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?

5 min read

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.

"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."

Whether diners last decade really expected healthy restaurant food to be bad tasting is up for debate. But it's clear that food suppliers are taking more blame than ever for their customers' expanding waistlines -- and paying for it at the corporate bottom line.

"Clearly, food companies feel the fingers pointing at them," says Alice Ammerman, RD, DrPH, nutritionist at the University of North Carolina. "So it makes good marketing sense for them to do something more along the lines of offering solutions, rather than providing more additions to contribute to the obesity epidemic."

After battling some health-conscious finger pointers, McDonald's recently made another attempt at healthier fare -- a new line of "meal-sized" salads that the company proudly says ended many consecutive months of slumping sales. Of course, less publicized is that the new Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad weighs in at 660 calories and 51 grams of fat when you add a packet of its accompanying dressing -- compared to the 600 calories and 33 fat grams of a Big Mac.

"And it seems as though they give you two packets of dressing when you order it," says Ammerman. "But it's your choice if you want to add the dressing."

Ah yes, "choice" -- the real reason why Applebee's has teamed up with Weight Watchers, says Ybarra. "We want to provide our guests with the widest variety of meals options we can. If they're looking for healthier alternatives, the Weight Watchers options will offer that. If they don't, we have other options, as well. It's a simple matter of providing our guests with a choice."

In other words, if you choose to get fat on all-you-can-eat rib fests, perhaps you shouldn't blame Applebee's with a lawsuit later on. You could have selected any of the dozen or so Weight Watchers choices soon to be offered, or other waistline-friendly offerings currently on the menu.

"I'm willing to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say that buried in these corporations are individuals who really care about the health of the people who buy their products. But I can't believe that the lawsuits we're seeing don't have something to do with the timing of these changes," says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, chair of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

"Recently, there have been two very serious investment analyses that say these companies had better watch out," she tells WebMD. "Even if these lawsuits never come to fruition and have no grounds in which to win, they are still putting the companies in a position of vulnerability, particularly because of the documents they are going to have to present."

Even if customers aren't hungry for litigation, there's another factor that may explain the slimmer menu and portion choices under way.

"Salads and other healthy foods are at McDonald's and other restaurants because of what's called the 'veto effect,'" says Stanton. "If there are five people who want to go to lunch together and one says, 'I don't want a hamburger,' that person can veto the other four from going there. If a salad is available, McDonald's can do what it really wants to -- sell the other four hamburgers."