A "Healthy Happy Meals" bill was proposed last year which would require the fast-food meals marketed to children comply with several nutritional guidelines including that the food contain no more than 500 calories.
The bill proposed would require that fast-food meals marketed with toys or other merchandise meant for kids include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain, with no more than 35% of calories coming from fat. Also the meals must contain lesser than 10% of calories from saturated fat or added sugar and they cannot have more than 600mg of sodium. It is one of many legislative moves meant to counteract childhood obesity by taking direct aim at McDonald's Corp. and other fast-food chains.
In order to find out whether those changes would affect how children eat, a team of researchers from New York University analyzed receipts from 358 purchases made at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's restaurants in the New York City area. The purchases included 422 meals for children.
The researchers found that 98% of the meals did not meet the proposed guidelines. The paper was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine
. On an average, adults purchased 600 calories per child and 36% of those calories are from fat.
They concluded that if those meals complied with the proposed guidelines, the proposed purchased patterns would result in a 9% drop in calories consumed by kids at fast-food restaurant along with a 10% drop in both sodium consumption and calories from fat.
When considering the scope for childhood obesity problems in the US, these numbers might seem small. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity affects 1 out of every 6 children and adolescents in the US. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years, the CDC says.
Also the NYU study revealed that only 1/3rd of the of the fast food meals being purchased for children were happy meals or other dishes that are marketed for youngsters. The rest of what those kids were eating came from the adult menus that were rich in calories and fat-infused. So even if the calories are reduced in the children's meals, it will not make much difference if the parents are ordering food from adult menus.
That said, the Healthy Happy Meals bill may prove to be a good first step, says the study's lead author, Brian Elbel, associate professor of population health and health policy at the NYU School of Medicine. "No single policy is going to be enough by itself to counteract childhood obesity," he says. "But we're not looking for a single slam-dunk. What we're looking for is any potential movement or calorie reduction. Any change in a more healthful direction has to be a good thing."
When the three fast-food chains targeted in the study were asked to respond, a spokesperson for Burger King said that the company "is committed to providing a variety of menu options for our guests and their children that meet their individual nutritional needs." The company added that it "reviews its menu and nutrition criteria on an ongoing basis to ensure it is consistent with established scientific and government standards," and that it follows recommended nutritional standards of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
McDonald's has been quite vocal of late about its own initiatives to offer more nutritious meals. The company stopped listing soda as a Happy Meals menu option last summer and in June it reported that the percentage of customers who choose sodas with those meals anyway dropped from 56% to 48%. McDonald's also introduced apple slices and yogurt as Happy Meal options, and recently it committed to stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics by March 2017.
However the benefits of legislating nutrition continue to be debated widely. In fact, when New York City banned trans fats in restaurants, studies showed that the amount of calories consumed actually increased.