from added sugars — and have a maximum of 600 milligrams of sodium.
To see how effective the bill would be for public health, new study led by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center looked at the projected improvement in nutrition and at the potential number of children it might reach. The study, which is published online today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is a collaboration between NYU College of Global Public Health, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
The researchers analyzed receipts collected in 2013 and 2014 from 358 adults. These included purchases for 422 children at multiple New York City and New Jersey outlets of three of the biggest burger chains: McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King — naturally, all of which market to children. They found that adults purchased food containing, on average, 600 calories for each child — with 36 percent of those calories coming from fat — while more than one-third of children ordered kids' meals. The study found that 98 percent of kids' meals did not meet the nutritional criteria outlined in the proposed legislation.
If those kids' meals had been adjusted to meet the bill's criteria there would be a 9 percent drop in calorie intake — that's 54 fewer calories per meal — a 10 percent drop in sodium and a 10 percent drop in percentage of calories from fat. Dr. Brian Elbel, lead author and associate professor in the Departments of Population Health at NYU is confident of the difference this could make. "While 54 calories at a given meal is a small reduction, small changes that affect a wide number of people can make a large impact," he says, "Passing the bill could be a step in the right direction, though no single policy can singlehandedly eliminate childhood obesity."
Dr. Marie Bragg, co-author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU, offers another approach: "Policymakers could consider broader restrictions on marketing, similar to legislation in Chile that banned any use of toy premiums in children's meals in 2012," she said. Bragg warns that, even if the bill were to be passed, things might not exactly be plain sailing. "The policy's effectiveness will depend on whether the food industry attempts to neutralize it through marketing or other strategies," she says. "For example, the industry could remove children's meals altogether, forcing children to order the larger portions from the adult menu."
Efforts intended to boost public health and protect children have not always been widely accepted despite their apparent good intentions and relatively sound scientific backing. But with childhood obesity more than doubling in children and quadrupling in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the CDC, can any parent afford to sit back and allow their children to fall under the alluring spell of ubiquitous fast food marketing? Remember when we told you how we are vastly underestimating the calories in fast food? Well, it's because we still are that legislation like this has to be a good thing. Ask yourself how much of that take out your kids are craving is actually good for them and how much is just empty (read "harmful") calories. If fast food is a way of life, shouldn't an option to reduce the harm it does be on the menu — especially when that food is touted as "healthy"?