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Are Fast Food Restaurants Getting Healthier?

Big Macs haven't become a superfood overnight (sorry), but the industry is changing in some big ways. We look at 5 fast food health milestones, from calorie counts on menus to a new, meat-free Mickey D's.

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Calories counts displayed on menus.  At long last, McDonald's is rolling out calorie counts on its menus nationwide, the chain announced last month; when the health care bill goes into effect, any restaurant with more than 20 locations must post this info, too. Although it's helpful to see exactly what you're eating, the verdict is out on whether the numbers inspire anyone to make smarter choices. A 2011 NYU study showed that teenagers actually ordered foods with more calories at restaurants that displayed nutritional info. The same year, a New York City survey found that only a sixth of customers read the listings at all. Those who did read up purchased 106 fewer calories on average than those who didn't. Lesson learned: You have to pay attention to what you put in your mouth—but didn't we already know that?

New York City outlaws artificial trans fats. Whether you thought Bloomberg overstepped his mayoral bounds on this one is now beside the point—New York City's trendsetting citywide trans fat ban works. A study published this summer in the Annals of Internal Medicine followed diners at 168 restaurants in the city. In 2009, three years after the ban went into effect, diners at fast food joints were eating an average of .5 grams of trans fat per meal—down from 2.4 grams of the bad-for-you fats before the ban. Plus, the number of meals without any trans fat at all went up from 32 percent before the ban and 59 percent after the fact. Philadelphia, Stamford, and the entire state of California have since enacted similar regulations on the stuff. 

Happy Meals go healthy. The original Happy Meal—burger or nuggets, fries, a sugary soda, and a toy—got a makeover in 2011, when McDonald's halved the french fry portion, added a serving of apple slices, and offered 1% milk and fat-free chocolate milk in lieu of soda. Although fruit and milk had long been available as substitutes, the meal now defaults to the more nutritious version. San Francisco took things one step further that same year when it banned passing out free toys with kids' meals that don't meet specific nutritional standards (don't worry, you can still pay extra for that Hot Wheels car).

A vegetarian McDonald's opens in India.  McDonald's, of all places, announced it is opening its first vegetarian restaurant next year in Amristar, India, with two more locations on the way. The move—which some Hindu officials consider insulting, given that the company makes its money off of burgers everywhere else—caters to the region's large vegetarian population, but has the added benefit of ridding the menu of those fatty beef burgers. Even so, a veg-friendly meal is no health guarantee: The company's most popular item in India is the McAloo Tikki Burger, a spiced, fried potato patty on a bun.

Sodas shrink in New York City. NYC's newest stab at whittling residents' waistlines bans the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. Sugar-free drinks,  milkshakes, and convenience stores like 7-11 each get a bye from the regulation, which the Board of Health passed earlier this month, but every other establishment—office cafeterias, movie theaters, fast food restaurants—needs to downsize by March 12. Although it's too early to tell if this will catch on like the trans-fat ban did, a Health Department survey says the move is promising, health-wise: Switching from a 20-ounce soda to a 16-ounce one each day saves 14,600 calories a year—the equivalent of four pounds. 

 

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