Will Fast Food Ever Be Health Food? 37677

In a previous Scoop on Food post, I asked if you thought fast food was OK for kids. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I know that fast food is not health food. I also know that people don't typically go to fast food restaurants when they want nutritious foods like healthfully prepared produce, whole grains, and lean protein foods—they go for burgers, fries, and fried chicken. Enjoyed by many, eating fast food contributes excess calories, fat, and sodium to the American diet. Of course one fast food meal won't ruin an otherwise healthful diet and lifestyle. But eating it often can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and diet-related diseases. And that will inevitably take its toll on the health and quality of life of children, and possibly even set them up for a less-than-healthy futures.

Fast food is heavily advertised, widely available, and convenient—and it's virtually impossible to ignore. Even my family and I succumb to it on occasion—while traveling or during a busy weekend. But while I'll always recommend home-prepared foods over fast food to improve dietary intake and meet nutrient needs, there's some proof that fast food chains are offering a few nutritious options or are otherwise slimming down their pickings.

Recently, McDonald's vowed to offer a side salad, fruit or vegetable option in place of French fries in value meals; promote and market water, milk, and juice instead of soda as the beverage in Happy Meals; and to create Happy Meal and other packaging that excites kids to choose and consume fruits, vegetables, low/reduced-fat dairy, or water. They also promised to include fun messages about nutrition or well-being in all its advertising aimed at children. This effort aimed at increasing access to produce and to help families and children to make informed choices in the context of balanced lifestyles is the outgrowth of a new partnership between McDonald's and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation on a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment.

The McDonald's plan won't affect all of its restaurants across the country (within the next three years, the plan will target up to ten of the chain's largest markets, and by 2020, a total of 20 of McDonald's largest markets will be targeted). Still, it's a step in the right direction. Other recent steps include the fact that McDonald's Happy Meals now include apple slices, the most popular Happy Meal choices provide 20% fewer calories than previously, and McDonald's customers and employees have more access than ever before to calorie and nutrition information.

In other fast food news, Wendy's recently joined Kids LiveWell, a program launched by the National Restaurant Association in collaboration with Healthy Dining Finder to help parents and children select nutritious foods when eating out. Two meal options that meet the Kids LiveWell nutrition criteria include a Kids' Meal that consists of a Grilled Chicken Wrap or Hamburger served with sliced apples and either Juicy Juice 100% apple juice, TruMoo 1% low fat white milk, or Nestle bottled water.

Burger King, also part of the Kids LiveWell program, offers a Kids' Meal Hamburger or Breakfast Oatmeal served with fresh apple slices and nonfat milk that meet the program's nutrition criteria. They also launched crinkle cut French fries called Satisfies. A small order has fewer calories, less fat, and less sodium than Burger King's traditional French fries (270 calories, 11 grams total fat, and 300 milligrams sodium versus 340 calories, 15 grams total fat, and 480 milligrams sodium). No matter how you slice 'em, Satisfies are still fried potatoes. But having a tasty option with less calories, fat, and sodium (the value size order has even less) can potentially help all fast food eaters eat less when they eat out.

Although many chains are taking small steps to offer more nutritious options, they're also creating more and more unhealthy concoctions. Seems to me that the noise made by Wendy's Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger and other heavily promoted nutrient-poor options are likely to drown out any positive steps companies take to improve the eating habits and health of America.

It's up to parents to decide what role, if any, fast food should play in our lives. I say if you choose to have any fast food at all, teach your kids how to read menus, encourage them to order the smallest sizes available, and explain to them why fast food is, at best, once-in-a-while food. Because no matter what headway fast food restaurants make in the future, one thing is certain: eating more family meals at home with nutritious foods prepared in healthful ways will always be a great way to grow healthier children.

Photo of Kids' Meal Grilled Chicken Wrap via The Wendy's company.