McNonsense: Blaming McDonald's Happy Meal for Our Obesity Crisis

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It’s enough to give you heartburn. San Francisco legislators — apparently having solved all of the city’s other problems — have decided to target Happy Meals. The Board of Supervisors is debating a proposal to ban toys from the entrées — unless the meal includes a half a cup of fresh fruit or three quarters of a cup of fresh vegetables, and doesn’t contain more than 600 calories.

It’s not just unhappy San Francisco politicians who want to take toys from kids. Santa Clara passed a similar measure last spring, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has threatened a lawsuit against McDonald’s for including toys in Happy Meals.

All these moves, however, will do nothing to curb the serious problem of childhood obesity.

First, the word “calories” is not a pejorative term. Active kids need daily calories. Kids aged four to six need around 1,800 calories a day, while seven- to 10-year-olds need about 2,000.

Second, while “fast food” has a negative health image, the reality is that a) it’s not the food that is “fast” — it’s the service; and b) there is no caloric difference between a home-made cheeseburger, mashed potato and buttered roll dinner made at home and a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries.

Third, national surveys indicate that parents buy their kids “Happy Meals” only two or three times a month. Which means that overwhelming majority of children’s meals are served at home somewhere other than a fast-food restaurant.

Fourth, companies like McDonald’s have made a concerted effort to reduce the calories in their food. When “Happy Meals” were first introduced in the late 1970s, the calorie count was some 40 percent higher than the meals today, which offer between 380 and 700 calories.

The causes of obesity are complex. While simple solutions — like targeting fast food fare — are attractive and easy, they simply will not work. We need to combat obesity in a scientific way, ensuring that our children’s caloric intake is within their needs and stressing the importance of daily exercise to keep that intake in balance with caloric expenditure.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.