NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Just as McDonald’s announced it would be making healthier happy meals for kids, a new study has found that consumers are using calorie counts on menus to make food choices. Maybe America is actually getting healthier.

McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD) announced Tuesday that it would be making its Happy Meals healthier by adding low-fat dairy options and produce.

The children’s meals have long been a target of advocates who argued that including toys in the meals put pressure on parents to buy unhealthy food for children, and San Francisco recently passed a law effectively banning Happy Meals. While the new meals won’t exactly be the healthiest thing you can feed your child, the company promises that starting next year the revamped Happy Meals will have approximately 20% fewer calories.

The chain had already started introducing healthier options to its menus in recent years, and the national attention drawn by the San Francisco law likely spurred McDonald’s to consider extending that trend to its Happy Meals. And with the new law promising to show customers just how many calories the meals are packing, it’s not surprising that McDonald’s is preemptively making those calorie counts a little more palatable for parents.

Mandatory calorie labeling for chain restaurants has always been something of a contentious issue. Long required in New York and several other states and localities, the health care reform legislation passed in 2010 included a provision mandating a similar law on a national level that will take effect soon after the Food & Drug Administration issues its final regulations at the end of this year.

A study released Tuesday by the British Medical Journal found that one in six fast food customers in New York used the posted calorie counts when making eating decisions, with the result that they purchased 106 fewer calories than those who didn’t consider the calorie counts. The three largest chains in the study, Au Bon Pain, KFC (Stock Quote: YUM) and McDonald’s, saw average calorie reductions of 80, 59 and 44, respectively.

While that’s still a minority of diners, it’s at least a start. And perhaps most interesting was the observation from study co-author Lynn Silver that “As calorie labeling spreads nationwide and internationally … restaurant chains will have a greater incentive to reformulate their products and offer healthier options.”

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