There is new incentive for restaurants to provide healthier menu options: it’s not only better for their customers’ waistlines, but also for their own financial bottom line. With the current obesity epidemic in America, this can be considered good news by all. In 1990, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent; today, adult obesity rates are over 25 percent in 39 states. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. It goes without saying that the private sector, and particularly the food industry, plays a large role in shaping what and how Americans eat.
From food manufacturers to retailers to restaurants, few Americans go through a day without interacting with the products and services supplied by these players, as nearly 50% of meals in America are eaten away from home. This presents a significant opportunity for constructive collaboration to improve the nutrition profile of the foods being sold and served in this country – and therefore reduce the rates of obesity.
In a new report issued by the Hudson Institute, Hank Cardello and his team examined 21 U.S. restaurant chains from 2006-2011, including Taco Bell, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, and Olive Garden. Among all the chains studied, lower-calorie items were the key growth engine for both foods and beverages; those restaurants growing lower-calorie food options saw increases in food servings and consumer traffic, while other chains recorded declines. Building on a similar analysis for the consumer packaged goods industry, this analysis illustrates how the restaurant industry is beginning to embrace the opportunity to provide healthier meals and commit to reducing its caloric footprint. And what’s more, not only are restaurants increasing the availability of healthier choices on their menus, but they are also improving the profitability of their businesses at the same time.
Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture and current co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative, was invited to provide remarks at the Hudson Institute’s report launch. He pointed out that health care costs, particularly from chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, are the prime driver of our national debt. The WHO has noted that healthy eating is a key health behavior that can sharply reduce the risk for many chronic diseases—which would decrease associated health care costs. The increased availability and promotion of healthier products is an important contribution that industry can make toward improving the dietary habits of Americans. The adoption of healthier menus is a win-win for the public health and fiscal health of our nation as it contributes to companies’ bottom line and makes America a healthier place to live. Indeed, consumers, businesses, public health officials, and economic advisors can all find cause to celebrate.*
The Hudson Institute findings relate directly to BPC’s report, Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens Our Economic Future. In the report, we identified bipartisan, economically sound strategies to reduce obesity across a range of settings, including large private sector institutions such as restaurants. We recommended that institutions procure and serve healthier foods, using their significant market power to shift food supply chains and make healthier options more available and cost-competitive. Several specific steps could be taken to implement this recommendation, including adopting nutrition labeling on all restaurant menus and creating children’s menus that comply with the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell standard.
As consumers, let us continue to demand healthier options and applaud companies that are innovating in this space by increasing the availability of healthier products – and hope that many more will follow.
Please leave us a comment sharing what you would like to see restaurants serve and changes you hope to see in the months to come.
* As more and more food businesses follow suit, their significant market power can shift food supply chains and make healthier options more available and cost competitive beyond the walls of their individual restaurants. Of course, the relationship between supply, demand, consumer tastes and product prices is complex, but we are pleased to see positive shifts toward improved availability and competitive pricing.