A three-tiered balanced lifestyle initiative by McDonald's launched this week is the largest initiative so far by the private sector in the fight against obesity in the US. Staged for rollout over the course of 2004, the fastfood giant is clearly hoping to reposition itself to the 'good' side of one of the US's biggest health battles.

This week McDonald's has made a very bold move in the battle against obesity: the fastfood giant launched a nationwide "balanced lifestyle platform" focused on three significant areas - food choices, education and physical activity.

Under the food choices platform, new product introductions have been made for both adults and children, while a Starbucks-style "Simple Steps" brochure, explaining how to make lower fat, calorie and carbohydrate choices across its menu, will assist consumers going for the regular fare. The education platform will consist of in-restaurant materials such as information-loaded tray-liners, an in-school program called "What's On Your Plate?" featuring Willie Munchright, and Internet-based education including a unique, interactive tool.

Increased physical activity will be encouraged through youth Olympic soccer clinics, a children's show called "Get Moving with Ronald McDonald," as well as the nationwide "Go Active! American Challenge," led by Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer.

Such an enormous undertaking and commitment to the country's health and education is certainly music to the ears of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which has called for the private sector to become more involved in finding solutions to the obesity issue. However, some observers remain sceptical. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pointed out that McDonald's has still not yet significantly reduced the trans fats or sodium contents of its food products.

Nevertheless, this remains a momentous initiative. As a first mover, McDonald's will be hoping to redefine associations of the brand name with respect to obesity. Instead of allegedly fuelling the obesity crisis, it can now point to a wide range of specific, positive anti-obesity efforts. Only time will tell whether that will be enough to change public perception.

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