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Going For The Golden Arches – McDonald’s And The Olympics

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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File photo of a McDonald's sign, seen next to an American flag. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of a McDonald’s sign, seen next to an American flag. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ATLANTA (CBS Atlanta) - Last week, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas told “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno that she celebrated her victories at the London games by “splurg[ing] on an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s.”

Seated to her right during the Aug. 13 appearance was first lady Michelle Obama, who leaned over to gently chastise Douglas for her choice of celebratory meal.

“No Gabby, we don’t … don’t encourage him [to eat that],” she said, smiling and adding, “I’m sure it was on a whole wheat muffin.”

The first lady, who is the driving force behind the “Let’s Move!” campaign and a vocal figurehead of the movement to abolish childhood obesity in America, added with a laugh, “You’re setting me back, Gabby.”

Though the interaction between Obama and Douglas was light, and the atmosphere jocular, the incident has all the same made headlines and raised questions regarding the role that lucrative brands perceived as unhealthy by the general populace should play in the Olympics – as well as the role high-calorie foods play in the diets of professional athletes.

Continuing A Familiar Discussion

Such questions have come up before, most notably during the Beijing Summer Olympics when Michael Phelps’ diet – which amounted to approximately 12,000 calories per day – was fodder for international discussion and debate.

He was also criticized by numerous experts and news publications alike for soliciting McDonald’s in pursuit of his own celebratory meal after his stunning performance in the 2008 games.

The Egg McMuffin sandwich brought into question during Obama and Douglas’ discussion is actually part of the franchise’s “Favorites Under 400″ menu, which was reportedly introduced after Olympics organizers were blasted for bringing on the corporation as a sponsor.

Mary Ann Johnson, a professor of Food and Nutrition at UGA, told CBS Atlanta that Douglas’ choice of McDonald’s meal was relatively healthy.

“[The sandwich] was a good choice for an athlete who burns thousands of calories a day,” she noted. “She is also still growing as a young woman – she has a lot of high-calorie and high-protein needs.”

A McDonald’s representative additionally told CBS Atlanta that the sandwich comes in at 300 calories, and is made with all natural ingredients.

Other sandwiches listed on their website however have almost 800 calories to each of their names, including the 750-calorie double quarter pounder with cheese and the 790-calorie Angus bacon cheeseburger.

All the same, McDonald’s insists that its products are designed to appeal to a wide variety of patrons and diets.

“We are working hard to continue to provide our valued customers – Olympians and others alike – with great tasting, quality food and beverage options in a variety of portion sizes to fit any dietary needs,” Dayna Proud, director of U.S. communications for McDonald’s, said to CBS Atlanta on the matter.

Connie Crawley, a registered dietician who also works at UGA, agreed that the Egg McMuffin is one of the better options, and added that it’s important to note Douglas’ insistence that her solicitation of the chain was seemingly not habitual.

“[W]hat was missed in that interaction was the fact that Gabby made a point of saying she doesn’t regularly eat that kind of food,” she said to CBS Atlanta. ”It was a special occasion, and she enjoyed it, but she knows that at her level of competition she has to be very conscious of her nutritional intake.”

Was Obama Out Of Line?

As for Obama’s comments, Crawley considered them to be “a light-hearted reaction” based around her years of effort dedicated to changing how kids view both “what food means [and] how food is chosen.”

“Michelle Obama felt that [Douglas’] in such a position to be a role model for kids, and she wanted to show that she would have preferred her to have a fruit cup there, or to not mention McDonald’s at all, [since] she essentially gave them free advertising as a place for kids to go,” she said. “But that’s just being a 16-year-old and not realizing how powerful of a 16-year-old she is.”

Johnson agreed.

“Someone like Gabby Douglas has the power to influence millions of Americans,” she said. “I’m excited to see her sharing her diet, and I’m hoping she really takes a lead on helping all Americans eat healthier.”

Athletes, Americans, And Fast Food

Regardless of caloric content, George Herzog, a former Olympic trainer and the founder of Herzog Body Tech, told CBS Atlanta that the concept of Olympians dining at fast food restaurants is nothing new.

“We lived at McDonald’s when we were training,” he said, but also noted the important factor of exercise habits. “When you are young, fit and talented, you don’t see marked differences [when you eat such foods] – your body is so efficient, that kind of diet doesn’t hurt you as much.”

Herzog noted that, with age, the negative results of consuming foods generally considered to be unhealthy are far more apparent, especially for Olympic athletes who have moved on from their athletic careers.

“I call it ‘Olympic Athletes Syndrome’ – when I competed, I could eat whatever I wanted. All of a sudden, when I didn’t train as much, I started gaining weight,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to eat.”

In regards to helping guide all Americans toward making better, overall healthier food choices, both Johnson and Crawley felt that McDonald’s has taken strides away from its negative stereotype.

“McDonald’s is making a very good effort into providing healthier options,” Johnson said, adding that the company’s trend of providing calorie counts for its menu items is helpful. “People really just don’t know the calorie content of foods off the tops of their heads – this way, it’s up to the consumer to make informed food choices.”

“At other places, you can’t even find the nutritional value [of their options],” Crawley added. “McDonald’s has at least come forward to say they have healthier foods, and to show customers how to find them. If people choose to get the worst foods, they will at least be making an informed decision.”

But during larger conversations about nutrition, especially in America, McDonald’s is all the same singled out as the unhealthy control by many.

“Everything is compared to McDonald’s, their Big Macs or Quarter-Pounders – they are compared to first,” she said. “People aren’t necessarily talking about Coca-Cola, [but] there are lots of other companies producing low nutrition foods. Any other fast food place is just as bad, or worse.”

Contrasting Ideologies

It all leads back to the same question – is McDonald’s an appropriate sponsor for global fitness contests the likes of the Olympics?

Crawley noted that several other significant sponsors for the Olympics – including Coca-Cola – are also larger food companies producing lower nutrition foods, and that the practice could send a mixed message to the world.

“Companies who serve low-nutrition foods sponsoring people who are trying to be healthy and fit … there’s a contradiction there,” she said. “You do have to step back and [ask if] this is a good message to send to the American people, especially American young people.”

In the same vein of conflicts of interest, Herzog spoke at length about another societal dichotomy existing in America – the dueling ideologies of exalting our best and brightest while simultaneously promoting an “everybody wins” attitude.

He told CBS Atlanta that this conflicting mentality, instilled at a young age, creates confusion regarding personal expectations – that everyone from every walk of life is on an even playing field in all regards, when “they’re just not.”

Crawley meanwhile felt that American attitudes toward everyday meals are indicative of another larger societal trend seen especially in the United States and various nations in Western Europe favoring larger-than-life portions, forging an imaginary relationship between the value of food and the amount of food.

“What we’ve gotten used to now is that if we don’t get that large amount of food, we think we’ve been cheated – it’s a sad commentary on society,” she said, noting that the trend began near the turn of the century, in 1999, and spread beyond the realm of fast food into sit-down restaurants. “Now we want more and more – our money’s worth should be good health, not big portions.”

And when combined, the ingredients could potentially lead to unhealthy interpretations of Olympic athletes dining outside of the perceived limits of the nutritionally sound.

Who Holds The Purse Strings?

It is hard to deny that McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and similar food companies, while possibly serving up less-nutritious fare, are still exceptionally healthy in one crucial department – finances.

McDonald’s played a pivotal part in the London Games as one of its biggest sponsors, contributing an estimated $100 million to the festivities.

The move to accept their funds, met with criticism by a public who perceived McDonald’s to be a traditionally unhealthy brand, drew further ire from the global community when the corporation, in a rather demonstrative use of its fiscal clout, prohibited other food vendors from selling French fries.

“Doing something of that scale for people requires financial support, so they will go for the big donors, many of whom are big food companies.” Crawley pointed out. “Whether they can find other sponsors that are just as generous and as visible means having to have that conversation of how much effort to put into [achieving] that – to only have foods of a certain calorie level, to have those restrictions.”

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