Published September 23, 2013
You might expect that nearly a decade after documentaries like "Fast Food Nation" and "Super Size Me", drive-through orders would be on the decline. But last year, Americans dropped a cool $179 billion on fast food—more than double what we shelled out for weight-loss products the same year.
This lack of cheeseburger backlash is partly due to American schedules, which, like American stomachs, show no sign of getting any less jammed. Cooking is a chore that eats into our leisure moments three times a day and is easily outsourced.
That may be why the U.S. ranked at the very bottom, in a 2011 report of 28 countries, in both the percentage of people who cook and the amount of time they spend doing it. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the only place we bested most other countries was in our obesity rate.) In a separate survey, 19 percent of respondents described themselves as "fast-food junkies."
So if we can't quit fast food, can we at least combine convenience with something healthier than deep-fried potato sticks and fatty, factory-farmed meat? Plenty of chains are doing just that. And in the not-so-distant future, the person who takes your order may well be asking, "Do you want kale with that?"
More: 10 Delicious Kale Recipes
The Fast-Food Fallacy
Consumers' call for healthy fast food options has not gone unheeded. Certain national chains, including Panera Bread and Chipotle, use antibiotic-free meat, and many chains are phasing out factory-farm suppliers.
But other healthy strides have famously flopped (or drawn criticism): whole-wheat doughnuts, oatmeal, "french fries" made from fruit. That may be because there is a discrepancy between what consumers say they want and what they actually buy, said Mary Avant, associate editor of "QSR," a magazine for the quick-service restaurant industry.
"Taste is still the main driver," she adds, "and people don't want a really healthy product that doesn't taste great."
More: What Your Food Cravings Say About Your Health
The problem may go even deeper than that. Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, studied how people ordered food from sample menus. Somewhat alarmingly, he found that most people were more likely to choose something unhealthy when the menu included one healthy pick. Fitzsimons calls it "vicarious goal fulfillment," in which the mere presence of a virtuous choice can subconsciously satisfy our impulse to eat well.
"Put a healthy option out there and it lures people in, but they don't end up choosing it," he said.
Not to mention that "healthy" doesn't always equate to "low-cal." Organic and whole-grain are desirable attributes, but neither precludes a menu item from having more than a third of your daily recommended calories. (In a recent analysis of fast-food purchases from six U.S. chains, the average meal contained 836 calories.)
"Just because it's healthy doesn't mean you can't gain weight from it," Jim White, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said.
More: 5 Fatty Foods That Make You Skinny
The tide may be turning as a growing number of health-minded quick-service restaurants are spreading across the country. The East Coast burgers-and-wraps chain Energy Kitchen and its no-item-over-500-calories menu can now be found in four states and Washington, D.C. Veggie Grill, a meat-free mecca, expects to double its store count by next summer. New York's Bareburger serves up organic beef in three boroughs, and Evos, in the South, offers air-baked fries with half the fat of traditional ones.
Offering a core menu of convenient, body-conscious choices, rather than one lonely option in a sea of temptations, can help push people to eat better, Fitzsimons said.
"We've found that when at least half the items on a menu are pretty good for you, the healthy item doesn't pop out and you don't get that ironic backlash," he said.
More: The Simple Way to Eat Less
But can a fast-food diet ever really help anyone lose weight? And can it taste good enough to stay competitive in a burger-and-fries market? Stephen Sidwell, cofounder of California's Lyfe Kitchen, believes the answer to both questions is yes. After all, his restaurant's entire menu of 600-calories-or-fewer entrees is based on dishes that helped him lose 30 pounds.
"There is a significant myth that in order to eat healthy, you have to sacrifice taste," he said. "But it can taste amazing and it can be really filling."
If Sidwell realizes his goal to take the chain nationwide, he'll be providing a valuable alternative to thousands of people with the same dietary dilemma he once faced himself. Whether or not the world will ever see a "Quinoa Crunch Wraps—Over 1 Billion Served" sign, well, that's up to you.