Friday, November 12, 2010

"No toys for you!" - The McDonald's Happy Meal toy ban.

Most people who know me, know that I'm a big proponent of feeding our children healthy food. So, it may come as a surprise when I say I'm against San Francisco's recently passed ban on toys included with children's meals that have been deemed "unhealthy."

Sure, I can see the parallels between the fight to remove characters like Joe Camel and Spuds McKenzie that were used to market harmful substances to kids and the attempt to remove kids' toys that are given away with junk food. It sounds good on paper - get rid of the toys, kids won't care about going to McD's anymore, and obesity will steadily decline. Wouldn't that be nice? Keep dreaming people.

The problem with a law like this one is that it assumes a lot. First it assumes the writers of the law know what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Second, it assumes that kids are the one's making the decisions and that we must save them from their easily manipulated choices. Finally, it assumes that the toys are the nudge needed to tip the scales in favor of poor food choices when the reality is much, much worse.

What is healthy?
The sad fact is that most of the "truths" about what we consider healthy are, well, not true. These beliefs are based on years of willing it to be so rather than on sound scientific evidence. In many cases, a nutritional hypothesis made so much sense in theory that no one cared that the science didn't support it. "If you eat dietary fat, you'll put on body fat." Sounds good. They both are "fat" so it makes perfect sense. Only it's not that simple. If it was, the Inuit, who consume an average of 75% of calories from fat, would be morbidly obese, but they are not. This kind of "expert" advice lead to governmental guidelines, like the food pyramid, telling us to eat more grains, reduce our fat intake, especially saturated fat, and to monitor our calorie intake. In the meantime obesity and heart disease rates continued to rise.
Note: Gary Taubes detailed the history of how the health sciences steered us wrong in his excellent book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. It's not an easy read but a very important work. If you geek out this stuff like I do, it's a must read. If not, you might want to wait for his upcoming book, Why We Get Fat, which was written for the general population.
I'm not saying that McDonald's makes healthy food. Far from it. That stuff is processed to the point that it barely resembles real food anymore and their "healthy" alternatives are usually just some other form of sugar (apple juice anyone?). But, let's be honest. Do you ever go into McD's expecting a healthy meal? Sure, you could assemble a combo that is less bad for you, but if you wanted something healthy and fast the golden arches are probably the last place you'd go.

I'm just not a fan of the government telling me what I should eat, especially considering their current position. There is so much wrong with it I could write a few posts about it. Bottom line though, is that the San Francisco Supervisors - politicians who are not nutritionists or doctors - have decided that they know what is best for everyone, so they'll pass a law to protect us all from ourselves. No thanks.

"Give me the cheeseburger and no one gets hurt"
Let me drop a little fact on you: no five year old has ever forced his/her family to eat at McDonald's against their will because he/she wanted a happy meal toy. Persuaded? Maybe. Forced? No. Parents make the decisions, not children. I could be wrong but most parents these days don't get excited about whatever happy meal toy is being offered (Beanie Babies not included). And, let's be honest, the toys suck these days. Cost and convenience, not toys, are most likely the determining factors that help steer the family mini-van (or swagger-wagon if you prefer) into the McD's drive-thru.

Here's the deal: McDonalds sells cheap food. In general, cheap food is highly processed and not very good for you.

No matter how the government tries to force them to make kid's meals healthy, they will always sell cheap food. The result of this ban may be that you have to pay for toys or pay a premium for healthy choices but the junk will still be there and families will still go. Why? It's addictive, overwhelms your taste buds to the point that real food doesn't taste as good anymore, and parents know that it's pretty damn hard to feed a family the same number of calories for less anywhere else, especially the grocery store.

Still, I'm with SF mayor Gavin Newsom on this one when he said, "Parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat, especially when it comes to spending their own money."

As much as I get all worked up about proper nutrition, I'm not going to sit here and tell you to never eat a Big Mac or any other fast-food. Ignoring for a moment potential issues from the gluten containing menu items, the occasional meal at McDonald's is not going to make you sick if the rest of the time you make good food choices. It's no worse than treating yourself to that ice cream cone, or the last donut in the break room, or a slice of birthday cake. You wouldn't eat birthday cake everyday, right? (Please say no) Same goes for fast food.

It takes years of bad food choices to make you sick
Ronald McDonald is not the root cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. With the exception of the guy from Super Size Me and a few poor souls who can't afford to eat anywhere else, no one eats every meal at McD's. The true cause of obesity is so much worse.

It starts at home and in our schools.

As I mentioned before, parents decide what kids eat. This is undoubtedly true at home, and to a lesser extent at school. Parents who really want to control what their kids eat, send lunch to school with them. The rest usually purchase whatever the school provides. So what do San Francisco schools provide? Here's a sample menu. It's not a whole lot better than what you get in a McDonald's Happy Meal.

By the new law's own standards of less than 600 calories and 35% total fat, the average school meal is about 100 calories over and only about 7% fat under. The macro nutrient ratios look something like 55% carb, 28% fat, and 17% protein, and I'd bet most if it is pre-made, packaged, processed food. One of the meals on the menu was a hamburger, potatoes and a banana. Really?! Take away the banana, which mostly starchy carbs, and it looks exactly like a happy meal. I'm sure they would say, "but we have whole grains in our meals." Come on. It's still just carbs that get broken down into sugar. Sure it has more fiber, but it also comes along with more gut-damaging antinutrients.

The fact of the matter is that if the SF Supervisors wanted to change anything, they should have looked to the real problem: what our kids eat everyday. Maybe they could have tweaked the school lunches instead. Oh wait, the school nutritionist already applied the faulty principles that were the basis of our governmental food guidelines to the school lunch program. And how is that working out for us? Not so good. The obesity epidemic is being fueled by refined carbohydrate consumption and our answer to that is... eat less fat and more carbs.

The toy ban is misguided legislation, inspired by misguided guidelines, based on misguided nutrition research.

Again, I'm not trying to defend McDonald's. I'm all for people eating less fast-food. This issue frustrates me because it highlights the ignorant, hypocritical, tail-chasing nature of our government and the lack of objectivity in the field of nutrition. If what they are suggesting (high-carb, low-fat) worked, our nation wouldn't be getting sicker by the minute. Instead of trying to figure out why it's not working, they've just decided to yell it louder... and take away the toys.

We need to stop promoting failed nutritional policy. We need to educate people and instill in them good nutritional habits based on sound scientific research. It's time for everyone (politicians, nutritionists, and the entire health science community included) to put egos aside, open our minds, and start adopting programs that produce results - results that we can quantify and monitor to ensure success. Only then will we start to see a decline in the diseases of civilization and a return to the true health all humans deserve.

Agree, disagree, think I missed something? Post your thoughts to comments.


  1. Crap. I just posted something very insightful, then lost it.

    Anyway, I was saying that Pescadero's schools get their fruits and veggies from local farms, and they also do a "where food comes from" thing, where farmers bring in apples (or whatever) and talk about where it comes from and how it's grown. Pretty cool stuff.

  2. That's awesome. It's so important for our kids to learn about REAL food and where it comes from. Don't they they get grass-fed beef from one of the local farms for the schools too? Good stuff!