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Waistline-Friendly Fast Food?

More fast food chains and restaurants are jumping on the health food bandwagon. But are these lower-fat choices a whole-hearted effort to fight obesity?
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WebMD Feature

McDonald's adult version of the Happy Meal, equipped with a salad, an exercise booklet, and a pedometer to encourage walking, is among the latest round of health-conscious offerings from fast food chains, restaurants, and food suppliers. But are these well-intentioned attempts at heart-healthy fare, or are these companies merely trying to prevent future battles with an increasingly combative public?

McDonald's recently announced that it would begin working with Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer, Bob Greene, to help give diners a waistline-friendly option. This heart-healthy combo pack is just the latest in more healthy alternatives at America's favorite eateries.

You may have heard about Kraft Foods' effort -- reportedly in the works for years -- to "fight global obesity" by reducing the fat content and portion sizes of its offerings.

Or maybe you read about the new partnership between Applebee's and Weight Watchers, in which the popular restaurant chain will offer a menu of leaner fare with the weight-loss company's trademark point system. That news certainly got more attention than another just two weeks later on the return of Applebee's all-you-can-eat Honey BBQ Rib Tips "campaign" complete with beans, fries, and cole slaw.

There's PepsiCo alerting the media when it removed trans fats from its Fritos and launched a new line of organic chips and Campbell Soup's reminders to "eat smart" with its 31 soups containing fewer than 100 calories per serving. Even 7-Eleven, that snacking Shangri-La for those who don't count calories, now boasts all-natural and low-fat chips next to its pork rinds and just announced plans to offer new, no-calorie Slurpees.

Joining the War Against Obesity?

"I've spoken to some of these companies, and I believe most are taking these actions in an attempt to be good social citizens -- knowing full well that these campaigns will fail miserably," says John Stanton, PhD, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"It's well known in the food service industry that the best way to kill the success of a new product is to put a heart symbol (indicating it's low-fat) next to it on the menu," he tells WebMD. "And I can certainly tell you that their customers aren't saying they want smaller portions or are ordering Big Macs and fries and asking about trans fats. They don't want these healthier options."

History suggests that he's right. There's the McLean burger, whose name proved to be closely more related to levels of profits and customer popularity than its fats and calories. And Taco Bell's Border Lights, whose sales also quickly fell south-of-the-border. Even Applebee's, now basking in the glow of its Weight Watchers-partnership media frenzy, had an earlier attempt at low-fat fare in the 1990s that bombed.

"Yes, there were earlier efforts to have a designated portion of our menu as lower fat or healthier fare that unfortunately didn't take off," Applebee's spokesman Frank Ybarra tells WebMD. "But we think part of that may have been issues with flavor and taste. Guests now expect that items considered healthy need to also taste good. That used to not be the perception of those items."

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