With alarm growing over Americans' widening waistlines, fast-food restaurants are trying to beef up their healthy sides.
Struggling with sluggish business and an onslaught of obesity lawsuits (search), many chains are expanding their nutritional efforts with everything from online fat and calorie counters to healthier alternatives to burgers, shakes and fries.
But are the "healthier" alternatives really healthier — and will the initiative help the fast-food frequenters who need it most?
"It remains to be seen if these changes are going to have a significant — if any — influence on reducing calories and fat," said Penn State nutritionist Kristine Clark. "I'm not very convinced that the average person who eats at these restaurants is going to exercise the option of choosing lower-calorie [meals] or smaller portions."
Wendy's is the latest fast-food franchise to revamp its nutrition initiative. Beginning this month, the restaurant is putting the following message on its bags, tray liners and wall menus: "We're proud of the food we serve at Wendy's. To learn more, please ask for a nutrition guide or visit Wendys.com."
"We've enhanced [the Web site] so you can get complete nutritional information for items or bundle them any way you want," said Wendy's International spokesman Bob Bertini.
But the online "food calculator" shows that there's not a vast difference between a burger and fries and a salad covered with creamy dressing and fried chicken.
For instance, according to Wendy's calculator, an Old-fashioned burger, medium fries and medium cola have 940 calories, 36 grams of fat and 1250 milligrams of sodium. A Mandarin chicken salad and small cola have 740 calories, 35 grams of fat and 1550 milligrams of sodium.
Still, there is a definite trend among fast-food giants to offer customers more healthful options as well as information about fat and calorie content.
"It's something more restaurants are doing because they're getting more questions," said Steven Grover, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association (search). "It's all part of a greater health consciousness among consumers."
McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC and Subway all have nutrition guides on their Web sites. And many have menu items catering to the health-conscious like McDonald's salads with Newman's Own dressings, Wendy's "Garden Sensations" and Subway's "7 Under 6" menu section — seven different sandwiches with fewer than 6 grams of fat.
Although the fat and calorie counts of the "healthy choices" aren't drastically different than the old standbys, they are slightly better — though they often have very high sodium content.
At McDonald's, for instance, a regular hamburger, medium fries and 16-ounce Coke have 870 calories, 32 grams of fat and 860 milligrams of sodium. A grilled chicken Cobb salad with Newman's Own Cobb dressing and Coke, on the other hand, have 550 calories, 23 grams of fat and 1420 milligrams of sodium.
Clark applauded the efforts by fast-food chains, but said they'd only work if overweight patrons change their eating habits and pay attention to the nutritional values of the new offerings.
"The consumer has to play a big role," she said. "Consumers have got to take the bull by the horns on their own merit."
She advises her clients to order smaller sizes or avoid eating the entire portion if it's large. Since the salads get much of their calorie and fat content from heavy dressings, she suggests ordering light or no-fat varieties or using only part of the packet.
But despite skeptics, the chains' initiatives are working for some.
Fast food lover Jim Smith of Indianapolis — who is obese and had to go on a strict diet after near-fatal heart problems — said he uses the health guides and opts for salads at McDonald's and the grilled (not fried) Burger King hamburgers.
"If they're provided, we'll use them — no doubt," said Smith, 41, of the nutrition charts. "I think it will help. It would help me, for sure, in a heartbeat."