Eating healthy: We talk a good talk

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

That old English proverb, possibly the oldest one still in use, can be re-worded for the 21st century: You can put healthy choices on the menu, but you can’t make customers order them.  A recent AP article describes the situation like this: numerous restaurants offer healthier menu options; with all the buzz about healthier eating, you’d think customers would be eating this stuff up.  But no.  Quite the opposite.

why do restaurant customers think "healthy" = "salad"?

Restaurants have tried offering what they defined as “healthier” fare numerous times over the years.  Unfortunately, the efforts were mostly lame.  They came with awful health-foodie names (the McLean burger anyone?) or were hold-overs from the 1950’s (cottage cheese plate anyone?).  The current crop of healthy choices is more creative, but most customers are still stuck in the mindset that defines “healthy” food as a salad with lowfat dressing.  Unfortunately some restaurants are also stuck in the mindset that says healthier options have to have little “healthy” symbols next to them, or be segregated on a separate “healthy” menu. That strategy implies that the other stuff on the menu is all unhealthy, which in many cases is clearly not true.  The other problem with healthy food: the misconception that it’s more expensive.  A misconception reinforced by places like Whole Foods and other health halo natural food stores, that charge extremely high prices.

The result is that many people are handed an excuse to give up on making healthier choices.  One customer is described saying if he wanted healthy, he wouldn’t go to McDonald’s.  But in fact McDonald’s has a decent selection of healthier choices, not just salads and cottage cheese.  Just ordering less food would be a start.  But if you can’t be bothered, you won’t look for those choices.

According to a 2011 American Dietetic Association (soon to be the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) survey, half of respondents say they’re doing all they can to eat a healthy diet.  But 82% said “I don’t want to give up the foods I like”.  Apparently for plenty of restaurant customers, that means double bacon cheeseburgers, fries, cheesecake and other high calorie menu items.

Restaurants aren’t likely to ditch the healthy options however.  The Health Halo PR value is worth the minor effort to keep those items listed, even if they only appeal to a tiny minority of customers.  One positive effect is that, when groups are dining together, if only one person wants a restaurant with healthier options, the restaurant offering those gets the whole group’s business.  Measuring success of healthy choices only by sales of those items is not looking at the whole effect.

What can you do if you prefer healthier choices?  Patronize restaurants that offer them, and then buy them.  Check the restaurant reviews on this site for more specific recommendations.  Many good choices are not labeled as such by the restaurant.  If you’re watching calorie intake, you can actually use restaurant food as a calorie control method, if you order small portions.  It’s rather like your own personalized convenience food diet plan.  And if you’re a parent, make sure your kids order healthier options when you’re at a restaurant.  Make it the rule rather than the exception.  It’s easier to teach young kids about healthy choices from the start than try to change bad habits when they’re older.  Hopefully by then, healthy options at restaurants will be the norm.

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