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On a diet? Fast-food restaurants want you

They're trying to get weight-conscious customers through their doors, but are the menu choices really good for us?

By Karen Datko Jan 6, 2010 3:06PM

In January we all feel fat, so fast-food purveyors are rolling out new diet menus to keep us coming back despite our New Year’s resolutions, USA Today reports.


Some are also likely inspired by menu-labeling mandates contained in the proposed health care reform legislation -- requirements the restaurant industry supports, according to The Washington Post. Better to cut the calorie counts of menu items before we can all see them in a “clear and conspicuous” place.

But aren’t fast food and healthy food mutually exclusive?

Here’s what’s on the menu:

  • Taco Bell’s new Diet Drive-Thru Menu has seven “Fresco” choices said to contain fewer than 200 calories and 9 or fewer grams of fat.
  • KFC is advertising a meal -- grilled chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes AND gravy -- 395 calories for $3.95.
  • Starbucks will debut four Panini sandwiches with under 400 calories later this month. Combine one with a “skinny” latte made with no-fat milk.
  • Dunkin’ Donuts offers lower-calorie versions of its breakfast sandwiches and wraps, made with egg whites rather than the entire egg.
  • Subway is emphasizing its low-fat choices. Jared’s weight-loss story continues to inspire.

Other restaurants are offering healthier selections. For instance:

  • Uno Chicago Grill has a 550-calorie roasted-veggie wrap with feta cheese.
  • Applebee’s has five entrees with fewer than 550 calories.

And more are researching nutrition-friendly changes to their menus. The Post said, “Austin Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, the Cheesecake Factory, Fuddruckers, Silver Diner and Sizzler, among others, are working with consulting company Nutrition Information Services to analyze and, where appropriate, make over their recipes.”

What does this mean for consumers who are feeling tubby and resolving to improve fitness this year? And we do have plenty of company, USA Today reports:

Some 61% would like to lose 20 pounds, says a survey from NPD Group. And 64% of Americans say they are taking steps to improve the "healthiness" of their diets, according to the 2009 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council.

Before you indulge guilt-free in the new menu items, keep these thoughts in mind:

  • Low-cal doesn’t necessarily mean low-fat or low-sodium. More than half the calories of the chicken portion of the KFC meal is from fat. You can find nutritional information about the new items at the restaurant Web sites.
  • It may not mean well-balanced either. Man was not meant to survive on Taco Bell or KFC alone. (This brings to mind the blogger who lost 13 pounds in a month by eating nothing but Chef Boyardee. That can’t be healthy.)
  • Can you believe what you read? A new study in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association suggests that restaurant meals may contain on average 18% more calories than advertised, Time reports.
  • These restaurants want our business. Some studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that posting calorie content of food does encourage people to pick lower-cal options, and these new hot sellers are very good for the bottom line.

Looking for healthier choices in your neighborhood? Plug your ZIP code in the Healthy Dining Finder. (In our rural neck of the woods, Domino’s popped up with 440 calories for two slices of a medium hand-tossed pizza with veggie toppings.) Or do what we do: Cook healthy foods and eat at home.

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