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The False Promise of Fast Food

Cheap. Convenient. Perfect for the family ontherun. For years, fast food companies have promoted themselves to be everything that Americans need (and then some!). And now, they even appear to be offering “healthy” options, to cater to all those consumers who are concerned about their health while onetherun.

But, as you critical HOTR readers know, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Fast food companies are in the business of making a profit, not improving our health. A recent New York Times article by Mark Bittman clearly shows how they’ve even managed to mess up the most iconic wholesome breakfast you can think of: oatmeal.

fruit-and-maple-oatmeal.png“It’s a bowl full of wholesome” ~ McDonald’s Website


The article, How to Make Oatmeal…Wrong is, in a word, awesome. If you haven’t read it already, I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes and read it now. (No, really, click away from the blog and read it. I’ll still be here when you get back.) Bittman is funny and insightful. A few highlights:

A more accurate description than “100% natural whole-grain oats,” “plump raisins,” “sweet cranberries” and “crisp fresh apples” would be “oats, sugar, sweetened dried fruit, cream and 11 weird ingredients you would never keep in your kitchen.”


Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin. (Even without the brown sugar it has more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger.)

Moral of the story – fast food is not healthy. Period. And it’s not always that much more convenient either. I probably don’t need to tell you that making oatmeal at home is incredibly simple. You can do it all in one bowl/mug in the microwave if you don’t feel like dirtying a pot on the stove. Companies like McDonald’s have falsely led us to believe that they can make us food that’s better, faster and cheaper than we can ourselves. But it’s all just advertising.

Still need convincing? Here are a few facts about the fast food industry’s advertising antics. All are taken directly from Fast Food F.A.C.T.S., a site that aims to “reveal the marketing techniques aimed at children and the nutritional quality of fast foods.”

On the huge dollar amounts fast food companies spend marketing their products:

  • They spent more than $4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on TV advertising and other media.
  • Although McDonald’s and Burger King have pledged to improve food marketing to children, they increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009. Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.
  • Even though McDonald’s and Burger King only showed their “better-for-you” foods in child-targeted marketing, their ads did not encourage consumption of these healthier choices. Instead, child-targeted ads focused on toy giveaways and building brand loyalty.

On fast food companies and web marketing:

  • McDonald’s 13 websites got 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors on average each month in 2009.

On targeting teen and ethnic minority youth:

  • Hispanic preschoolers saw 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads in 2009 and McDonald’s was responsible for one-quarter of young people’s exposure to Spanish-language fast food advertising.
  • African American children and teens saw at least 50% more fast food ads on TV in 2009 than their white peers. That translated into twice the number of fast food calories viewed daily compared to white children.

Don’t let the “healthy” options fool you:

  • Just 12 of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers; 15 met nutrition criteria for older children.
  • At most restaurants, young people purchased at least half of their maximum daily recommended sodium intake in just one fast food meal.
  • The average kids’ meal has 616 calories, which is too many for most young children

For more “fun” fast food fact, visit fastfoodmarketing.org

I know people are busy, and the economy is awful. After a long day at work, it can be tempting to pull up to your nearest drive-thru and get dinner for your family that’s ready in little time, for little money. It might get you out of a bind in the moment, but please don’t believe that fast food is healthy. And honestly, eating it over the long run will ultimately do more damage to your health than buying fresh fruits and vegetables will do to your wallet.

23 Responses to The False Promise of Fast Food

  1. That was a great article, thanks for the link!

    Buying oatmeal at McDonalds is a completely alien concept to me, but then I think I have a sadly uncommon relationship with fast food. (As in I don’t like it at all…)

    Loved you summary, it is scary the amount of money spent on advertising towards kids! It is illegal to do so in Norway, not a bad idea in my opinion.
    Mari´s last post ..Take a book and pass it on…

  2. Darn, you dimmed my hopes that if I ever got stuck in a jam that I could get a bowl of oatmeal at Mickey D’s.

    But I am not surprised. I can’t tell you the last time I had a sandwich at any of the burger joints. It’s been a couple of years. I was getting a yogurt and coffee a morning at McDonald’s early last year because it was cheap. But now I bring my own breakfast in. Not necessarily cheaper, but a whole lot healthier!

    I suppose that the oatmeal would be better than one of those sausage biscuits thing-a-ma-jigs. Let’s hope it never happens
    Jan´s last post ..Another great music video

  3. Great post! I must have missed that Bittman article somehow, so thanks! What I really hate is that so many people DO think things like McDonald’s oatmeal is healthy because of how it’s advertised and because it’s “oatmeal”. The knowledge or desire to really learn if it’s healthy just isn’t there. Ads like you mention drive me nuts and totally counteracts so much of the good that is happening now to help people get healthier. Really, it drives me insane!
    Kelly´s last post ..To Run- or Not to Run

  4. 1. I love Bittman and this article.
    2. I spend much of my money on food, but I always say that it’s an investment in my health because it truly is.
    3. The saddest part about looking at the nutrition stats for fast food kids’ meals is that they are equal to or better than the stats for hot lunches at school. We are feeding our kids this junk everyday…which is a topic for another day!
    Becky´s last post ..A Stay-cation Day

    • Great point! While there have been some improvements in school lunches (in some places more than others), we still have quite a ways to go to ensure that kids eating all their meals at school are actually being provided with healthy foods. And now you’ve put a future post idea in my head, involving an ontherun team effort….consider yourself warned ;)

  5. Lauren: This is a great recap. You put a lot of research into this and it shows.

    You convinced me that McDonalds is no good. So, I’m going to Burger King!

  6. The fast food industry is so similar to the tobacco industry of the 80s it makes me sick.
    Liz´s last post ..We Have a Winner!

    • YES!! It’s so true!! Actually, public health is learning a lot about effective ways for obesity prevention from the anti-tobacco movement. We still have a long way to go though. (And unfortunately it’s much tricker when talking about food, which we need to survive, than cigarettes which have absolutely no value)

  7. I read the Bittman article yesterday, and I don’t think I thought it was quite as great as everyone else. I’m not really sure why – I totally agree with his points, the McD’s oatmeal clearly isn’t healthy. Maybe it’s because I would never consider anything I ordered at McDonald’s (even if its oatmeal or a salad) to be “healthy” because I know everything is loaded with fake ingredients, chemicals, preservatives, etc. But when I think about the number of kids and families who may actually think that McDonald’s food can be healthy, and the number of kids and families who regularly rely on McDonald’s food for meals, it is really shocking and sad. McDonald’s certainly isn’t the only one to blame – a lot of the food industry is out to make money and fool us into thinking that they can help us have a healthy meal and that we need the convenience of their food. You highlight SO many interesting facts in this post – I feel like I could make this comment go on forever, but I’ll stop myself :) Anyway, I absolutely love your informative posts Lauren, they always make me think!

    • Corey – I’d actually be really interested to hear more of your thoughts about why you didn’t have the same reaction to the article. It’s nice to hear different viewpoints.

      But in regards to what you said (not thinking McD’s is ever healthy), unfortunately I don’t think the majority of Americans think the same way. Especially with all the great marketing McD’s (and other fast food places – you’re right, they’re not the only ones!!) does. If you’re not already thinking about the fact that processed food is generally unhealthy, it can be easy to assume something as benign-sounding as oatmeal can be a healthy choice (especially when it’s described as “wholesome”). And honestly, it does seem a little crazy that you can’t assume that. Anyway, just my thoughts…

  8. Another great post Lauren. It bothers me that products like this are marketed as “healthy” because many people will take that at face value and fail to look deeper or do their own research. I am not one to say someone should never have fast food but if he/she does I think its important to recognize it for what it is and limit intake accordingly.

  9. McDonalds keeps finding new ways to be horribly disgusting. I shudder at the thought of times I actually ate that food. We ran past the golden arches on a group run the other night and started the “when was the last time you had McDonalds game?” The guy I was running next to goes “FOREVER. At least a month.” When I told him I haven’t had anything in years and years and years I think he just about died.
    Emily´s last post ..Presidents Day Spring Cling

    • haha! I guess a month could feel like forever if you’re used to having it all the time.

      And that reminds me – in high school our coaches used to take us to McDonald’s after track meets to get food for the way home. I always hated it because I was a vegetarian, but a lot of people loved stopping there. Looking back, it seems so crazy to me that they thought it was a good idea to have their athletes re-fuel on fast food.

  10. I love this post! I haven’t tried that oatmeal nor do I intend to…why would you buy something when you can make it yourself at home? And just because it’s oatmeal doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If you’re going to waste extra calories…waste it on wine or chocolate…
    Stephanie @ The Cookie Battle´s last post ..Steak with Balsamic Glaze

  11. Such a good post! So much truth here. Glad you shared this!
    Rach´s last post ..An Eccentric Experience

  12. This was a very insightful post girl! Thank you so much for sharing this info! :)
    Amanda´s last post ..Ride On

  13. awesome. my friend just came into work two days ago with a bowl of this and she was talking about how yummy it was…hmmm, i’ll have to break the bad news to her….
    the dawn´s last post ..playing catch up

  14. So funny because I read this yesterday and immediately thought of all the bloggers who would recap it! Mark Bittman is awesome no matter what he’s talking about.

    One of the interesting points (to me) was how McD’s put oatmeal on the menu to keep up with Starbucks, who put it on the menu last year – not sure if that’s necessarily cause and effect, but I do think there is a trend toward “healthier” options in restaurants, even in fast food – which is somewhat of an oxymoron. But by putting these options on their menus, it means that somewhere, someone is noticing that healthier options are what people are asking for.

    It’s been really interesting working with faculty in the marketing and advertising departments through work because they can literally make anything sound good. When it comes down to it, like you said, McD’s is a very, very profitable business who is out to make and save moola.
    Erin @ Big Girl Feats´s last post ..Overachievers Anonymous

  15. What really makes me upset about this is many people will buy this thinking they are being healthy. It’s such false marketing, I hate the fact that companies can market their products basically anyway possible to make them sound healthy. That means that the majority of people (who are uneducated about nutrition) will buy them and think they are being healthy.
    Lauren´s last post ..Decisions- Decisions

  16. I’m actually bit disgusted…so much sugar in that oatmeal! People will think they’re being healthy and it will backfire, although I honestly don’t think people are going to into McDonald’s and buy oatmeal…the Egg McMuffin will probably still reign.
    Susan´s last post ..a running tour of queens

  17. You are awesome.

    McDonald’s is seriously the devil!
    Matt @ The Athlete’s Plate´s last post ..This Week’s Food

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