From McDonald's to McHealthy 

Fast-food nation welcomed into the anti-obesity fold

click to enlarge McDonalds has joined the fight against fat. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • McDonalds has joined the fight against fat.

Here come the state's premier fat busters: The American Heart Association, the Colorado School Health Council, the Girl Scouts and ... McDonald's?

Last month, the fast-food chain became the latest to join a state-sponsored coalition charged with stopping Coloradans from ballooning to historic proportions.

Rachel Oys, director of the Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition Coalition, says state health officials approached McDonald's because they need to expand the fight against obesity to include more than the usual suspects that have long preached the benefits of a low-fat diet and exercise.

"We haven't made a significant impact with the typical partners," Oys said.

While unable to predict whether people will get a mixed message from the inclusion of fast-food companies in the nutrition coalition, she praised McDonald's -- traditionally known for its french fries and Big Macs -- for its recent efforts to add salads and other healthy options to its menu.

"That's a step in the right direction," Oys said.

She said inclusion in the 450-member health coalition -- which also includes Coca-Cola Co. and the Colorado Soft Drink Association -- would put the state in a better position to convince the multinational corporation to do even more to reach goals of getting people to eat better, watch less television and exercise.

But Erin Leary, government affairs director for the American Heart Association in Denver, was somewhat wary about the new relationship.

"I'm not sure what the future will hold," she said.

When the coalition was formed in 2001, it sounded the alarm on the state's emerging fat crisis. Though Colorado is considered one of the skinniest states in the union, nearly 15 percent of its residents are medically obese -- a twofold increase from 1990.

By 2020, fully 29 percent of the state's population is expected to fall under the medical standards of obesity, and another 47 percent will be considered overweight.

Fearing a rise in diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the state has drafted a plan to keep the level of obesity at current levels through at least 2010.

Yet the constant barrage the public receives from companies that advertise sugary, fatty, low-fiber foods is a major barrier to success, according to the plan.

"The marketing of unhealthy foods and encouraging Americans to eat larger portions begins at an early age," the report says. "Each year, the average child watches 10,000 food commercials, 95 percent of which are for candy, fast food, soft drinks and sugared cereal. "

Carolyn Gust, a spokeswoman for the nine-state McDonald's Rocky Mountain region, said the company is working toward healthier choices.

"The entire company from a global standpoint is trying to strike a balance," she said.

But McDonald's has been criticized, including in the film Super Size Me, which documents 33-year-old Morgan Spurlock's monthlong binge on the restaurant's food and noticeable deterioration in his health.

McDonald's is also defending itself in a lawsuit filed two months ago in San Francisco by BanTransFats.com, an organization that alleges the company broke a 2002 promise that it would stop frying its food in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and use a healthier oil.

Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recently endorsed a fast-food restaurant for it's nutritional options -- not McDonald's, but Subway.

Subway is not listed as a member of the state's coalition.

An industry that partners with McDonald's, Coca-Cola Co., was allowed to join the state nutrition coalition about a year ago, Oys said. The company is a member of the Colorado Soft Drink Association -- which is also a member of the state nutrition coalition.

The Soft Drink Association recently withheld support for a bill that would have taken vending machine funds away from schools if 50 percent of the products in their machines weren't considered nutritious.

"We objected to the words 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' because they were basically pejorative," said Dick Brown, the association's executive director.

After the words were removed, the association supported the bill by Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver. The final bill only "encourages" schools to make more healthy choices available in vending machines.

Brown said soda companies have been making healthy choices. Coca-Cola, he said, doesn't, as a policy, distribute soda in elementary schools.

-- Michael de Yoanna


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