New Study Encourages A War On Happy Meals

According to a new study, reducing the calorie count in “happy meals” at popular fast food restaurants could combat the obesity epidemic. An article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, abstract, notes that legislation aimed at improving the nutritional value of meals marketed to kids might have a big enough impact to reduce calories, fat, and sodium.

The study examined the Healthy Happy Meals bill that New York City Councilman Benjamin Kallos introduced last year. Kallos’ legislation requires restaurants with meals geared towards children to comply with nutritional guidelines, including a requirement that meals contain no more than 500 calories worth of food. Specifically, meals must contain fewer than 35 percent of calories from fat, fewer than 10 percent from saturated fat, fewer than 10 percent from added sugars, and fewer than 600 milligrams of sodium. Kallos modeled his bill after similar measures passed in two California counties.

New York City is no stranger to legislation limiting choice for consumers and local government taking on the role of food nanny. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to limit soda consumption by mandating how much soda one could consume in restaurants. A ban on transfat and measures to reduce sodium in donated food items for homeless shelters soon followed, as well as initiatives to encourage new mothers to breastfeed, while hospitals kept baby formula locked in cabinets.

Researchers analyzed receipts from Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, all fast food restaurants that issue toys to children, in multiple New York City and New Jersey locations. The research results, which included meals for 422 children, revealed that 98 percent of these kids’ meals did not meet the nutritional guidelines.

Obviously, there is an obesity problem in this country. The causes and solutions are always up for debate. More often than not, however, the solutions limit consumer choice and the ability of individuals to determine what is best for themselves and their family members. As a mother of two children, I am concerned about providing healthy meals for my kids. I admit to an occasional Happy Meal when we are on the run or on long car rides, but I try to include the healthier options now offered with kids’ meals — apples, yogurt, and water. Restaurants were forced to include healthier additions in kids’ meals after prompting from government agencies, industry, and health organizations. As a result, kids’ meals have significantly improved over the years.

We do not hear enough, however, about increasing physical activity, reducing our kids’ sedentary lifestyles, and expanding afterschool programs as a way to fight obesity. We do hear about reducing physical education and recess time as schools increasingly manage budget cuts. The Institute of Medicine offered some solutions and issued a report several years ago recommending that schools increase physical education requirements. Cornell University researchers found that increasing physical education in kindergarten through fifth-grade reduced the chance of obesity, at least for boys. An additional 60 minutes of physical education time reduced the probability of obesity in fifth-grade boys by 4.8 percent and was accomplished without harming test scores or academics. For girls, the additional gym time was not as beneficial. Researchers attributed this to increased television time.  

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine said it best, “No single policy can singlehandedly eliminate childhood obesity.” I agree. By definition, fast food is not going to be the healthiest option available.  Legislation that forces restaurants to comply with a certain caloric count, however, is not an immediate solution to the obesity problem. So, let’s consider a variety of solutions to combat obesity, including encouraging our families to eat healthier and increasing physical education and recess for all kids throughout the school day.