Does parental choice make for Happy decisions?

I had a bit of a double-take the other day when I read about two recent diet-related news stories. The first headline referred to a report on a French study that showed a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer, suggesting that the more of them you ate, the greater your chances were of getting cancer. So far, no surprises there and even my own children’s response when I shared this news with them was a sarcastic shrug and a ‘Yeah, I know?!’ They were not alone in dismissing this as ‘news’ because despite the best efforts of the newspapers and tv programmes who featured the story and tried to whip up interest, the lack of controversy meant the story quickly died away. However, just because it is widely believed that the more processed something is, the worse it is for you, it does not mean that you will change your behaviour. It is also true that not everyone who eats a diet full of ultra-processed foods necessarily chooses to do so. Which brings me to the second piece of news that I read with interest.

McDonald’s have announced with much fanfare that as part of its global commitment to support families, they will be changing the menu of their children’s Happy Meals in a bid to tackle childhood obesity. Although this sounded commendable, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast of this press release compared to the discreet phasing out of McDonald’s menu option to Supersize items, some years ago. Back then, McDonald’s released a quiet statement to say that they decided to shelve Supersizing in an effort ‘to simplify their menu and give customers choices that support a balanced lifestyle’. Given the increasingly high obesity rates in children, globally, McDonald’s is reducing its menu choices in order to improve their health. To kick off, from June 2018, the Happy Meal menu will no longer include the choice of a cheeseburger or chocolate milk. Additionally, all Happy Meals will be reduced in the number of calories and the amount of sodium, saturated fat and sugar they contain. McDonald’s aims to get all Happy Meals down to less than 600kcals by 2022.

The news coverage of this announcement was more widespread than the cancer story and was mostly positive. However, many health pundits also expressed the view that it was about time that McDonald’s took some responsibility for the effect of their success on the health of their customers. Since Forbes put the company comfortably in the top spot as the world’s largest restaurant in 2017, it certainly could afford to make an effort. Despite other renewed calls for more fast food restaurants to follow McDonald’s lead, none of them responded with similar healthy pledges of intent. Before long, the Happy Meal press also faded into the background of bigger news stories. But the news may have lingered a little longer inside most households of children and teenagers, alike.

And my children are no different because although they have long outgrown Happy Meals, when I shared the news at home, they looked up from their phones in utter disbelief. At first, they were slightly shocked to learn that each ‘tiny’ Happy Meal was more than 600kcals. How could it be possible, when they weren’t even filling?! But then they were even more outraged by the fact that they had never known that there had been chocolate milk. Why didn’t I tell them?! Why hadn’t I let them have any?! They’d been robbed! They then continued to lament over all the missed opportunities to indulge in glasses of chocolatey pleasure and proceeded to fling accusations at me of unfairness and menu censorship. At least they had forgotten to add the usual, ‘Why do you have to be a nutritionist?!’

I was taken aback by their overreaction for two reasons. First, how can anyone drink chocolate milk alongside a pile of chips that will inevitably be doused with vinegar or ketchup? It is a textbook car crash of opposing flavours and aromas and nobody’s stomach is going to thank them for that combination. Second, I am not part of the anti-chocolate milk brigade and in fact, I think it makes quite a decent recovery snack after a hard workout. Nonetheless, its high sugar content makes it a more suitable drink for children at pudding where it can be dunked into at leisure. Therefore, I do not recall chocolate milk ever entering into the equation of what drink should be picked in a Happy Meal lunch or dinner. Was it really on the menu?

However, I do take full responsibility for depriving my children of McDonald’s, in general, as I confess that I never willingly took them there. My defence is that when my children were younger, they went to more than enough birthday parties that were held at McDonald’s and at similar type establishments. In other words, their school and the propensity of other parents to invite absolutely everybody and their siblings in their year to birthday parties gave me an easy ‘out’ to say no at home. I admit, McDonald’s was relegated to emergency only status but even though I wasn’t a fan, I never stood in the way of hunger.

I decided to look into the news story to learn more about the Happy Meal changes and to get to the bottom of chocolate milk-gate. What I found out only reminded me of the difficulty that parents face when trying to steer their children to make healthy choices, especially when it comes to ultra-processed fast food.

Even though fast food is well-known for being bad for our health and we hear alarming stories about its links to cancer, we just can’t stop eating it. But it is easy to understand why. It is produced to be hyper-palatable and attractive, it has a long shelf-life, it’s readily available, largely affordable and it can be consumed anywhere, at any time of the day. The entire formulation, presentation and marketing of fast food not only often promotes consumption but overconsumption. Parents, therefore, often face a battle trying to avoid an overreliance on these foods. Therefore, I was very interested in looking into the fine print of McDonald’s announcement to see how they were going to help parents improve the health of their children. What I found out about their new initiative, however, turned out to be anything but clear.

To start with, despite McDonald’s initiative being part of their global commitment, the reduced menu choices of the Happy Meals only affect restaurants in the US. But that’s not all, the calorie content will be reduced at the same time in the US and so will meet the 600kcals cut-off by June 2018. I wondered why the reduced menu only affected the US and why the rest of the world had to wait until 2022 for any changes? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be far easier for McDonald’s to make their global changes, globally? Curiously, as I read more and began to untangle the details of the changes, it seemed that the reduced menu choices in the US would be nothing more than a slight of hand. Rather than completely phasing out the unhealthy cheeseburgers and chocolate milk, they will both still be available to order from the larger menu after June. The only real change is that they will not appear listed as choices on the Happy Meal menu so that the only mains featured will be the hamburger and the 4 or 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Bottled water, however, will be added as a Happy Meal drink choice, taking up the place of the chocolate milk on the menu.

As for the situation in the UK, the Happy Meal menu choices are not being reduced and the same cheeseburgers will continue to be featured as a main option. The UK is one of McDonald’s ‘20 major markets’ and as part of the global commitment, these markets aim to meet the new nutritional standards set by 2022. Which means that despite the big announcement, in reality, nothing in the UK has changed unless you think simply having an aim is a news story. As for chocolate milk-gate, I discovered that it is not listed on the Happy Meal menu or even the wider menu at present in the UK. In fact, I couldn’t find any evidence to show that chocolate milk was ever on the menu. Phew! Although I felt slightly relieved and looked forward to sharing this useful nugget of information at home, I had to wonder. Will there actually be any advantage to parents when McDonald’s reduces the menu choices in Happy Meals? In other words, will having a visually limited menu help parents and children make healthy choices even when the unhealthier items are still freely available?

Parents in the UK have never had to face the choice of whether they would let their children choose chocolate milk in a Happy Meal or not but what if it had been on the menu? My teenage children made it pretty clear to me that they would have wanted to choose it. However, they also know that I wouldn’t have let them have it which is why they didn’t entirely trust my lack of chocolate milk memory. Surely other parents would have said ‘no’ to a chocolate milk option. It is not exactly impossible. But if it’s listed on the menu as a perfectly acceptable drink choice and other children around you are happily slurping away on it with their Happy Meal, it is not easy. If you decide to give your hungry children a choice but then try to convince them that chocolate milk is not a good option for them, you might as well be trying to reason with a Tasmanian Devil. Which means that even if you know that chocolate milk is loaded with sugar, it is far too easy to convince yourself that it is an absolutely sensible drink. After all, at least it’s milk which has some nutritional value, unlike a horrible fizzy drink.

But then what would happen when the chocolate milk is no longer listed on the menu but is still lurking around? How do parents avoid buying chocolate milk (or a cheeseburger) if that’s what their child has always chosen before? How do you reason with a little angry person who doesn’t believe that chocolate milk is not on the Happy Meal menu when there are plenty of children with chocolatey moustaches running around showing you that it is very much available? There is nothing that children hate more than when a parent changes their mind, especially when it is about something that they previously allowed their children to do.

I can only conclude that McDonald’s reduced menu is not going to improve the health of children unless they have the most willing, able and determined parents. Because to make healthier choices for their children, parents will need to be strong enough to ignore the unhealthy choices still available and heavily promoted on the wider menu. Those parents will probably rue the day when chocolate milk was ever a Happy Meal menu choice. Fortunately for McDonald’s, there will still be enough parents who, for a number of reasons, will find themselves having to order some extra chocolate milk off the main menu every time they purchase a Happy Meal. Ultimately, McDonald’s will benefit the most because these families will even have to pay more for unhealthy choices.

As for my family, despite knowing that chocolate milk was not a drink choice in a Happy Meal, they still feel slightly cheated. It doesn’t make any difference that they know it’s unlikely that I would have let them have it as a main drink. Of course, it’s always easier to make healthy choices if there are no other options. But surely parenting is about making choices for our children precisely when it’s not easy. As a nutritionist and a parent, McDonald’s announcement of their new nutritional standards can only be welcomed. But simply reducing the menu choices of Happy Meals by shifting the unhealthy items onto the larger menu does little to help parents. The only healthy benefits that I can see are McDonald’s.

Although I have chocolate milk on my mind, I am more tempted to share a recipe for something else that is dark and rich to be enjoyed on St Patrick’s Day: Irish soda bread with Guinness. We will be eating it while watching Ireland win the Rugby Six Nations and more than likely, the Grand Slam, too.

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