Perspective from Caroline M, Apovian, MD
August 31, 2017
3 min read

Report: Fast-food chains inconsistent on pledges to promote healthy food options

Perspective from Caroline M, Apovian, MD
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McDonald’s, Wendy’s and several other similar establishments are not consistently following through on their pledges to promote more nutritious food options, according to a recent report.

“Frequent fast food consumption negatively affects children’s diets, weight and health. One-third of children consume fast food on a given day, contributing 126 additional calories, increased sugar, saturated fat, sodium and sugary drink intake, and reduced milk intake on those days. Furthermore, a majority of kids’ meal main dishes offered by top fast-food restaurants exceed dietary recommendations for the percent of calories from fat, saturated fat and sodium,” Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, and colleagues wrote in the report.

“Policies that reduce calories and improve the nutritional quality of foods and beverages consumed by children at fast-food restaurants will likely improve children’s health, with even greater benefits for lower-income, black, and Hispanic populations.”

Researchers employed mystery shoppers to determine if the fast-food restaurants Subway, Dairy Queen, Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s were fulfilling their pledges to administer healthier kids’ policies. Data were collected in 2010, 2013, and 2016 to show trends over time.

Their queries focused on whether these establishments adhered to the pledges on an ongoing basis and the process behind these restaurants’ promoting the healthier food items and not elevating the unhealthy choices.

Among the findings that Harris and researchers reported:

•Between 2010 and 2016, the segment of kids’ meal orders that were offered healthier drinks increased at McDonald’s and Burger King, and stayed consistently high at Subway. There was no improvement at Wendy’s;

•All kids’ meal drink options listed on the websites of establishments in the study were healthier choices — including plain water, 100% fruit juice and low-fat milk, — which researchers called a significant improvement from 2013 to 2016;

•In 2016, employees automatically supplied unhealthy sides with the majority of kids’ meal orders at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s;

•Although available on the menu, personnel did not suggest healthier kids’ meal side options with most orders at Burger King, Wendy’s, or Dairy Queen;

•In 2016, employees suggested healthier drink choices with most kids’ meal orders at the point-of-sale. However, some personnel at all the restaurants continued to involuntarily offer unhealthy drinks as the default;

•Only McDonald’s and Subway pledged to offer healthier sides with kids’ meals. However, all establishments studied offered at least one healthier kids’ meal side, though all restaurants (including McDonald’s and Subway) also continued to list unhealthy kids’ meal side options on menu boards inside restaurants; and

•In 2016, the majority of menu boards at the establishments visited indicated healthier kids' meal drinks, but about one-third or more of restaurant menu boards also listed unhealthy drinks for kids' meals.

“Fast food restaurants have not consistently implemented their healthier kids’ meal pledges,” Harris and colleagues wrote. “Policy makers should consider legislation or regulation to require that all restaurants offer healthier kids’ meals.” – by Janel Miller

Reference: Harris J, et al. Are fast-food restaurants keeping their promises to offer healthier kids' meals? Available at: Accessed Aug. 30, 2017.

Disclosure: Healio Family Medicine was unable to determine researchers’ relevant disclosures prior to publication.