What’s on the menu at fast food restaurants lately? Ironically enough, the answer increasingly is… “health food!” Even more incongruous, many fast food joints are advertising their food for weight loss. Healthy weight loss food at Taco Bell and McDonalds? Is this a positive move to be applauded, is it a big corporate money grab or is it a double edged sword? Here’s my two cents:
Almost everyone remembers the Jared weight loss campaign for Subway. He was the guy who lost 245 pounds during which time he ate at Subway regularly. He simply picked the lower calorie items on the menu. Jared later became a spokesperson for Subway in their nationwide advertising campaigns which became known as the Subway Diet.
During that campaign, Subway sales doubled to 8.2 billion. How much the increase came from the weight loss ads is unknown, but there’s little doubt that using weight loss as a marketing platform was a boon for Subway.
Subway has since moved on to $5 footlong subs, which worked wonders for their bottom line in the recent recession. But other fast food chains picked up the weight loss torch where subway left off.
The most recent talk of the blogosphere this year is the Taco Bell drive through diet. With its own dedicated website and advertising campaign, the drive through diet flaunts their own “Jared”: Christine!
The restaurant seems to be walking on FTC-strewn egg… er… taco shells, being very conservative with their claims. They say Christine’s results aren’t typical, she lost the weight (54 lbs) over 2 years by reducing her calories to 1250 a day, and part of her success was simply from choosing Taco Bell’s new lower calorie “Fresco” items.
These include “7 diet items with 150 to 240 calories and under 9 grams of fat.” For example, there’s a chicken soft taco with only 170 calories, 4 grams of fat, 22 grams of carbs and 12 grams of protein.
By swapping some of these items with their regular (and higher calorie) menu items, you’d take in fewer calories and less fat. If all else remained equal, this could help you lose weight. For people who refuse to give up eating at fast food restaurants, this is arguably a positive thing.
Take my brother for example, He’s not a total junk food junkie, thanks partly to my influence and the influence of our parents. I have vague memories of my health-nut mom feeding us wheat germ and cod liver oil (by the spoonful) when we were candy-munching kids in California. She once tried to feed us eggplant pizza as a sneaky way to get us to eat vegetables. That ploy didn’t work – we were young but we weren’t stupid – we knew it wasn’t Pizza Hut! (I hate eggplant to this day).
Many years ago, I even managed to get my brother going to the gym and whaddya know, he’s been going ever since. But despite the positive role models he has, left to his own devices, he WILL make a beeline to Taco Bell and McDonalds and so will the friends he hangs out with.
I went to McDonalds with him a few months ago (I was trapped in the car with no choice), and he was about to order a bacon cheeseburger. I glanced at the menu and said, “That’s 790 calories!” I glanced down at his belly, then continued, “Look, they have chicken wraps. Why don’t you have one of those?” Without questioning me he said, “Ok,” apparently happy just to get any McDonalds fix. I couldn’t talk him out of the soda, but I’m working on it okay? At least I got him to stop getting refills.
Right there at the counter they had the nutrition information sheets:
McDonald’s honey mustard grilled chicken wrap: 260 calories, 9 grams fat, 27 grams of carbs, 18 grams of protein.
That saved him 530 calories. Am I happy there is something with 260 calories on the menu and not just 700 calories across the board? Absolutely. And DO I applaud the fast food restaurants for offering lower calorie choices? You bet, although I’d like to see more one-ingredient choices like baked potatoes, baked sweet potatoes and whole fruit…plus some decent salads).
The big mistake almost everyone is making, even fitness and nutrition professionals who have been blogging about this lately, is that while they are agreeing that it’s nice to have low calorie items on the menu (especially with calories posted), they are calling these low calorie fast food items “healthy choices.”
Some journalists and bloggers have jumped into the fray and cleverly countered…
“These new fast food menu items are NOT healthy, they’re only ‘healthi-ER.'”
I think they are both mistaken.
This food is not healthy nor is it healthier. It’s only lower in calories.
The only way you could say these lower calorie fast food items are healthier choices is in the sense that they can help to reduce total daily caloric intake, if all else remains equal. That could help people lose weight and if they lose weight the weight loss could improve their health. Eating smaller portions of refined carbohydrates or sugars might also be healthier, from a glycemic point of view.
But what if your definition of healthy food is dependent on nutrition, nutrient density and absence of artificial ingredients?
Let’s take a look at that very low calorie chicken wrap. Do you really think it’s healthier just because it’s got 1/3 the calories of a bacon cheeseburger?
Here’s the ingredients straight from McDonald’s website:
McDonald’s Grilled Chicken Breast Filet (wrap): Chicken breast filets with rib meat, water, seasoning (salt, sugar, food starch-modified, maltodextrin, spices, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed [corn gluten, soy, wheat gluten] proteins, garlic powder, paprika, chicken fat, chicken broth, natural flavors (plant and animal source), caramel color, polysorbate 80, xanthan gum, onion powder, extractives of paprika), modified potato starch, and sodium phosphates. CONTAINS: SOY AND WHEAT. Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservative), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color). (and don’t forget the 800 mg of sodium).
HOLY CRAP! Shouldn’t chicken breast be just one ingredient… chicken breast?! Isn’t that generally what healthy, whole food is – one ingredient?
This is not food. It’s more like what Michael Pollan would call an “edible food-like substance.”
What about the honey mustard sauce? First ingredient after water is… SUGAR!
The flour tortilla ingredients? Enriched bleached wheat flour, also made with vegetable shortening (may contain one or more of the following: hydrogenated soybean oil, soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, hydrogenated cottonseed oil with mono- and diglycerides added), contains 2% or less of the following: sugar, leavening (sodium aluminum sulfate, calcium sulfate, sodium phosphate, baking soda, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), salt, wheat gluten, dough conditioners, sodium metabisulfite, distilled monoglycerides.
Trans fats? Sugar? Aluminum? Stuff you can’t pronounce and have to look up to find out it’s preservatives and disinfectants?
Don’t confuse the issues: weight loss and health…. Calories and nutrition. There IS a difference!
This my friends, makes “healthy” fast food a double edged sword.
There are people I care about, not just my clients, but my own family, and I want the best for them all. But my brother, and many other people, aren’t going to completely give up fast food. If I can get him to make better bad choices that could help him keep his weight under control. If that works, then I’m pleased that the fast food restaurants have such choices to offer.
But if you wanted to make a good choice – a healthy choice – you’d forget about “driving through” anywhere on a daily basis, and you’d save the junk for your planned cheat meals (although, frankly, I can think of far better ways to spend my “free” calories).
The Subway diet, the Drive Through diet, The Cookie Diet, Kentucky grilled chicken or the Weight Watchers approved McDonalds menu (yes its true, what a pair that is!) Don’t kid yourself – it’s not only not healthy, it’s not healthier – it’s lower calorie junk food.
“Welcome to our restaurant sir. Would you like a large plate of dog poo or a small plate of dog poo?”
“No thank you, I will take neither. No matter what the serving size, crap is still crap.”
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle (e-book) and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle