Could Eating at McDonald's Actually Be Good for You?

The phrases "self-control" and "Mickey D's" generally don't grace the same sentence in a positive light.

That said, McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) CEO Don Thompson is certainly doing his best to swing it that way.

According to an AP report yesterday, Thompson earlier this week told investors he lost about 20 pounds over the past year. That's all well and good, but what really raised eyebrows was that he claimed to have accomplished the feat without breaking his long-standing habit of eating at McDonald's "every single day." Considering he took the reins of the company in March 2012, the man has definitely consumed more than his fair share of fast food.

Surprise! Staying active has its perks
So how, exactly, did Thompson say he lost the weight despite his daily choice of sustenance? In his words, he simply got his "butt up" and started "working out again."

Thompson also went on to note that, compared to Americans, it's rare to see Europeans who are "very, very heavy," partly because they walk much more.

Of course, it's hard to argue with him after fellow Fool Sean Williams pointed out last week that the United States is the most obese country in the world. In addition, I think Thompson was spot-on in saying that maintaining "that balance is really important to people."

But before you go blaming it all on the hypocrisy of the Golden Arches, note that the U.S. isn't the only country feasting on McDonald's wares. In fact, the company currently operates more than 34,000 locations in 118 different countries.

Few people are really going to argue that McDonald's food is great for you, so you can't blame Thompson for trying to shift consumers' perceptions of McDonald's as a more nutritious brand. In all seriousness, though, just how much clout is behind his claims?  

Every day, but not every meal
First, remember that while Thompson did say he eats at McDonald's "every single day," we can be fairly sure he isn't exclusively eating McDonald's food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Remember that, in the Super Size Me documentary way back in 2004, creator Morgan Spurlock ate at McDonald's three times per day, consuming an average of 5,000 calories. For those of you keeping track, that's the equivalent of nearly 10 Big Macs. What's more, Spurlock decided he would be required to consume every item on the menu at least once over the course of the 30-day experiment, and agreed to "Super Size" the meal whenever it was offered.

On the flip side, Spurlock did attempt to walk as much as a typical U.S. citizen at around 5,000 steps per day. However, if you've ever worn a daily pedometer, you know that's not a particularly difficult task and certainly couldn't be considered a decent workout.

Healthy(ish) options
To their credit, the folks at McDonald's have introduced a variety of healthier menu options, like their Fruit & Maple Oatmeal, a variety of salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and the Egg White Delight McMuffin.

Source: McDonalds.com

Even so, I'm under no delusions that I wouldn't be better off cooking healthier food at home, especially considering that the sodium content in many of McDonald's healthy options still leaves plenty to be desired. For example, despite having only 250 calories, the Egg White Delight still boasts 800 mg of sodium, or more than a third of the average recommended daily value. 

Why we really go to McDonald's
If we're truly honest with ourselves, we'd admit most of us just don't typically visit McDonald's to have a good salad.

Instead, we go to Mickey D's to enjoy those delicious fries, or maybe you've had a hankering for a monstrous Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Or perhaps you've been craving that large chocolate shake for the better part of the afternoon.

Then again, sometimes people just know that whatever they wanted to eat at McDonald's simply wouldn't cost as much as the big ol' burrito down the street from Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) . After all, while Chipotle's insistence on sticking by its "Food With Integrity" campaign ensures its ingredients are fresh and comparatively healthy, you'll need to pay a premium for that luxury. In fact, the rising costs of those ingredients were a big reason Chipotle's stock suffered badly through most of last year.

In the meantime, and as I noted earlier this month, McDonald's more flexible menu affords it much greater flexibility to adjust for higher-priced ingredients than more specialized restaurants like Chipotle. That's why, as long as customers keep demanding those unhealthier items on the menu, McDonald's will happily keep selling them.

What's an investor to do? 
And you know what? McDonald's has every right to earn a profit for doing so.

After all, there's little reason to doubt Thompson's claim that you can still be relatively healthy and eat at McDonald's every day. Whether you should is an entirely different story, but I think we'd all be wise to at least heed Thompson's advice about becoming more active.

In the end, if Thompson can use his story to successfully manage the brand and even partially change McDonald's image as an unhealthy place to eat, you can bet it'll serve to drive revenues higher as increasingly health-conscious consumers feel better about walking through its doors.

But what do you think? Will the dining public ever be able to change its opinion of McDonald's as having an unhealthy menu?

More food for thought from The Motley Fool
McDonald's turned in a dismal year in 2012, underperforming the broader market by 25%. Looking ahead, can the Golden Arches reclaim its throne atop the restaurant industry, or will this unsettling trend continue? Our top analyst weighs in on McDonald's future in a recent premium report on the company. Click here now to find out whether a buying opportunity has emerged for this global juggernaut.


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  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2013, at 10:02 AM, Brockxerox77 wrote:

    Dear Steve,

    It seems that anytime

    McDonalds makes the news, a course line of reporters must lash out at McDonalds. If people or critics were sincere about food and menu choices, why aren't they bring up for discussion Bob Evans restaurants, Maggiano's restaurant menu choices or even Cheesecake Factory. If the critics look at all food choices and even Donuts. But they just bash McDonalds. If America is the most Obese country in the world, it is not because of McDonalds. Millions of Americans eat way more calories at home and when you see their carts at checkout counters, you will realize it is not fair to blame this on McDonalds.

    If the nutritionists and pediatricians were less biased, we could all look to see what the real truth is, but no journalist wants to do that because its not as much fun as just blaming McDonalds for everything.

    With all the food critics out there, you would think they would condemn grilled cheese, the melting pot, or all the bakery shops with high calorie baked goods. Even the high end steak restaurants are way higher in fat and sodium than McDonalds. But why wont the same critics talk about Pizza hut, Burger Kings calories, or even Wendy's calories and sodium. The American people deserve holding every other restaurant accountable to the same standard you and others have placed on McDonalds. You need to review all restaurants in the same criteria and view the menu's at all the other restaurants from fat, calories and sodium. Panera bread is very high in Calories and sodium, red Robin is high in fat and sodium. Maggionno's Italian restaurant is high in calories and sodium. Just singling out an bashing McDonalds isn't helping anything in America. Hope you can honestly compare other restaurants and please pick their normal menu items that sell the most, just because some restaurant has a vegan or gluten free menu doesn't mean it is healthier than McDonalds. In fact McDonalds portion sizes are more controlled than most other restaurants. People are consuming way more at all the other restaurants and even at home. It might be easier to blame someone, but it is not accurate or truthful to overlook every other food supplier and only blame McDonalds. Please use the exact same standard to review all restaurants and food suppliers.

    Thanks.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2013, at 10:09 AM, Brockxerox77 wrote:

    You compare Chipotle to McDonalds and say it is comparatively healthy. But if you watch all the people ordering a burrito, you would see a larger overstuffed item that is way too many calories and sodium than any McDonalds menu item. Use a standard and compare: you will find Chipotles is way more fat, calories and sodium. Just do it. Hold all restaurants to the same standard you use for McDonalds.

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