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Restaurants Have Gotten A Hall Pass On Obesity, And It Must End

Hank Cardello

On the surface, restaurants in the U.S. have reason to celebrate. Over a recent three-month period, they’ve enjoyed a 25.3% uptick in patron spending, the biggest increase since 1992. While that may be great for restaurant investors and operators, it’s bad news for the fight against obesity. The reason: Calorie-packed fare and mammoth portion sizes are still menu mainstays, even though studies have shown that consumers want lower-calorie options, and that these items drive sales growth. Unless industry executives radically change the way they view lower-calorie foods and beverages and make a public commitment to offering and promoting healthier items, the restaurants and their increasingly obese patrons will suffer in the long run.

The restaurant and food service sectors are perhaps the most important “missing links” in the fight to reverse obesity. They account for more than 30% of all calories sold. But while the packaged food and beverage industries have been actively reducing portion sizes and calorie counts, restaurants have largely gotten a hall pass. Chain restaurants in particular represent the single largest remaining opportunity to reduce trillions of calories. It’s time they stepped up.

According to a recent Gallup survey, half of Americans eat out at a restaurant twice a month, and 45% go at least weekly. More importantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites that one-third of children and 41% of teenagers eat fast food every day. It has been shown that children aged 2 to 11 consumed 126 more calories on days they visited fast food restaurants, while adolescents consumed an extra 310 calories. And the trend is not promising, as a 2017 study of 45 chain restaurants illustrated that calories in children’s beverages, entrées, side dishes and desserts had not declined. This underscores the importance of restaurants in fighting the war on obesity.

Why haven’t U.S. restaurants as an industry done much? It might be that they’ve largely escaped the crosshairs of public health advocates and lawmakers, who have focused their ire on the packaged foods industry. But the root cause is the mindset of the restaurant industry’s C-suite. They equate healthy food with boring, tasteless food that patrons won’t order when they are eating out and in a celebratory mood. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The business case has been made that menu items containing lower calories have driven growth for restaurant chains. Marry that with findings from a recent Hudson Institute report that 63% of restaurant customers are clamoring for healthier fare, with 55% preferring smaller portions, and you have a formula for long-term failure if restaurants don’t act on these trends. These facts defy the traditional reasoning that overstuffed food portions and highly caloric beverages are the only way to thrive.

It’s not that the restaurant community has not tried. McDonald’s has taken steps to jettison the “supersized” fries and drinks and to offer healthier alternatives for side dishes. In July 2011, 19 chains in concert with the National Restaurant Association launched the Kids LiveWell program. It required participating restaurants to offer and display at least one kids’ meal item and one side item meeting certain calorie and nutritional requirements. Today, nearly 42,000 restaurant locations participate in Kids LiveWell.

With these meager requirements to participate, this program does not go far enough. And not surprisingly, six years after Kids LiveWell was launched, that same 2017 study highlighted that in restaurant chains participating in Kids LiveWell, calories served to children were actually higher than in non-participating restaurants. What’s more, with no independent third party tracking of the progress restaurants are making in providing healthier, lower-calorie items for children, it’s hard to know whether chains are complying.

Restaurants need to take a page from the packaged food and beverage industry and make a public commitment to trimming calories. Over the past 20 years, the food industry has witnessed an onslaught of activism against its practices – ones deemed to contribute to stratospheric rates of overweight and obesity in the U.S. Packaged foods companies, in particular, with their large marketing budgets, have been singled out with such actions as soda taxes, new package label warnings and advertising restrictions to kids.

In response to these actions, many food and beverage companies have made open commitments to reduce the calories they sell, improve their product nutritionals and be more transparent in labeling and communications. The first wave of commitments began when the 16 food companies that joined the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation made a pledge in May 2010 to pull 1.5 trillion calories out of the food supply. These companies, including such stalwarts as Mars , Coca-Cola KO -0.85%PepsiCo PEP +0.04% andGeneral Mills GIS +0.81%, ultimately eliminated four times as many calories (6.4 trillion). Four years later, the American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, announced a pledge to cut calories 20% by 2025 through a combination of education, marketing and packaging changes.

Just last year, leading confections company members of the National Confectioners Association, including Mars, Nestle , Lindt, Ferrero and Ferrara, committed that more than half of their single-serve product sizes would be 200 calories or less by the end of 2021. Even the convenience store sector — those purveyors of a rogue’s gallery of less-than-healthy products – have gotten into the act, with several chains making commitments to the Partnership for a Healthier America to improve the nutritional quality of foods they sell and push more fruits and vegetables.

It is now time for restaurants — like their packaged food and convenience store brethren — to step up and publicly commit to significant changes in the items they sell. Here are some ways they can do so with impact:

• Set an ambitious goal to pull a minimum of 10% of calories out of their products. If 16 large packaged foods companies can reduce the number of calories they sell by 6.4 trillion, there is no reason that the $799 billion U.S. restaurant sector cannot do the same. Like the members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, restaurants must permit third-party verification to ensure they are making progress on those goals.

• Cut portion sizes. The business case is clear for selling lower-calorie versions, and many patrons are demanding smaller portions. And there are numerous ways to shrink portions while increasing customers, revenues and margins.

• Embrace “stealth health.” While many consumers are clamoring for smaller portions and healthier menu items, a number of them still want to eat, drink and be merry. They will reject any food marketed as “healthier.” The challenge will be for restaurateurs to develop moderately reduced-calorie versions of the high-calorie menu items these patrons want. Cutting 10% or 15% of the calories in a dish that contains enough calories for a day can be done imperceptibly, and nobody will notice. Start with cutting calories by just 10% in 700-calorie chili cheese fries, 1,500-calorie chicken alfredo pasta dishes and 1,950-calorie Bloomin’ Onions.

• Give Kids LiveWell some teeth. Having only two items on a menu that meet certain nutrition and calorie criteria does not make a dent. To be more effective, this program needs an overhaul to guarantee that meals, sides, beverages and desserts designed for kids’ consumption meet more stringent calorie and nutrition standards and become the default choice.

The restaurant industry will serve their customer’s waistlines and their own bottom lines better by getting fully in the game of offering healthier, lower-calorie fare. In doing so they will be in far better shape when the dining-out binge ends and consumers become more discriminating about what’s on their plate.

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