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Fast Food: A Nighttime Trend?

Dietitians say late-night trips to the local drive-through may have an impact on our waistlines.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Craving a burrito at 11 p.m.? Taco Bell stands ready to serve you a "Fourthmeal," which it advertises as "the meal between dinner and breakfast."

We're a mobile, wired nation that works and eats at all hours -- and the fast-food giants have noticed.

"We saw a skewing toward a 24-7 society," says Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz. As a result, Taco Bell and other fast-food restaurants have created ad campaigns to promote eating late in the evening and well into the darkest of night.

But in a nation struggling with obesityobesity, overdoing the late-night fast food may wreak havoc with our waistlines and health. "When we look at why certain people are overweight or really have trouble losing weight, you look at your environment," says American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. "Having some of these things available 24-7 for some people makes it more challenging."

Fast Food: A Big Business

In 2005, Americans spent roughly $127 billion at quick-service restaurants, which include fast food, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant research and consulting firm. Eric Schlosser, author of the 2001 book Fast Food Nation, estimates that one-quarter of U.S. adults visit a fast-food restaurant on a typical day.

The late night opens a whole new frontier for profits, says Gregg Cebrzynski, a marketing editor who tracks trends for Nation's Restaurant News. Chains are battling it out for customers. "There's this whole idea that late night and early morning sales is what they really have to go after," he says.

In April, Taco Bell began promoting Fourthmeals at its restaurants, many of which stay open until 1 a.m. or later. In August, McDonald's aimed a new late-night campaign at young people who live on a steady diet of text messaging. In selected markets, McDonald's allows customers to sign up via the Internet to have late-night deals text-messaged right to their cell phones. And of course, Wendy's runs TV commercials that feature raccoons on late-night food forages that lead them straight to the burger chain.

More and more, fast-food restaurants that keep traditional 6 to 10 p.m. dinner hours are going the way of the carhop. Many chains, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Taco Bell, have extended their evening hours or stay open 24 hours, sometimes with a drive-through window.

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