There are plenty of people on both sides of the American political divide who are trying to tell us how to run our lives. Most of the liberal finger wavers are in the government, while the conservative nannies are concentrated in churches and grim-faced social advocacy groups.
With liberals more or less in control of Washington for the last five years, we have been subjected to a seemly relentless campaign to eat healthier, get exercise, and lose weight. Encouraged by First Lady Michelle Obama, they’ve pressured school districts to replace soft drinks and candy bars in vending machines with fruit juice and granola bars, and serve healthier lunches in the cafeteria.
Fast food chains have also felt the heat to restrict the size of drinks, post nutrition information about their food, and offer healthier choices on their menus. McDonald’s, perhaps still feeling guilty after the documentary “Super Size Me,” has tried the hardest to cleanse its soul.
Gone are supersized portions, replaced by oatmeal and smoothies, Egg White Delight McMuffins and Premium Snack Wraps, and apples in all of its Happy Meals. It will soon begin offering customers a choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable in place of fries in its value meals.
How has the public responded? Well, last October McDonald’s reported its first drop in monthly same-store sales in nine years, and continued that trend earlier this week by reporting disappointing numbers for the third quarter.
Part of the problem is that the healthier offerings don’t sell well. Chief Executive Don Thompson said recently that salads make up only 2 percent to 3 percent of U.S. sales. There doesn’t seem to be any PR payback either.
“McDonald’s is never going to be perceived as healthy, so for them to spent too much time on healthy items doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said Howard Penney, managing director of Hedgeye Risk Management.
On the other side of the health debate, the Center for Science in the Public Interest wasn’t impressed with the plan to offer veggies with the value meal. “Ronald McDonald’s slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today, but a long road lies ahead for the company,” it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s and Taco Bell, apparently feeling no moral imperative to improve the health of their customers, are gaining traction by going in the opposite direction. Wendy’s has scored a hit with the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger–boasting 130 more calories than a Big Mac–and will probably make it a permanent item on its menu.
Taco Bell has sold more than 500 million Doritos Locos Tacos–which have about 50 more milligrams of sodium than its regular tacos–to help the chain turn a 2 percent decline in same-store sales into a 13 percent gain the first quarter after its introduction.
The same unwillingness to take heed of our social betters can be found in our schools, where lunch sales have been down sharply and more kids are bringing their own soda and candy with them. The geniuses who decided to limit school lunches to 850 calories–it doesn’t matter if you’re a 100-pound girl or a 250-pound football player who could easily burn 3,000 calories in a day–aren’t helping the situation.
It is clear that we have a growing problem with obesity in this country, but forcing people to change their life styles is not the way to go. We’ve spent 50 years making it harder to smoke and over 20 percent of adults still indulge. We’ve drastically increased the penalties for not wearing seatbelts, and 25 percent of people still don’t use them.
Long-term education is the only way to truly change behavior. Trying to legislate or dictate change just adds cost, increases the regulatory burden, and generates more resentment toward government.