Fear of Frying

Here's something most of us already know: Americans are fat. Nearly 65% of Americans are overweight and 31% are obese, according to the American Obesity Association. About 30% of children are overweight and 15% are obese. Fat is becoming our biggest and most expensive health problem, since obesity commonly leads to heart disease and type II diabetes.

Obesity is a relatively new problem, only becoming an issue in the last 30 years or so. In that time, America has seen a shift to a more sedentary lifestyle, increased portion sizes, and a vast proliferation of fast food restaurants, among other things. There's no doubt that the popularity of fast food's high-fat menus has had at least some part to play in America's weight problem.

In a four-page spread in the June 2004 issue of Redbook, McDonald's is promoting its new "Go Active!" campaign. With columns of text, sidebars, and a picture of a happy woman bounding up stairs, it's one of those ads that tries to look like an article in the magazine, even though Redbook has printed "advertisement" at the top of every page. Using an endorsement from Oprah's personal trainer Bob Greene, the ad wants to help you "get going on an active lifestyle."

Part of that help includes telling you about McDonald's "wholesome menu choices." First, you have the Go Active! Happy Meal, an adult version of the child's Happy Meal that comes with a salad, a beverage, and a pedometer. Then you have a list of "calorie-cutting tips," which promotes some of McDonald's menu choices. This includes the salads again, the Chicken McGrill without the mayo (the ad explains that holding the mayo will save you 100 calories and 11 grams of fat), and the 6-piece Chicken McNuggets with dipping sauce and bottled water, for a "340-calorie meal."

Adding to all the abundant healthfulness is the active part of the plan: Greene is promoting the 10,000-steps-a-day challenge, which urges people to move more by doing things like walking the dog, visiting local farmer's markets, and shopping -- "now an official sport." And hey, you can even use your "Step With It! Pedometer" to track your progress. The ad assures us that walking and picking the right menu choices at McDonald's will make us feel so good, we "just might make it to the moon and back."

Could it be that the fast food giant now cares about America's health?

Living off the Fat of the Land

Most fast food restaurants have started offering healthier menu choices. But the reason for that may have more to do with competition than anything else.

"Offering healthy choices is more of a marketing and competition strategy," says analyst Wally Butkus of Restaurant Research. "One chain will put something out and the rest of them will follow suit. They don't want to be the one left holding the bag."

Wendy's began offering salads two and a half years ago to enormous success. Soon after, most fast food restaurants began offering salads too. Likewise, Burger King took advantage of the No Carbs fad by offering a burger wrapped in lettuce, something that other fast food restaurants have since copied.

But the idea of fast food as health food probably comes from Subway's Jared Diet. Jared, who lost hundreds of pounds by walking and eating Subway sandwiches -- and who was featured prominently in Subway's advertising campaign -- made Subway the healthy fast-food alternative for many.

McDonald's recent attempt to capture the weight-loss market includes promoting certain menu options and launching the Go Active! Happy Meal in May, shortly after CEO Jim Cantalupo died of a heart attack.

The new menu choices seem to be paying off, according to Butkus.

"McDonald's has done exceptionally well in the last six to eight months in taking the market share back," he says. "Its profit margin has increased 15%, which is a huge increase. Usually, a 2%-3% increase is considered large in this industry. It's definitely working to give people the option of healthier choices, financially speaking."

Sue the Bastards

While most nutritionists seem cautiously optimistic about McDonald's changes, they also seem to feel the company's real motivation, aside from profit, is public relations. The company wants to reduce liability from obesity lawsuits and distance itself from public perception that it serves unhealthy food.

Last year, two obese Bronx teenagers sued McDonald's, claiming the food made them fat and contributed to their health problems. The judge dismissed the case. In March, the House of Representatives passed the "Cheeseburger Bill," which banned frivolous lawsuits against the food industry for obesity-related health problems.

Attorney John Banzhaf's lawsuits against big tobacco led to the banning of cigarette ads from TV and instituted the tobacco-sponsored antismoking ads. He teaches a class at George Washington University nicknamed "Sue the Bastards" and is planning a series of lawsuits against the food industry.

The Cheeseburger Bill is no threat to him.

"The people who wrote the bill are stupid," he says. "They don't know how to draft a bill. Let's put it this way: None of the five suits I've been successful with against the food industry would have been stopped by this bill."

But even if obesity lawsuits are stopped, public impression that fast food contributes to obesity is a bigger danger to the restaurants. Movies like Super Size Me, where filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, only helped that impression. McDonald's was doing damage control before the movie even came out, most noticeably by eliminating Super Sizing.

"The McDonald's announcement [that they will offer healthier meal choices] advances public relations more than it does public health," according to a statement from Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I'm glad that McDonald's says it will promote its salads, and hand out step meters, and so on. Those are all good things. But if McDonald's were sincere about promoting healthy eating, it would put calorie counts right on the menu boards."

In the past, McDonald's has not followed through on promises to change its food. When the nonprofit BanTransFats.com sued McDonald's for cooking the fries in trans-fat-laden cooking oil, McDonald's put out a press release saying it would reformulate the oil. The move received a lot of press, but according to CSPI, the company never followed through with its promise.

So what about all this healthy food? Can we believe McDonald's when it says some of its choices are healthy?

Taste Test

According to McDonald's nutrition guide, the California Cobb Salad with Grilled Chicken has 270 calories and 11 grams of fat.

It comes in a plastic carrier the size of a dinner plate. The salad is a mix of lettuces -- though there's still a healthy dose of iceberg -- carrots, and grape tomatoes. It is topped with a bacon/blue cheese mixture and a filet of grilled chicken. The grilled chicken has the chemical taste of added flavor, but with the Newman's Own Low Fat Balsamic Dressing (40 calories, 3 grams of fat) and bottled water, this version of the Go Active! Happy Meal is clearly a better choice than most of the other things on the menu.

The problem comes when at every turn in the ordering process, there's a chance to increase your calories. When you order the Cobb salad meal, you get a choice between grilled or crispy chicken, water or soda, and one of four dressings. The worst dressing is the Newman's Own Creamy Caesar Dressing, at 190 calories and 18 grams of fat.

So if you go with the higher-calorie choices for the same Cobb salad, you would end up with a California Cobb Salad with Crispy Chicken, Creamy Caesar Dressing, and a small coke for 710 calories and 39 grams of fat. By comparison, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a small order of fries would be 650 calories and 32 grams of fat.

McDonald's has had salads on its menu for a long time, though it has improved them. But other items the chain is touting as healthier choices have been around for a while and haven't changed that much.

For example, McDonald's has had the Chicken McGrill (400 calories, 16 grams of fat) for years, though it used to be called the Grilled Chicken Sandwich. The only difference is now people have the option of a wheat bun. And though the chain is promoting its new all-white-meat Chicken McNuggets, customers have always been able to order white-meat nuggets. While the nuggets used to come in a mix of white and dark meat, workers could tell the difference by the shape of the nugget. The white-meat nuggets were always rounder.

Of course, "healthy" doesn't just mean lower calories and fat. Nutrients, vitamins, and chemical content all come into play. Fast foods are often heavily processed and loaded with chemical flavorings, additives, and preservatives. After looking at the long list of ingredients for the Chicken McNuggets that included chicken skin, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and an anti-foaming agent called dimethylpolysiloxane, a New York judge called the nuggets a "McFrankenstein creation."

Responding to the constant criticism that it markets its food to children, McDonald's will soon start offering apple slices and a caramel dipping sauce as a substitute for fries in the children's Happy Meals.

"I guess it's a step in the right direction," says Marlene Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "But the thinking needs to change so that the default is the apple slices. It should be that you have to ask for the fries instead of asking for the apple slices. I would rather see McDonald's use its marketing power to get children to eat more vegetables and low-fat dairy."

Many experts look favorable on McDonald's attempt to encourage people to move by handing out pedometers. Obesity Researcher James Hill is a co-author of The Step Diet Book, which also comes with a pedometor to encourage walking.

"McDonald's plan is a good start," he says. "I welcome what McDonald's is doing, but at some point we need to make this a big campaign, rather than a lot of small ones."

Other people are more cynical. Banzhaf believe that McDonald's is promoting exercise so that the blame for obesity will shift off diet and onto a lack of exercise. But exercising for 30 minutes a day, as the government recommends, can't compensate for the high fat and calories of a regular fast food diet.

McDonald's didn't return repeated phone calls for this article.

Like many groups, Banzahaf wants fast-food restaurants to post calories on the menu boards. He sees it as the same as putting warning labels on food.

"Suppose a parent gave one of McDonald's small toys to an infant, and a small piece broke off and the infant choked to death," he says. "No court in the world is going to say that Mommy is solely responsible and the company is not, which is why when you buy those thing they come in bags with warnings all over them. Many of these problems are both personal responsibility and the responsibility of the companies that makes the products."

Many are offended by obesity lawsuits, believing that weight is a personal issue and should remain the responsibility of the individual. In addition, because of its size, McDonald's is sometimes used as a scapegoat for industry-wide problems.

Still, the few obesity lawsuits that have happened so far have made quite a dent. Without them, it's hard to imagine that McDonald's would be encouraging people to Go Active!

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