The Joyless Happy Meal

I’ve been hearing a lot of stink over this toyless Happy Meal story. Maybe I can put the whole thing in perspective.

Mood music:

First, here’s the AP to tell you what happened to the beloved Happy Meal in San Francisco:

Unhealthy kids’ meals to get less ‘happy’ in San Francisco

San Francisco has become the first major American city to prohibit fast-food restaurants from including toys with children’s meals that do not meet nutritional guidelines. The city’s Board of Supervisors gave the measure final approval on Tuesday on an 8-3 vote. That is enough votes to survive a planned veto by Mayor Gavin Newsom. The ordinance, which goes into effect in December next year, prohibits toys in children’s meals that have more than 640mg of sodium, 600 calories or 35 per cent of their calories from fat. It would also limit saturated fats and trans fats and require fruits or vegetables to be served with each meal with a toy.

The horror. The frakkin’ horror. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the Happy Meal come under assault.
When I worked at The Eagle-Tribune, Gretchen Putnam — then the features editor — got a little present in the mail from P.E.T.A.  She opened the package and out popped a “McCruelty Meal.” There was the Happy Meal-like box, with a blood-splatter pattern. You open the box to find P.E.T.A. literature and the toy — A Ronald McDonald doll covered in blood with a knife in its back.
The idea was to convey that Ronald was a murderous bastard for chopping up cattle for those world-famous burgers.
I checked out the “McCruelty” website and it appears they’ve modified things, shifting attention to the genocide of poultry.
Gretchen, if you read this and still have that lying around, I’ll buy it from you.
So now a few government officials decided to suck the joy out of any Happy Meal that doesn’t meet their nutritional standards.
It takes a recovering compulsive overeater to put this in the proper perspective, and I have a couple thoughts on this whole affair:
For one thing, banning the toy isn’t going to do a thing to keep kids away from McDonald’s food.
Kids know they can always find a toy someplace else, and at the end of the day it’s the fatty food they’re really after anyway. Maybe they won’t get the Happy Meal, but they will still go there and get the same stuff: The burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, etc.
And if you think it’ll keep parents from feeding their children junk, just remember that parental stupidity is one of the things that sends children down the unhealthy path to begin with. If I’ve learned anything on my long journey to recovery, it’s that addicts can almost always trace their behavior back to their parents.
That’s certainly the case for me. My mother was always pushing food on me. She did it out of love and meant no harm, but that and the Crohn’s Disease battle certainly tilted my addictive behavior toward the compulsive binge eating.

If a parent drinks or drugs to excess, there’s a better-than-average chance their kids are going to do the same thing in adulthood.

Recovering addicts have noted this thread in their own lives time and again at the 12-Step meetings I go to.

Chris Hoff, a good friend of mine from the Internet security industry and perhaps one of the most prolific presences on Twitter, saw a good example of this brand of parental failure in a coffee shop over the summer. I’ll share his tweets on the subject, since his content is all public record at this point:

Noticing a fat guy feeding his obese son three doughnuts and yelling at the poor kid for being too slow, Hoff (Twitter handle is @Beaker) wrote:

Hint: If your 4-foot-something 8-year-old weighs more than me, you’re doing it wrong. Makes me want to cry. F’ing up your life is one thing, but his? :( It’s not that I’m insensitive to his plight; been there. However he’s helping end his kid’s life early by poisoning him with junk and mean words.

He noted, correctly I think, that kids inherently know what’s healthy but they still fall into bad behavior that parents either can’t or won’t stop. Often, they enable it.

Banning the toys in Happy Meals won’t change this one bit.
I see this as another example of trying to regulate addictive food — it may be well-intentioned but it never works. I’ve mentioned this before, most notably in the post “Regulating Addictive Food: A Lesson in Futility.”
Since I know what it’s like to be deep in the muck of a binge-eating addiction, my wife thought I might find interest in an article from The Environment Report suggesting that the regulation of foods that are bad for you — same way as with cigarettes — might help some sufferers.

The cattle prod for this item was book called “The End of Overeating.” The author is David A. Kessler, MD, and a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. I actually have a lot of respect for this guy, whose tenure included the successful push to enact regulations requiring standardized Nutrition Facts labels on food.

That, in my opinion, was a huge win for those of us who want truth in advertising.

In “The End of Overeating,” Kessler makes a compelling argument: Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat.

“Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology — what’s going on in our body,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in a story brilliantly headlined “Crave Man.”

The real question is what’s going on in the brain, Kessler says.

His theory on food as an addictive substance is as on the mark as you can get. Trust me. I’ve lived it. Binge eating is all about addiction for me.

It’s tied directly into the same corner of the brain where my OCD resides.

He is also right that sugar, salt and fat are addictive substances, though for a lot of people, the components of our poison boil down to sugar and flour.

Of course, most of the food that has flour and sugar also tends to be high in salt and fat.

The first and most important tool in my OA recovery program is a plan of eating. Flour and sugar are off the table — period. Almost everything I eat goes on a little scale. 4 ounces protein, 4 ounces raw vegetable, 6 ounces cooked vegetable, 2 ounces potato or brown rice, etc. Every morning at 6:15 I call my sponsor, someone who hears my food plan for each day and gives me the necessary kick in the ass.

But salt and fat are not forbidden for me. In fact, I’m allowed to substitute 4 ounces of meat with 2 ounces of cheese or nuts.

To some, this may sound like a typical fad diet, but people in OA have used a plan like this since the beginning. And the plan isn’t the same for everyone. If you have diabetes, for example, removing every scrap of flour from the diet isn’t usually an option. No matter. The only requirement of the program is to stop eating compulsively, no matter how you get there.

This isn’t something I pursued to drop 65 pounds, though I did lose that amount pretty quickly. This is a food plan for life — a key to my getting all the nutrition I need and nothing more. Just as an alcoholic must put down the booze or a narcotics addict has to put down the pills, I have to put down the flour and sugar.

This is the plan that got me out of the darkest days of addictive behavior and I’m a true believer.

Flour and sugar mixed together becomes a toxin that knocks the fluids in my brain out of balance. Kessler’s research is definitely in line with what’s happened to me.

But the idea of regulating food the same way as something like cigarettes? It won’t do much good.

It certainly couldn’t hurt. The nutrition labels at the very least gave us an education on what we put in our bodies, and it’s been especially helpful to parents who are trying to raise their kids healthy. Regulating cigarettes has certainly made it harder for minors to buy them.

But for the true addict, regulation is a joke.

Knowing what’s in junk food won’t keep the addict away. I always read the labels AFTER binging on the item in the package. And the labels have done nothing to curb the child obesity pandemic.

If you smoke, it’s certainly more expensive to buy a pack than it used to be. But if you crave the nicotine, you’ll find a way to get your fix. It’s the same with drugs, and with food.

I have nothing against the government types in San Francisco who want to do something about this nightmare by targeting the Happy Meal. I just don’t think their approach is going to work.

4 thoughts on “The Joyless Happy Meal

  1. Bill,
    here are my thoughts on the matter. As its not secret, I will mention that I am an addict too. The thought of my children drinking or drugging someday downright terrifies me..I well know the dangers, but all I can do is educate my children, guide them and hope they make the correct decisions when they are faced with these choices.
    I cannot ban alcohol stores, nor run around town pointing out every dealer to the police. I would drive myself nuts (as many parents have) and not stop a single teen or adult anyway..
    A child will be faced with fries or cake at some point, can you be everywhere? I see parents that try this and they HAVE gone batty. We educate, we try and make good choices. The biggest two things are teach by example and talk/listen with our kids. Which I know you do! Most of us try…but I will be honest. Once a month my kids are allowed a fast food meal and I do not deny them birthday cake, I do keep french fries at home and my kids love the reduced fat cheeze its.
    I know other parents that enjoy a drink after their kids have gone to bed. We all must make our choices (as is our right) and with love, support and a long prayer, we watch them grow.

  2. I have different issue with the Happy Meal. That stupid toy is the only reason they want to get the happy meal. My kids will eat the nuggets, occasionally one of them will eat the apples, and they never eat the fries.

    I once tried to order a snack wrap one time on place of the nuggets and they wouldn’t let me do it. One of the healthiest things on the menu – grilled chicken with some lettuce and dressing. I was ticked! For my family, the damned happy meal is all about the friggin toy.

    A week later someone told me you can buy the toys separately for around $0.49. Why don’t they tell you that?

  3. Once again Bill right on. We all have our issues; Individually. It comes down to responsibility. Government or regulations cannot control this. Prohibition, drug wars, all have proved this is not the solution. As a treat, McDonalds Happy Meals are great! And they do offer healthy (sort of) solutions as does BK. The only thing that solves a problem starts at home. So easy to blame. We’ve gotten far away from the responsibility to take care of our own family as a society. We as a people have gotten away from that by placing blame somewhere else.
    God bless our soldiers and veterans for the freedom to choose how we feed our kids, among hundred’s of other things…

  4. I agree totally. I have 2 kids. An 18 year old and an 8 year old. I’ve seen many a Happy Meal. However, it always shocked me when my friends/fellow Happy Meal buyers would look at me like I was doing something wrong when my kids ate 1/2 the Happy Meal or less and I let them go play. These people were making their kids eat all this fat and then they could go play.

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