Esther J. Cepeda | Nothing Happy About Obesity

Chicago – Happy Meals in San Francisco are about to become a little less happy, and my smile has been super-sized.

Not because I don’t love Happy Meals. On the contrary, I buy them for myself as a treat because as an over-30 adult who exercises a minimum of five times a week, my daily intake limits allow me the 525 calories of the cheeseburger, small fries, three packets of ketchup and kid-sized diet drink packed in the delightfully petite carton.

If I were a 6-year-old boy of average weight who is moderately active, that might be OK, too, unless mom or dad added low-fat milk or succumbed to pleas for chocolate milk, regular soda or a shake. Then you’re looking at 100 to 400 more calories — or well over half that child’s 1,700-per-day calorie needs — in that one happy little meal.

And even that wouldn’t be so bad if trips to fast-food joints were a rare, once-in-a-while occurrence as many who were around when McDonald’s first became nationally popular in the late 1950s might recall. But today high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar fast-food meals and their fun, highly collectible, much advertised movie-themed toys are a staple of adults’ and children’s food routines.

And this is where a child’s desire for a fun treat, a parent’s desire to cheaply feed and simultaneously entertain their kids, and a profound ignorance of the basic tenets of nutrition intersect to fuel the obesity epidemic in this country.

It is an epidemic that is estimated to put a $168 billion annual burden on health care costs, according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Obesity was recently classified as a national security threat by a group of retired generals in a report titled “Too Fat to Fight,” which found that 27 percent of all young adults are too overweight to serve in the military. It’s the leading medical reason for rejection from the armed forces.

Which brings us back to San Francisco’s new rules. Supervisors there just voted to ban toy giveaways in any fast-food meals where the calories total more than 600, there are more than 640 milligrams of sodium and more than 35 percent of calories come from fat.

“Nanny state” you say? Sure, a lot of people are burning up newspaper website comment sections with notes such as “Parents should be in charge of kids’ diets, not the government” and “It’s parents’ obligation to monitor the food their kids are eating.”

But understand one thing clearly: Parents cannot make wise decisions about their own or their child’s eating habits when they rarely possess even the most rudimentary grasp on what it means to eat all kinds of food as part of a balanced diet. We simply don’t know how much food our bodies need and what the healthiest — and the worst — foods are.

A recent USA Today survey found that 63 percent of respondents didn’t know how many calories they should consume in a day to maintain their current weight and another 25 percent couldn’t even guess. Only 12 percent knew how many calories their bodies need to live healthfully. How are they going to know how many calories their children need daily?

The only reason I’m an amateur dietician is because as a Hispanic with several Type 2 diabetics in my family, I watch what I eat closely. But most people rely on their doctors to counsel them on nutrition-related topics, and some docs aren’t talking. According to researchers at Duke University Medical Centers, nearly one-third of doctors in a recent study were observed never broaching the topics of healthy weight with their patients. Those who did spent an average of just 3 1/2 minutes on this life-sustaining topic, not terribly impactful.

San Francisco has not taken a stand against parental choice or even against fast food. The city is trying to educate parents so they understand the nutritional value of what kids are gobbling while they play with their toy. The rest of the country should follow its example, if for no other reason than to keep nutrition on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Esther Cepeda’s e-mail address is estherjcepeda(at)

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group