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McDonald's new Happy Meal: Will there be fries, I mean yogurt, with that?

Yogurt, apple slices, milk and a grilled-chicken wrap. It might not sound like your typical Happy Meal, but McDonald's Canada has just introduced changes to give its iconic kids' meal a healthier focus.

Now, every Happy Meal will come with a small container of yogurt, in addition to the choice of grilled-chicken wrap, hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets. French fries aren't going away, but they will now come in a "mini" size that has 100 calories, much fewer than the 220 calories in the current small size. Parents can also choose to forgo fries in favour of apple slices.

On the surface, the changes sound good. They reflect a broader movement in the fast-food industry to meet consumer demands for fresher, healthier items. Where salty fries and rich, fatty burgers once ruled the day, many fast-food restaurants and commercials now prominently feature fruit smoothies, oatmeal and salads.

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Have we finally reached the moment when the terms "healthy" and "fast food" are no longer mutually exclusive?

That may just be wishful thinking.

Many fast-food chains have been introducing apple slices, yogurt or fruit cups in recent years, in response to growing public pressure for healthier fare, but it represents only a marginal improvement in the grand scheme of things, said Peter Nieman, a pediatrician based at Calgary's Pediatric Weight Clinic.

While it's encouraging to see that companies are making changes to suit demands for more nutritious menu items, parents should understand that eating out is an unhealthy habit.

"Don't be lulled into a false sense of security. It still adds up over time," Dr. Nieman said.

The problem isn't going to a fast-food restaurant once in a blue moon. The issue is that, with many families balancing hectic schedules, processed meals and fast food can easily become part of the routine, Dr. Nieman said. For instance, many families he sees order pizza every Friday night, an ingrained habit that, over time, contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Louis Payette, national media-relations manager for McDonald's Canada, said the company is committed to making changes consumers are prepared to accept.

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"We're all about embracing change, but it has to be in step with the needs of our customers and at the pace that they're sort of ready for," he said. "As the Canadian palate evolves, you know, so does McDonald's."

Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute and advocate on nutrition issues, views it differently. He said that by making adjustments to allow items that appear to have a better nutrition profile, McDonald's and other chains are hoping to convince consumers they have "permission" to eat there.

"It's to make people feel comfortable with making a choice they inherently know isn't the wisest," Dr. Freedhoff said. "I don't think that any parent should kid themselves into thinking that one ounce less of French fries … is in fact going to make a healthy meal for their child."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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