Food Trends

Want some fries with that fitness tracker? McDonald’s adds activity monitors to Happy Meals

Despite being favored among Rio’s Olympic athletes, McDonald’s may not be the first restaurant that comes to find for the health conscious consumer.

But the fast food giant has been trying pretty hard to rebrand its image as a company that cares about the health of its customers. 

Earlier this month, the chain announced that its removing high-fructose corn syrup from its burger buns and nixing several artificial preservatives from its Chicken McNugget recipe.

Now the chain is turning its attention to the children. Instead of plastic figurines or plush toys, McDonald’s is giving away activity trackers with its Happy Meals in the U.S. and Canada for the next four weeks. 

The chain says the “step-it” trackers, which come in six bright colors, are part of a promotional campaign aimed to get kids moving. The trackers, which look like a rudimentary version of a FitBit, count steps and flash according to how quickly, or slowly, the person wearing the device is moving.

“Physical activity is important to everyone of all ages. We very much support children’s well-being,” Michelle McIlmoyle, McDonald’s Canada senior marketing manager, in a statement. “Step-it is in line with McDonald’s general philosophy for Happy Meal toys, which is to make toys that encourage either physical or imagination-based play.”

But is McDonald’s sending the wrong message by pushing fries, burgers, nuggets while simultaneously advocating for a “healthier lifestyle”?

"While I believe it is vitally important to get kids moving more as well as being more aware of their activity levels, and that activity trackers can be a fun and motivating tool to help kids accomplish both of these things, I do find it problematic that they would need to get them from McDonald's, a fast-food chain," Tom Holland, a certified sports nutritionist and Nautilus, Inc. fitness advisor, told FoxNews.com. 

Holland says the importance of physical activity to maintaining good overall health is undisputed, but many researchers have concluded that the obesity epidemic cannot be fought with exercise alone. Eating a healthy diet full of vegetables, protein and “good fats,” while incorporating mild exercising (like walking) is better than eating a poor diet and engaging in a more intense exercise routine.

Plus, diseases like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes are primarily caused by eating sugar, and exercise, no matter how rigorous, won’t combat those risky behaviors, say experts.

Still, the chain has been taking public steps to silence critics that blame McDonald’s for the childhood obesity epidemic. Marketing experts say actively promoting a healthier image is right in line with adding sides like low-fat yogurt and apple slices to its Happy Meals and reducing meal portion size.                                                                                

"They are doing something wholesome, and it gets you to maybe rethink and take another look because it's surprising," Michelle Greenwald, a Columbia Business School professor and food industry expert told USA Today. "In marketing today you need to surprise people and jar them in order to reframe their thinking."

Fitness trackers and step counters may be all the rage among millennial fitness junkies and Soul Cycle addicts. But are they a good accessory for kids?

"Absolutely not," says Holland. "Kids need to focus on play, not exercise. They should be outside engaging in unstructured, fun, aerobic activity. Parents need to take responsibility for the quality of their food, providing numerous healthy options and creating good eating habits from a young age. Kids do not drive themselves to McDonald's."

Although the occasional treat is fine, Holland says encouraging healthy eating habits by stocking healthy snacks and incorporating active play into the daily routine is better to keep kids healthy in the long term.

And many on social media agree with Holland. By Wednesday afternoon, many started using the #DontTrackMe to protest McDonald's new trackers.

At the time of publication a request for comment from McDonald's was not returned.