At first I thought the press release was a joke. Brian Wansink and friends verified that kids consume fewer Calories with the most recent edition of the Happy Meal. (A mini box of french fries, apples, and milk preferentially sold with every meal) Since it’s introduction over two years ago, nutritional data verifies that the new Happy Meal is about 20% fewer calories than before. So why did Brian Wansink need to develop a research study to confirm this information?
Turns out the researchers were checking to see if kids consumed more calories in other ways when they order the new Happy Meal– and they don’t. In fact, in this study fewer kids ordered soda and more chose to drink low fat plain milk or non fat chocolate milk, consuming marginally even fewer calories.
But before we start celebrating the news, consider the implications. Will this change in the Happy Meal prove to make a difference in kid’s nutrition and health status? I’m not so sure. Another recent study just established that fast food is not significantly linked to kid’s obesity.
FAST FOOD NOT LINKED TO CHILD OBESITY
Jennifer Poti and colleagues from University of North Carolina revisited the assumption that fast food is driving childhood obesity. Previously researchers looked at who was thin and who sported a chubby BMI and assessed the frequency of eating at fast food. When the heavier kids ate more fast food the dye was cast. Ever since public health and medical authorities have scolded the world to stop eating fast food. The problem with this approach is that it isn’t working.
Fast food has been demonized for decades. Despite all the rhetoric, we and our children are not any healthier. Poti’s study pokes through the sloppy assumptions of the past and reveals a deeper truth. Fast food is not significantly linked to obesity, but the rest of the diet is. Turns out that kids who eat more fast food also eat more highly refined and processed snack foods, too. They consume more sugar, more refined starch, more added fats. In turn, kids who don’t eat at fast food also eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and more lean meats.
OBESITY IS AN ECONOMIC ISSUE
Adam Drenowski, a doctor of public health from University of Washington, has famously said, obesity is economic. Food costs influence what people purchase and the cheapest food at the marketplace is exactly the kind of highly processed and refined foods that make it easy for the body to store those calories as fat instead of burning them as fuel. Childhood obesity is also linked to opportunity for physical activity, access to safe parks and schools, cohesive neighborhoods and other valuable resources for any family. Economics makes a difference here, too.
So what about this incredible finding that kids are eating fewer calories at McDonald’s? It may not mean much, especially considering everything else the kids are eating. I hope Wansink, et al continue looking to see if changes in the kid’s intake at Mickey D’s truly impacts their health status, but I am not holding my breath. Calories are only one piece of the puzzle. Energy metabolism is far more complex than a simple math problem. So maybe it is good enough to know that the calories of a Happy Meal are modest and balanced, and continue to be something kids are happy to eat. In the meantime, there are more important issues to address if we are truly going to turn this metabolic mess around.