NEW YORK — It's a real life dilemma: people on a low-carb or low-fat diet have limited choices when it comes to an inexpensive meal on the run.
But McDonald's hopes that choice will become easier with the launch of its Real Life Choices program, developed especially for the New York tri-state area.
It's not a new menu option but rather a new way of ordering, said Cristina Vilella, marketing director for the fast food company's New York metro region office in Roseland, N.J.
"We are trying to educate our customers that the foods they love at McDonald's can fit into the diet they're on," Vilella said. "If they're watching fat, carbs or counting calories, they can take the menu and fit it into the lifestyle that they're leading."
Developed by nutritionist and best selling author Pam Smith in partnership with McDonald's franchisees, the program became available Monday in 650 McDonald's restaurants in New York City, on Long Island, in most of New Jersey and in Connecticut's Fairfield County.
Prominently displayed posters and brochures tell customers how McDonald's existing menu can easily be modified to fit any diet.
Video: Menu choices For example, if you're watching carbohydrates, a breakfast with less than 5 grams of carbs could be a platter of double meat or eggs without the English muffin, biscuit or hash browns. A reduced-fat breakfast of less than 8 grams of fat could be an Egg McMuffin without cheese, butter or margarine. If you're counting calories, a breakfast of 300 calories or less could be an Egg McMuffin without butter or margarine, a snack size Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait or scrambled eggs with a plain English muffin.
Real Life Choices prices will be the same as for existing menu items.
"Educating ... that's what behind Real Life Choices," Smith said. "I think there are a lot of people who don't know how much fat or calories there are in a sauce or in mayonnaise or in salad dressing, no awareness that ketchup ... adds sugar. So if you're trying to cut carbs, that would be an example to leave it off."
Asked to comment, Dr. Alan Rulis, senior adviser for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, said his agency has long been looking at obesity and the issue of providing information to consumers so they can make healthy food choices. In that context, he said, the FDA would view McDonald's new program as beneficial.
"Essentially, it offers consumers some choices and gives them more information to work with in making decisions about healthy food choices. We encourage that, even if it's an incremental step."
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The FDA is scheduled to release a study on obesity on Feb. 12, Rulis said.
"People don't go to McDonald's looking for diet food," said Smith, "but what Real Life Choices does is it gives them a chance to have food that will fit within their diet but still with that flavor that they're seeking ... but ordering it in a special way."
McDonald's already displays calorie information in its stores and on its Web site, and offers all white-meat Chicken McNuggets with less fat and fewer calories. It is also test-marketing an adult version of its Happy Meal called Go Active. Instead of a burger and a toy, the meal will include a salad and an exercise booklet. Other fast-food chains also have started offering healthier fare. Burger King, the No. 2 hamburger chain, for example, has a new line of low-fat, baguette-style chicken sandwiches.
Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action lawsuits against McDonald's that blamed the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company for making people fat.
For now, there is no plan to expand the Real Life Choices program beyond the tri-state area.
"We believe this program is relevant to the tri-state area," said Vilella. "Different regions adopt different programs."
Bob Goldin, an analyst at Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic, lauded the Real Life Choices program.
"McDonald's is taking a leadership position in this whole health and nutrition arena, which is interesting, given their menu ... and see themselves taking an educational role," Goldin said.
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