Eat Well to Be Well: McDonald’s healthier McMakover

McDonald’s, the fast food giant, will soon be undergoing a healthy foods makeover, establishing its position as still a bargain, yet healthier food option for families. Even I, as a registered dietitian, am impressed with the ability of this behemoth corporation’s staying power amidst sharp criticism over the years of being a major contributor to our society’s obesity epidemic. In the near future, McDonald’s will instead become a major contributor of reformulating and creating healthier meal options for consumers. Good for them and especially good for us!

100313-mcdonaldschoices2Recently, McDonald’s announced a partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. This partnership will enable families better access to fruit and vegetables and provide a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message on the Happy Meal box or bag panels. The only drawback to this effort is it may take several years before we see these changes locally since the larger markets will be tested first. Who would have guessed 20 years ago, McDonald’s would become a healthier restaurant choice for our families?

Some of the specifics McDonald’s is committed to, include:

  • Providing a choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable to substitute for French fries in value meals marketed towards adults.
  • Only promoting water, milk and juice as the beverage choice in Happy Meals on its menu board.
  • Emphasizing nutritional messages in its packaging and advertising to children.

Don Thompson, the CEO of McDonald’s, recognizes that his corporation has a key leadership role in influencing customers to buy more fruits and vegetables and wants to be a part of the solution in curbing obesity and the costly health risks associated with it. I applaud Mr. Thompson for this effort. With more than 34,000 McDonald’s restaurants in 118 countries, serving nearly 69 million people every day, he needs to show he cares about our well-being and not just profits. In the past few years, McDonald’s has hired registered dietitians to create healthier menu options such as oatmeal and smoothies along with posting calorie levels of food sold on its menu board.

McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food restaurant to become proactive in fighting obesity and offering healthier alternatives to typical fast food fare. Locally, Sonic has been making a few healthier additions such as offering milk, apple slices and grilled chicken, and Subway continues to be a good choice if you want to choose healthy food when eating out.

Ideally, fast food, defined as food that can be served quickly and easily, should NOT be the first healthy food choice of the American public. However, 1 in 4 Americans eats at a fast food restaurant each day. This is a reality that probably won’t change anytime soon. Therefore, the slow but sure transition to healthier food in these restaurants is a positive sign that they are getting the message to provide more nutritious food as long as we as consumers reward those efforts by choosing the healthier choices. If you are one of those people who frequents fast food restaurants, here are some tips to customize your order to be healthy for you:

  • Order smaller portion sizes. The bigger sizes may seem like a bargain, but you’ll end up with more fat, calories and sugar than what is necessary.
  • Stay away from fried foods. Choose grilled or baked.
  • Choose menu items labeled “light” or “healthy.”
  • Choose your drink wisely. Sugary sodas contain too much sugar and calories. Opt instead for water, skim or low-fat milk, diet soda or fruit juice.
  • Order the kids meal. This is what I often do. The portions are smaller and you don’t have that guilty feeling of eating more than you needed.

Besides the fast food restaurant industry, there are other places where food is sold that are making an effort to provide more nutritious food. Recently, I attended the 2013 Built Environment and the Outdoors Summit conference in Topeka, representing Osage County as a board member of a local foundation. It was an interesting mix of breakout sessions that dealt with topics ranging from making your community more walkable and bicycle-friendly to how to establish food policy councils to improve your community’s food environment.

One of the sessions I attended was on healthy concessions. Jill Geller, with the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District, explained how their agency offers healthier food options at all of its concession stands and the positive impact that has had on the community. Creating sustainable farmers markets was another session demonstrating the success these have in providing healthy, locally grown food, to promote a healthy environment.

When we all get on board to create more options for nutritious and healthier foods available in this country, the better off we will all be. From healthier foods in fast food restaurants, our schools, healthy vending food and concession stand options, more farmers markets and food policy councils, our ability to fight obesity and other diseases is looking more like a reality than a fantasy. We are what we eat. Healthy foods help create healthy bodies and that’s a win-win for all of us.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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