Disclosure: This project was partially funded by a grant from McDonald's Corporation, Oak Brook, IL to Drs. Wansink and Hanks, who were responsible for data analysis and drafting this manuscript. Brian Wansink, PhD, is a member of McDonald's® Corporation's Global Advisory Council.
Brief Cutting Edge Reports
Calorie reductions and within-meal calorie compensation in children's meal combos
Article first published online: 23 DEC 2013
Copyright © 2013 The Obesity Society
Volume 22, Issue 3, pages 630–632, March 2014
How to Cite
Wansink, B. and Hanks, A. S. (2014), Calorie reductions and within-meal calorie compensation in children's meal combos. Obesity, 22: 630–632. doi: 10.1002/oby.20668
Author Contributions: Dr. Hanks had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis. Both Dr. Wansink and Dr. Hanks substantially contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the manuscript.
- Issue published online: 5 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 23 DEC 2013
- Accepted manuscript online: 25 NOV 2013 10:30PM EST
- Manuscript Accepted: 22 NOV 2013
- Manuscript Received: 4 OCT 2013
What happens if a fast-food restaurant chain lowers the calories in a children's meal bundle (CMB), mainly by reducing the portion size of French fries? This study examines how such changes may influence within-meal selections. Specifically, do lower-calorie changes lead to within-meal calorie compensation?
Item-level anonymous transaction data were collected for thirty chain-owned representative US restaurants during June, July, and August of 2011 (pre-changes) and 2012 (post-changes) with a focus on transaction records that included a CMB. Mixed-effects, repeated measures estimation techniques were used for the analysis. Outcome measures were the percentage and caloric profile of specific entrée items, side items, and beverages purchased in all children selecting meals.
The new CMB resulted in selected children's meals that had an average of 18.8% fewer calories (P < 0.001). Additionally, a greater percentage of meals had milk (P < 0.001) compared to the prior year.
Small changes in the automatic—or default—foods offered or promoted in children's meals can reduce calorie intake and improve the overall nutrition from selected foods as long as there is still an indulgence. Importantly, balancing a meal with smaller portions of favored foods might avoid reactance and overeating. Just as managers have done this in restaurants, parents can do this at home.
Despite recent evidence suggesting the prevalence of childhood obesity may have plateaued , childhood obesity is still a serious national issue . Additionally, children are not eating sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables . Two possible approaches to reverse these trends are to 1) restrict children's access to calorically dense foods, or 2) preserve access to these foods but encourage selection of healthful options. Restrictive policies have been met with resistance and reactance [4, 5], while less heavy-handed approaches gently guide or “nudge” children to make healthier selections [6-8]. In this study, we explore the impact that changing default side options in children's meals at a national quick service restaurant had on within-meal items ordered and the calorie composition of the entire meal. Specifically, will introducing healthier, lower-calorie default foods influence what else is selected during that meal? We refer to this as within-meal calorie compensation.
Historically, the Happy Meal® (referred to as a children's meal bundle—CMB) at McDonald's restaurants was a “3-item” meal consisting of one of three entrées—hamburger, cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets; side item—small size French fry (230 kcal) or 2.4 oz. package of apple slices with low fat caramel dip; and beverage—soft drink served with ice in a 12 fl. oz. cup, 100% apple juice (6.75 fl. oz.), 1% low fat chocolate (8 fl. oz.), or 1% low fat white milk (8 fl. oz.). By April 2012, all US restaurants had made three changes to the CMB. First, the small size fry was replaced with an even smaller “kid size” (∼100 kcal). Second, a 1.2 oz. package of apple slices was included—increasing exposure to fruit —and the low fat caramel dip was discontinued. Third, advertising in restaurant and television promotions in 2012 included a half pint milk jug containing 1% white or fat-free chocolate milk, while only the 1% white was featured previously. All other beverage options, such as apple juice and fountain beverages, were offered as before.
With these calorie reductions and nutritional improvements—portion reduction in French fries, inclusion of apples in every meal, elimination of caramel dipping sauce, and modification from 1% chocolate to fat free chocolate milk—it is unclear whether individuals compensated by selecting a higher calorie entrée or a more satiating beverage. Compensation of this sort has been documented when food options have been restricted in other contexts , though the somewhat ad-hoc nature of meal offerings limit generalizability. In this study, we examined components purchased in a child's meal at this national restaurant chain, both before and after the change in side offerings, over two three-month periods a year apart. The key objective was to study the changes in purchasing patterns of meal components to understand the degree to which within-meal calorie compensation might have occurred.
Daily anonymous transaction records for June, July, and August of 2011 and 2012, from 30 representative company-owned restaurants were collected for this study. All the restaurants fit three specific criteria: 1) transaction data were collected during the full study period; 2) the restaurants were geographically dispersed but demographically representative of the United States; and 3) the general sales patterns from the restaurants were similar to national averages. These dates were selected because between January and March, 2012, all US restaurants introduced the new CMB. Data immediately following—April and May—could yield imprecise results as customers adjusted. Also, the same set of months in both years was selected to control for potentially confounding seasonal effects.
Since the CMB is the primary focus of this research, 232,424 anonymous transactions in which a CMB was purchased were analyzed, which was a subset of all transactions collected. Data included a restaurant code, transaction date, and items purchased in an entire transaction. Since the data follow a repeated measures design with a before/after effect, mixed effects repeated measures regression models were used where fixed effects were monthly promotion controls and random effects were specific restaurant controls.
The analyses were handled in two phases. First, analyses of all CMB components were conducted where the dependent variables were the daily percentages of CMB buyers who selected the various available CMB components. These daily percentages were generated for each store by adding the number of each CMB component selected across transactions and dividing by the total number of CMBs purchased in the store that day.
In the second phase, calorie composition of the average CMB was estimated to determine the change in calories selected with the new CMB. Amounts of calories were multiplied by the percentage of customers choosing a particular food on a given day, in a given restaurant. Changes in calories were then calculated to determine the nutritional impacts from changes to CMB.
Side items (apples and French fries) served in the average “4-item” meal purchased in 2012 had 98 fewer kcal (P < 0.001; Table 1), accounting for 94% of the 104-kcal decrease for the entire meal (P < 0.001). To compensate for the portion or calorie reduction, CMB buyers may have chosen a more satiating or caloric entrée, such as a hamburger (250 kcal) or cheeseburger (300 kcal), instead of chicken nuggets (190 kcal). Despite the changes to the CMB, however, nearly 61% of customers still selected the chicken nuggets.
|Percentage of customers selecting CMB components||Average calories attributed to specific items in CMB|
|“3-Item” CMB: 2011||“4-Item” CMB: 2012||Difference||“3-Item” CMB: 2011||“4-Item” CMB: 2012||Difference|
|Nuggets||60.6% (0.007)||60.6% (0.007)||0.0% (0.004)||115 (1.282)||115 (1.129)||0.0 (0.818)|
|Hamburger||11.1% (0.004)||10.1% (0.004)||−1.0%* (0.003)||28 (1.081)||25 (0.972)||−2.5*** (0.705)|
|Cheeseburger||28.3% (0.006)||29.3% (0.006)||1.0%** (0.004)||85 (1.771)||88 (1.768)||3.1** (1.208)|
|Fries||87.9% (0.004)||100.0% (0.002)||12.3%*** (0.002)||202 (0.918)||101 (0.528)||−101.6*** (0.496)|
|Apples||12.1% (0.004)||100.0% (0.002)||87.7%*** (0.002)||12 (0.399)||15 (0.230)||2.7** (0.216)|
|Caloric soda||58.1% (0.023)||51.8% (0.025)||−6.3%*** (0.005)||64 (2.566)||57 (2.731)||−6.9*** (0.595)|
|Diet soda||4.0% (0.003)||3.3% (0.011)||−0.7%** (0.002)||-||-||-|
|Chocolate milk||16.5% (0.010)||20.3% (0.011)||3.79%*** (0.004)||28 (1.422)||26 (1.452)||−1.9*** (0.558)|
|White milk||5.3% (0.006)||6.5% (0.007)||1.12%*** (0.002)||5 (0.615)||6 (0.683)||1.1*** (0.225)|
|Apple juice||14.4% (0.012)||15.8% (0.012)||1.4%*** (0.004)||14 (1.182)||16 (1.200)||1.4*** (0.351)|
|Total calories||554 (0.749)||450 (0.681)||−104.4*** (0.570)|
Beverage selection may also have been a suitable way for within-meal calorie compensation. Because chocolate milk can be more satiating than carbonated beverages , it would make sense for chocolate milk purchases to increase. Purchases of regular caloric soda decreased (from 58.1% to 51.8%; P < 0.001) while chocolate milk purchases increased (from 16.5% to 20.3%; P < 0.001). Whether this increase in chocolate milk purchases was due to the new promotions or due to within-meal calorie compensation is not known, yet advertisements in 2011 included 1% white milk, which also increased (from 5.3% to 6.5%; P < 0.001). This potential within-meal calorie compensation is beneficial given the nutrient quality of milk and the national decrease in milk consumption across all ages . This percentage change is small but represents an increase of 2,790 CBM with white milk in this sample.
Small changes in automatic (also known as default) offerings can significantly influence behavior, as long as there is still an indulgence. Restricting options, such as eliminating French fries all together, could spark psychological responses of resistance and reactance [12-14], such as within-meal calorie compensation, that leads to greater calorie intake . In contrast, offering a 56% smaller sized French-fry portion and making apple slices part of children's meals  positively reinforces healthy behaviors and potentially avoids the reactance evident in more restrictive situations. In this research, the only indication of potential within-meal calorie compensation was a substitution towards milk (predominantly chocolate), which also contains essential nutrients for young children. By doing so, restaurant preserves relations with its customer base, and diners (primarily children), are also positively affected—a win-win change .
Despite the usefulness of de-identified transaction records in measuring product demand, intake remains unmeasured, limiting the ability of this study to measure the overall impact on diet. In addition, while it is perfectly plausible that some children over-compensated for the calorie decrease in later snacks or meals, calorie compensation is highly variable among children  and systematic increases may be difficult to detect. Additionally, without customer-specific information, demographic controls cannot be utilized and specific customers cannot be tracked over time, and furthermore we have no indication of whether these diners knew of the changes. Consequently, we are unable to determine whether increases in milk purchases were due to within-meal calorie compensation or responses to advertising. We also recognize that the data do not indicate whether children or whether parents/guardians were responsible for making selections for the CMB, which could also influence within-meal compensation. Thus aggregate changes in meal purchasing patterns can be studied only allowing for suggestive evidence of within-meal calorie compensation.
Next, the data analyzed in this study only includes three months of data the year before (baseline) and the year when the new CMB was introduced (treatment). While a concurrent control would have been useful, this was not possible due to the nationwide rollout and accompanying national advertising.
Finally, these changes highlight some of the many menu adjustments made by national restaurant chains , though some may still question the nutritional quality of the new CMB. Evidence reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates fast food contributes less than 12% of a child's total caloric intake . Moreover, since apples are now served with every CMB, children might now begin to consider fruit as a standard side item for lunch or dinner.
Implications for this research may extend well beyond the fast food restaurant, and our findings merit further investigation of this approach in other settings. Understanding the mechanisms that trigger healthful versus less healthful food decisions could lead to larger interventions for encouraging healthy eating. In addition, a growing body of literature shows that in many cases, restrictive policies can lead to adverse outcomes, while policies that preserve choice often leave individuals feeling empowered and less likely to compensate . Parents can leverage this insight to encourage healthier behaviors at home and avoid reactance and overeating. Balancing a meal with smaller portions of favored foods might do just that.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the McDonald's® Corporation in providing the proprietary transaction data that made this analysis possible. They also gratefully acknowledge Kelsey Gatto for editorial assistance.
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