You’re in line at McDonald’s and your child asks for Chicken McNuggets, french fries, and a strawberry shake—with lots of barbeque sauce to dip, of course. You remember the calorie counts you saw online—990 calories for the meal with four nuggets, a medium order of fries and a small shake. You decide on small fries instead.
Researchers in Seattle found that parents who saw calorie information on a fast-food menu chose lower calorie options for their children than parents who did not see that information. A mom led the study.
“I’m a pediatrician and a mom, and, given those two things, I really wanted to understand how menu labeling could possibly impact purchasing for children in a restaurant or fast-food environment,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, pediatric researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “Our objective in this study was really to see if the presence of calorie information on a fast-food menu would lead to lower-calorie choices.”
The report, recently published online in Pediatrics, might just mean fewer french fries lost under car seats.
Working at a local doctor’s office, the researchers found parents of 3- to 6- year-old children who had gone in for a routine visit. Each parent was given a fast-food menu, created for the study, with a variety of typical fast-food items plus pictures, prices and names listed for each. Half of the parents received a menu that also showed the calories. Parents were asked to circle the foods they would choose for themselves and their children.
“We created these fast-food menus with common items you might find at a place like McDonald’s. We modeled the menu off of McDonald’s but it really could have been any fast-food restaurant,” Tandon said.
Researchers found that parents who had the calorie information chose meals for their children with approximately 100 fewer total calories than those parents who did not see the calorie information.
To put that in perspective, choosing a 4-piece Chicken McNuggets over a cheeseburger saves 110 calories. Or, save 150 calories by ordering a small fries instead of a medium. And, that strawberry shake—the smallest 12-ounce serving has 140 more calories than a strawberry sundae.
Interestingly, the researchers noted that there was no real difference between the calories parents chose for themselves in either group.
“McDonald’s has always been committed to providing a variety of wholesome, balanced menu options for all of our customers, including our youngest guests,” said registered dietician Cindy Goody, director of nutrition for McDonalds USA, in a media statement. “For more than 35 years, McDonald’s has been committed to providing our customers with comprehensive nutrition information on our menu so they can make decisions for themselves, and their families, every time they visit our restaurants.”
According to the restaurant, nutrition information is available on its Web site, a toll-free number (800.244.6277), on some product packaging, in-restaurant nutrition brochures and on the back of tray liners.
“Small choices can add up over the long term,” said Megan Campbell, the registered dietitian for Northwestern University. “If a child is consistently getting 100 calories more than they need each day, and are not burning off those excess calories through physical activity, then it will lead to unwanted weight gain.”
Campbell adds that one concern about fast-food meals is their lack of fruits, vegetables and whole grains—the foundation of a healthy diet.
In terms of changes in the fast-food landscape, Tandon thinks menu labeling is one part of the equation.
“It’s something that is being discussed even at a national level as part of the health care reform legislation and in many parts of the country,” she said. “So I think that’s one first step in terms of making consumers more aware of the nutrition in their fast food and possibly leading to changes in what fast-food restaurants offer.”