— The McDonald's Happy Meal is bummed.
The decision of San Francisco city officials Tuesday to crack down on restaurant meals that include free toys unless they meet particular nutritional guidelines is -- depending on whom you ask -- either taking away a parents' right to choose what to feed their children, as some msnbc.com readers have commented, or a gift to frazzled parents up against a massive marketing machine.
What it most likely isn't, however, is a solution to the childhood obesity epidemic.
In an effort to curb the swelling rates of kids who are overweight or obese, the city's Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a law that would require any meals that package a free toy to include fruits and vegetables and contain no more than 600 calories or 35 percent of its calories from fat (about 210 calories or 23 grams of fat). The meals would also have to contain a beverage that's not loaded with sugar or fat.
The board will revisit and vote again on the law Tuesday, Nov. 9. If passed, the law, expected to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2011, is intended to promote healthy eating habits among kids.
"This is a tremendous victory for our children's health," Supervisor Eric Mar, chief sponsor of the legislation, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
At a time when an estimated 17 percent of young people aged 2-19 years are obese and about an equal number are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the restriction on the popular Happy Meal is a worthy effort.
A typical Happy Meal, with its plastic "Shrek" toys or other action figures, includes either a hamburger or chicken McNuggets, small french fries and a soda, low-fat chocolate milk or apple juice, all to the tune of about 400 calories to 580 calories and up to a whopping 26 grams of fat. For a typical, sedentary 4-5 year-old that's about half of the average 1,200 daily calories needed and about 39 percent of calories needed by a typical 9-year-old.
That's fine if the child is eating a Happy Meal only for special occasions, not every day. But studies have shown that fast food makes up a substantial portion of kids’ calorie intake, and research suggests that children and adolescents who consume fast food tend to consume more total calories, fat, and sodium and have less healthful diets than those who do not.
McDonald's expressed disappointment in the ordinance. "Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility — not the government's — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children," McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement.
Sure, parents can, and do, have a say about what their kids eat, but it's increasingly tough for them to ignore all the temptations out there. Kids are bombarded with food marketing: in 2006 about $870 million was spent on advertising meals to the under 12 set, the prime target for Happy Meals, according to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report.
It's doubtful that the Happy Meal measure will do much to reverse the tide of overweight children. There are many causes of childhood obesity, including genetic and lifestyle ones. Decreased physical activity, too many sugary beverages and increased overall calorie intake are factors.
In fact, ostracizing fatty meals that come with plastic promotional toys could have the unintended consequence of making the product even more appealing to kids, says Chicago-based nutritionist and msnbc.com contributor Janet Helm, R.D., who writes a blog called Nutrition Unplugged.
"It's the forbidden fruit syndrome," Helm says. "In the end, what have we taught families about how to make more nutritious choices? I believe in balance, not avoidance."
On the other hand, if kids are told they can have the toy if they choose lower-calorie options, they may, in fact, do that. Only time, and real-world studies, will tell.
Another potential positive outcome could be the extra push for restaurants to offer more healthful menu options for kids.
"What about a grilled chicken sandwich instead of fried nuggets?" asks New York nutritionist and Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read it Before You Eat It.” "There's no grilled chicken sandwich for kids at McDonalds. And what about a fish sandwich that's not breaded and fried with breading that's thicker than the fish?"