As of September 16, McDonald’s was set to begin posting calorie counts on its menu boards nationwide. Will it cause you to improve your fast food selections for just the next few visits, permanently or will you no longer even visit the golden arches?
Let’s first look at why McDonald’s would decide to post the nutritional content of their food and beverages. The Affordable Care Act will require that all restaurants, fast-food places, bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee shops and vending companies that are part of chains with more than 20 locations nationwide print calorie information on menus. (Note: other information including total calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugar, fiber and total protein must be available in writing upon request.) Right now, the United States Department of Agriculture is accepting feedback on this law before giving it the final deadline for enforcement. McDonald’s is just abiding by the law in advance of everyone else.
Will people make better choices? Research completed by a team of University of Minnesota researchers suggests not. They set up 2 restaurants with calorie labeling and while they saw a small decline when menu calories were first posted, there was no difference by the end of the research. At Saint Mary’s, we’ve experienced the opposite but we’ve also priced the healthier options cheaper than their traditional counterparts and in some instances posted information on the health attributes beyond the calories. For example, our sales doubled on baked chips and pretzels when we began to sell them $0.20 lower than regular chips whose sales dropped by fifty percent. We offer skim and 2 percent milk as a coffee topper free right next to creamers that contain 50 calories. On the creamer station we have a sign that says “High intakes of saturated fat leads to increased levels of LDL cholesterol. This is a risk for cardiovascular disease.
Is eating healthy a goal when dining out? Not for the mass majority according to the NPD Group, a market and research company. Only nine percent of customers care about calories, sodium and fat away from home. The rest are just looking for a night away from cooking and are more apt to select a meal based on price and taste preferences. My hope is that over time, this nine percent increases to ten percent and continues to grow as we bring a heightened awareness to what’s in our food when we eat away from home. According to the USDA, in 2009, Americans spent 42 percent of their budget on meals and snacks away from home.
A healthy goal is to limit meals away from home to no more than twice per week.
McDonald’s Soda comes in 16 ounce (150 calories, 40 grams of sugar), 21 ounce (210 calories, 58 grams of sugar) and 32 ounce (310 calories, 86 grams of sugar). If we were in New York, based on the new soda ban regulation, nothing over the 16 ounce would be served. Consider this if a person who habitually drinks a 32 ounce soda switches to a 16 ounce and made no other changes, they would lose an average of 1 pound every 21 days, or 17 pounds per year. Think about it this way, a 32 ounce regular soda contains the sugar equivalent of 3.2 bags of m&m’s. You wouldn’t eat this many bags in one sitting so why would you drink it?
The worst offender on the menu is the Angus Bacon & Cheese weighing in at 790 calories, 39 grams of fat, 2 grams of trans fat and 2070 milligrams of sodium. I was surprised to learn that all of the McDonald’s hamburgers contain 0.5 – 2.5 grams of trans fat. Even their lower calorie Angus wraps contains trans fat. Trans fat may cause worse damage plaque damage to arteries than saturated fat. McDonald’s took it out of their fries in 2008.
I admit, I love McDonald’s fries but unless I order kid fries, I split the bag. A large bag of fries contains 500 calories, 25 grams of fat or the equivalent of 5 teaspoons of margarine. Compare that to a kids fries at only 100 calories and 5 grams of fat.
In our previous restaurant segments, we talked about keeping the lunch menu under 500 calories. We also noted that it is a rare find in any restaurant to limit the sodium unless you stick with the fruit, salad or yogurt parfait options. McDonald’s has a lot of options, yet it will be so much easier to identify what these are when the calories are listed on the menu board. Here are the options that are <500 calories, <30% fat, <10% saturated fat and trans fat free:
- The Grilled Wrap Sandwiches range from 250-330 calories
- Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich 350 calories
- Salads with Grilled Chicken range from 230-290 calories just make sure to choose the low fat dressings.
- Fruit n’ Yogurt Parfait
Beyond these selections, I’d stick with the kid’s hamburger happy meal, served up with a carton of milk. This adds up to 450 calories or you can add the cheese for an even 500. You can also ask to have your sandwich prepared without sauce, cheese or mayonnaise which can save you between 50 -150 calories.
I recommend that you limit your meals away from home to twice per week due to the high calorie, high fat, and sodium rich menu offerings. Can your family succeed at this goal?