When it comes to food and health, it seems that we are living in parallel universes.

In one universe, there is a new report from The Institute of Medicine in the US, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation, urging governments and decision makers (including those in the private sector) “to make a concerted effort to reduce unhealthy food and beverage options and substantially increase healthier food and beverage options at affordable, competitive prices”.

In this ideal universe, the IOM says, “healthy foods will become the most visible, attractive, and easy-to obtain options anywhere food is sold or served”.

And then we have the other universe, aka the real world.

The one where the London Olympics will no doubt do an outstanding job of promoting the brands of sponsors McDonald’s and Coca Cola.

The one where McDonald’s and friends have infiltrated children’s sport. 

The one where fast food chains indulge in “weightwashing” with the help of health and fitness organisations (as reported by The Sunday Age’s Jill Stark).

And the one where Ronald McDonald visits schools, bearing gifts and lessons about health.

Meanwhile a recent NSW study investigating just how little healthy food is sold by McDonald’s provides a timely reality check. It’s the latest “must read” article from the JournalWatch service of The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA.

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How much healthy food is sold at fast food restaurants?

Dr Melissa Stoneham writes:

With Australia’s obesity rate on the rise, and the link between regular consumption of fast food and weight gain through over-consumption of high energy density foods being clear, the authors of this article aimed to observe healthy and unhealthy meal purchases in Australian fast food stores.

The research undertook to observe and document the sales of healthier options and more traditional fast foods served at one of the best known fast food restaurants in the world, McDonald’s. This study observed a range of NSW McDonald fast food outlets.

The study noted that the fast food industry has recently been offering healthier alternatives. McDonald’s healthier options include salads and wraps and they also display the calories contained within each type of food served.

However, these outlets have not publicly released sales data for these healthier options, nor have they disclosed the impact of healthier options on the sales of regular menu items.

In September 2011, McDonald’s lost the right to display the National Heart Foundation’s healthier food Tick on its burgers, salads and other popular lines, with the Heart Foundation stating “there was no criticism of McDonald’s or other chains but that the healthy food program would change direction to concentrate on ingredients delivered to restaurants and food outlets”.

For this study, data collection occurred at McDonald’s stores during lunch and dinner times over a two-week period and included both the school holidays and term time. A total of 1,449 meal purchases were observed.

Of these, 1% were healthy, 65% were unhealthy and 34% were take-away. This study identified that although the provision of healthy fast food options is commendable, only a minority of Australians are purchasing them.

With more than 16 000 fast-food stores dotting the Australian landscape, and with predictions that growth in fast-food retailing is expected to outpace total food sales in real terms over the next three years, it seems the public health professionals still have their work cut out for them!

• Sales of healthy choices at fast food restaurants in Australia. Authors: Lyndal Wellard, Colleen Glasson and Kathy Chapman. Australian Health Promotion Journal; Vol 23; Issue 1: pages 37-41

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PHAIWA is an independent public health voice based within Curtin University, with a range of funding partners. The Institute aims to raise the public profile and understanding of public health, develop local networks and create a statewide umbrella organisation capable of influencing public health policy and political agendas.

About JournalWatch

The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.

The Journals reviewed include:-

Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)

Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)

Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)

Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

Lancet

Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP)

Tobacco Control (TC)

American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)

Health Promotion International (HPI)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

These reviews are then emailed to all JournalWatch subscribers and are placed on the PHAIWA website. To subscribe to Journal Watch go to http://www.phaiwa.org.au/index.php/other-projects-mainmenu-146/journalwatch

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Previous JournalWatch articles:

Why the world needs a dengue day

 Germany’s role in undermining tobacco control