WASHINGTON, DC: In its continuing efforts to weather the obesity storm that has plagued society and the fast food industry, McDonald's unveiled its latest defense: a national balanced lifestyles platform to help address the disease in America and improve the nation's overall physical well-being.
"Our customers were telling us that they wanted more choice and balance. We started working vigorously on the plan to pull things together. A lot of the stuff that was announced today was in the making for one or two years," said Ken Barun, corporate VP for balanced lifestyles and CEO and president of the Ronald Ronald McDonald House Charities.
The multi-year plan will attempt to promote the importance of balance in the areas of food choices, physical activity and education. The company states its goal in a press release: "to educate, assist, and engage consumers in ways that change individual behavior, resulting in better food/energy (calorie-in/calorie-out) balance in their lives."
"This announcement by McDonald's is a positive step toward helping Americans make healthier choices," said Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), in a press release.
"Having him there was a real endorsement for us and the work that we're doing. He's established [good] relations with our US president Mike Roberts," Barun said.
Among the menu offerings stemming from the program include the national launch of its Go Active! Adult Happy Meal, which includes a salad, bottled water, and a Stepometer that calculates a user's daily steps; menu choice ordering options, which allows customers the ability to order sandwiches without the buns, and a "Simple Steps" brochure that helps customers make ordering decisions that limits fat, calories and carbohydrates intake. The company also has plans in place to promote exercise. Barun said that the company will also be testing putting nutretional information on Happy Meals.
Widely circulated figures place national obesity health costs at $100 billion or approximately 6 percent of the country's health care expenses. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimates that nearly two-thirds of US adults are overweight and one-third of US adults are obese.
McDonald's received a lot of flak early in the year with the Sundance Film Festival debut of Super Size Me, a documentary in which director Morgan Spurlock ate three meals a day at McDonald's. Spurlock gained 25 pounds and suffered through liver ailments during the diet. McDonald's has said that the documentary was about personal decisions and not the fast food chain. However, McDonald's has subsequently abolished its Super Size menu option in the United States.
"We've taken some of the plans we've had in place for some time and listened and responded to our customers. That's really the driving force behind what we're doing. When it all boils down to it, the customers are the people that drive our business and that's who have a responsibility towards, no one else," Barun said.
In an interesting development, rival filmmaker and adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Soso Whaley is currently in the middle of a similar 30-day McDonald's diet and has claimed that she lost five pounds and retained a high level of energy. She will also make a documentary of her progress and has maintained a daily meal-by-meal record on the www.cei.org. The CEI is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group advocating free enterprise and limited government. Whaley was 178 and 5'3 1/2 at the beginning of the challenge, which places her in the morbidly obese range, according to the body mass index chart (BMI).
McDonald's has not endorsed Whaley's work and the two seem to be promoting different messages. McDonald's latest campaign is appealing for individuals to make informed, healthy decisions about their food eating as a whole, whereas Whaley is pushing a personal-freedom message because of her ire resulting from movies like Super Size Me and organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
"I heard that she was on TV, but I have not seen the tape or spoken to her personally. From what I heard, it sounds pretty good and that she was responding to some of the things that were out there in a very positive way," Barun said.
In her first diary entry, Whaley said that she was spurred on to do the documentary because Spurlock's "anti-corporate, anti-fast food take on the 'evil' McDonald's is nothing more than simple junk science and should be relegated to the comedy section at Blockbuster once it is distributed."
She had scanned all of her receipts onto a PDF and, according to these receipts, has consumed anywhere from 1280 to 2100 calories a day during her three meals at the restaurant.
"From now on I plan to stop thinking of food as 'good' or 'bad.' Food is food, plain and simple. Food is not inherently evil, our only 'problem' as it were is that we have been very successful as a species in learning how to create easily accessible food sources," Whaley wrote in a diary entry on her 12th day.
Super Size Me was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films during Sundance and will air on A&E. Both films are slated for release later this year.