Weight Watchers promotes McDonald's as weight loss option

Few would dispute that McDonald's is a great hangover remedy. Or a quick and cheap means of filling an empty stomach. But a good way to lose weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet?

Nutritionists and obesity experts turned on Weight Watchers in New Zealand yesterday after it announced that it had teamed up with the fast-food chain to promote three of its meals. The slimming organisation's logo will go on McDonald's menu boards and tray mats, while Weight Watchers will extoll the virtues of the meals - which include Chicken McNuggets - to its members.

The partnership is a world first, and is a coup for McDonald's, which in recent years has tried to re-brand itself as healthy, nutritious and kind to animals. For the moment the deal is confined to New Zealand, but it may be extended to Australia later this year.

Facing a barrage of criticism, Weight Watchers Australasia's business director, Chris Stirk, said it was the organisation's philosophy not to ban any food and to give slimmers maximum choice. "These approved meals are really part of that philosophy … that you can enjoy life, all that it has to offer, and still achieve your weight loss goals," he said.

Each of the three meals - the other two are Filet-O-Fish and Sweet Chilli Seared Chicken Wrap, served with salad and a diet soft drink - represents 6.5 points in the Weight Watchers system, which ranks foods according to their fat content and other nutritional factors. Dieters are supposed to limit themselves to a maximum of 18 to 40 points a day. Mr Stirk said 6.5 was in line with an average lunch.

But Boyd Swinburn, an obesity expert based at Melbourne's Deakin University, said: "This is another way to get customers through the door. They are not in the health food business, or the salad business. They are in the burgers and fries business."

Rosemary Stanton, an Australian nutritionist, told the Sydney Morning Herald that sales of burgers and fries increased after McDonald's introduced its Deli Choices rolls in 2004. "It got new people through the doors, but once they were in they bought the burgers," she said.

The Australian Heart Foundation triggered a similar controversy in 2007 when it approved nine McDonald's meals as healthy options, in exchange for $330,000 (£198,000). Weight Watchers has also been paid an undisclosed sum.

Mark Hawthorne, the chief executive of McDonald's New Zealand, said: "This is a noble cause … We're making every best effort to generate a change in behaviour, to create an awareness in consumers about making healthy choices."

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