A Different Kind of Food Fight


supersize_meNo matter where you stand politically, sometimes you have to marvel when you see how free markets work. What Morgan Spurlock, the film maker of “Super Size Me,” could not achieve with his anti-fast-food crusade, is happening now: McDonald’s has jumped on the bandwagon of health-conscious eating. Most likely in response to Taco Bell’s heavily advertised “Drive-Thru Diet,” McDonald’s has decided to team up with Weight Watchers, the weight management giant, and has promptly received their seal of approval for three meals. For starters, the new partnership is currently being tested in New Zealand only.

The so-called “Weight Watchers Approved Meals” are the “Filet-O-Fish” meal, which includes a side salad (with a choice of Balsamic vinegar or Italian dressing) and a medium-size diet drink or water; the “Six-Pack Chicken McNuggetts” (plus sauce or ketchup), also with side salad and drink; and the “Sweet Chilli Seared Chicken Wrap” with a drink, but no salad.

McDonald’s New Zealand says they have been able to meet Weight Watchers’ nutritional requirements by reducing the fat content in these three items by up to 60%. Weight Watchers agrees and calls the new partnership “positive,” based on the company’s belief that “all food can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.” Both companies say they are committed to “change the face of the quick service industry.”

Weight Watchers gives its approval ratings through a system it calls the “Points Tracker.” Essentially, participants in their weight management program are asked to keep track of their daily food intake with the help of a counting system. Food items are given certain values or points to be added up throughout the day. The average daily allowance is around 28 points, depending on age, height, gender, weight loss goal, etc. Points are assigned based on calorie, fat and fiber content.

The three approved McDonald’s meals carry each 6.5 points, about a quarter of the total amount Weight Watchers recommends for daily consumption.

Not everyone shares the excitement over fast food going healthy. Critics, who have lambasted Taco Bell for misleading the public about the health benefits of their “Drive-Thru Diet,” are also protesting this latest move by McDonald’s. One of their concerns is that people will be lured into the company’s restaurants expecting to find healthier alternatives, but will then add on more “traditional” fast food items.

Like with Taco Bell’s campaign, I think we should applaud this growing trend towards better food choices, wherever we find them. If Weight Watchers approves of certain meals based on its rating system, it should not matter who produces them. And if dominant brands finally acknowledge the need for healthier eating, we are all better off.

Having said that, I wished more attention was paid to factors other than calorie and fat count. Never mind how much fat fast food manufacturers are able to reduce in their products; they still won’t achieve what one can honestly call healthy food.

Healthful eating is mostly a question of balance. Our bodies need to receive a number of important nutrients, which are best found in natural foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fast foods do not provide these in sufficient amounts, no matter how they are dressed up.

In addition, manufactured and processed foods are all inherently high in sodium. People, who struggle with weight issues, often have also heart disease and hypertension to be concerned about. A diet high in sodium only adds to the risks. All three of the McDonald’s Weight Watchers approved meals have high sodium contents – between 407 mg and 801 mg each. That is a third to over a half of the daily allowance recommended for heart disease patients in only one meal. If you count the salad dressings, even the lighter ones, the sodium levels get pushed over the limit right there and then. These issues matter greatly and more attention must be paid to all relevant nutritional data, before premature endorsements get handed out by the health experts.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®,” available in bookstores, on her blog at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD



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