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McD's Hops On the Diet Wagon

Borrowing a line from privately held Burger King, fast food rival McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) now wants you to have it your way. If you're a dieter, that is.

This week the burger-and-fries purveyor rolled out "Real Life Choices," a program McDonald's executives say will let consumers stick to popular diets while enjoying McDonald's traditional menu fare. The program is being tested regionally, beginning with 650 New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area restaurants. Each participating location presents patrons with a poster that breaks down McDonald's familiar menu -- fries, Big Macs, cheeseburgers -- into three categories watching calories, fat, or carbohydrates.

Suggestions for modified McDonald's meals are found under each category. The Atkins dieter, for example, might pass on the hash browns and sidle up instead for a double order of scrambled eggs.

McDonald's isn't trying to pull a fast one on its customers by recasting fast food as a healthy choice. Instead, they're providing customers with an analysis of how various meal options stack up to myriad diet plans in the popular arena.

To add credibility to their message, the company has hired nutritionist Pamela Smith as the spokeswoman for the program. Smith says she used guidelines from the American Heart Association, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health to design McDonald's Real Life Choices alternatives.

McDonald's is hardly the pioneer in diet-savvy fast-food marketing. Subway Restaurants began offering Atkins-approved food last week, two weeks after CKE Restaurants' (NYSE: CKR  ) Hardee's began offering lettuce-wrapped low-carb burgers. (Seriously.)

But with no new "diet-driven" meals on McDonald's menu, I'm left to wonder if the Real Life Choices poster campaign is anything more than a well-conceived public relations gambit aimed at fattening up the bottom line (which it will probably do).

That doesn't mean McDonald's should get hate mail for trying to dupe dieters. They're simply intelligently and cost-effectively exploiting a trend. Their move might be brilliant, boosting earnings by allowing restaurants nationwide to charge a few extra pennies for what amounts to slight tweaks on existing recipes.

But even if a nationwide roll out of Real Life Choices isn't in the cards, McDonald's still benefits from the good publicity. (Hey, I'm writing about it, aren't I?) As fellow Fool Seth Jayson wrote, that's something all the fast-food companies can use right now.

Tim Beyers doesn't own shares of McDonald's or any of the other companies mentioned but he longs for the McDLT. Hot side hot, cool side cool -- yeah, baby! Tim welcomes your feedback

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