TCS Daily

Pulling a Fast One

By Sydney Smith - November 26, 2002 12:00 AM

I once attended a lecture about cholesterol in which the lecturer, a cardiologist, claimed (without any substantiation) that eating a Happy Meal from McDonald's was the biological equivalent of smoking two cigarettes.

New York attorney Samuel Hirsch must have attended a similar lecture. Hirsch, you might have heard, is the lawyer who is using the success of the tobacco lawsuits as a primer for a legal assault on the fast food industry. He first made news a few months ago when he filed suits against McDonald's claiming that their food made several of his adult clients obese, and thus caused their health problems. Those suits have yet to show any profit for Mr. Hirsh. Of the four cases involving adults, three of them have been dismissed.

Not one to give up easily, Hirsh has turned to children as his weapon of choice against the fast food giants. Last week, he filed a class action lawsuit in Manhattan on behalf of three children who claim McDonald's is responsible for their obesity. As one of his colleagues so succinctly put it, "it's hard to argue that a 6, or 8 or 10-year-old child has to take full responsibility for their decisions."

The crux of the current suit is that McDonald's has manipulated and seduced children - "lured" is the word the attorneys used, into their grease traps where they eat Happy Meals until they burst their britches. They do this with slick television commercials, the promise of toys, and the chance to play in a fancy jungle gym on the premises. It's an argument that deserves far more scrutiny than it's getting. For, while it is certainly hard to argue that elementary school children should take full responsibility for their decisions, it is even harder to argue that they should be making those decisions in the first place. There may be some 6, 8, and 10-year-old children who are forced to fend for themselves when meal time comes around, but they're the exception, not the rule. And if they are fending for themselves, they're the victims of parental neglect, not of corporate malfeasance.

Consider for a moment the care and feeding of a child. In this country, it isn't all that difficult a thing to do. Grocery stores are easily accessible for most people, at least as accessible as a fast food restaurant. What's more, if times are rough, there's help available. Food stamps make it possible to buy nutritious food at the store for far less than a trip to McDonald's, and the federal Women, Infants and Children program provides healthy food for low income children and their mothers. A typical nutritious lunch at home - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, and a glass of milk - can be had for about seventy-five cents. A Cheeseburger Happy Meal, in contrast, costs $2.50. So, why would a parent, especially one who was financially strapped, chose McDonald's as a staple of their childĀ¹s diet rather than prepare the cheaper meal at home? Because it's easier. It requires no grocery shopping, no preparation time, no dishes to clean, and most of all, no thought.

There's something else, though, that deserves to be pointed out when comparing the Happy Meal to the meal at home. Something that's quite surprising and defies conventional wisdom. They have the same number of calories. To be sure, the McDonald's meal has less nutritional value per calorie than the home meal, but it isn't any more fattening. A calorie is a calorie, no matter how empty. For all of our bluster about "fat grams" and "percent carbohydrates," when it comes to obesity the only thing that really counts is calories. Eat more than you expend, and you expand. Even a person who ate nothing but chocolate would lose weight if the calories they consumed were less than those they burned.

And that's where the children's case against fast food completely falls apart. According to the National Research Council, the daily recommended calorie intake for children six to ten years of age is from 1800 to 2000 calories a day. A child who has a McDonald's pancake breakfast with milk, and a cheeseburger Happy Meal with a soda for lunch and dinner, would consume 2000 calories a day. That's still within the recommended guidelines of the National Research Council. Choosing an Egg McMuffin instead of pancakes would cut it to 1700 calories, well within the recommended range. Compare that to a child who eats his meals at home. I did the math for a typical day in the life of my children, none of whom would be classified as obese. It came to 1900 calories a day.

Clearly, it wasn't Happy Meals alone that made these children obese. There were a lot of other factors at play - their innate metabolic rates, their daily activity levels, and the other calories they're consuming at home. The responsibility for their obesity may not rest with the children, but it surely rests with their families, who are failing to foster healthy habits.
If anyone should be sued, it's their parents.

The author is a family physician who has been in private practice since 1991. She is board certified by the American Board of Family Practice, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. She is the publisher of MedPundit.



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