Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fast food optimism...

The other morning, I was watching the news, and I saw the CEO of the company that owns Hardee's and Carl's Burgers complaining about the cost of healthcare.  I had to admit that my first reaction was to be slightly irritated given the role of obesity in driving healthcare cost.  While it is hard to deny the impact of eating giant cheeseburgers to expanding waist lines, perhaps loading all of the responsibility for the obesity epidemic at the door step of fast food is a bit severe.  Reasonable people can disagree on this point.

Nonetheless, all of this got me thinking about how I generally feel about fast food, particularly as it relates to the way yours truly currently lives his life.  In truth, it's pretty unusual for me to darken the doors of a traditional fast food establishment these days.  It's not really a conscious decision that I make each day.  Rather, fast food just isn't really part of my daily patterns any more.  Again, this is not a value judgement, but rather a simple observation of what I do.

It wasn't always this way as my relationship with fast food has evolved quite a bit over the years...
  • The early years:  When I was a kid, we didn't go out to a lot of restaurants.  My folks were tending to a litter of four kids on the salary of a government scientist.  As well, it's important to remember that we were still in Olden Times when I was a kid.  In those days, people ate a lot more of their meals at home.  For me, fast food was generally equated with McDonalds, which I got to go to about four to five times per year.  Each of those visits was a wonderful, glorious occasion filled with Big Mac's, shakes and fries.  It's hard to describe how much I loved burping Big Mac's over the hours after a McDonalds trip -- it was like getting to go over and over again during a course of hours (I admit that this is a gross recollection, but I dare you to deny feeling the same way). 
  • College:  Fast food was a constant.  These were the years of Super Size gone horribly wrong.  I will admit to sometimes stepping up to a double Big Mac order.  These were also the years in which I worshiped at the alter of fried chicken (I went to school in NC after all).  Bojangles was a particular highlight.  There was nothing like fried chicken and a biscuit w/ sausage gravy to erase an evening of beer soaked hijinx. 
  • Early years of work, up to the day I started at WW:  I still hit fast food from time to time, but my menu tended to move to more sit-down-service burger joints.  Frankly, these were probably worse, nutritionally speaking, than any of my fast food indulgences. 
  • The healthier years (i.e., today):  As noted, I really don't see a lot of traditional fast food in my life other than the occasional visit during a road trip.  It's almost as though the frequency and occasions have returned to what was the case during my early years.  
So with all of the above in context, I started to think about how I do and could handle fast food today.  After feeling a little critical of the Carl's Jr burger guy, I went on their website to see what normal options could be had.  In fact, Carl's sells salads with low fat dressings.  This is the case for most fast food places.  In other words, if you need to go, you can absolutely stay on plan.  Pretty much the only places where I haven't figured out how to do this are the true dens of hedonism such as 5 Guys, IHOP and Dairy Queen.

From a broader social perspective, the basic value proposition of fast food is that it is:
  • Convenient:  fast food is everywhere
  • Inexpensive:  certainly compared to other dining out options
  • Tasty:  depending on your taste, they deliver a lot of satisfied taste buds.  
 It's the last bullet point where people have gotten into trouble with fast food.  Most of the stuff on the menu is not really ideally suited to be part of an every day healthy eating plan.  Most of the menu (I would guess 85% to 90%) is great for a treat or a splurge, but not really for five days per week.  The biggest issue with fast food is that while you can make the healthy choices (e.g., the grilled chicken-no mayo, the salad w/ low fat dressing, etc.), these good choices represent a narrow part of the menu, and most of us are tempted to fall into the choices that aren't so hot (nutritionally speaking).

My way of handling this kind of temptation is to mentally rehearse my order before I walk into the store.  I really don't want to be making my choice on the fly and at the counter -- too much risk of rash decision.

From a societal perspective, I think we can safely say that fast food is here to stay, so we cannot wish it away.  Further, I would not discount the value of convenience and price that these outlets provide.  My hope is that the big chains will step up and transition their platforms to much more fully embrace healthy choices on their menus, ideally representing 75% or more of what they sell vs. 10 to 20% today.  Is this wishful thinking?

View of the future?
Let me call attention to a relatively new chain, the Energy Kitchen, which is based in NYC.  The Energy Kitchen was founded by Mike Repole after he sold the Vitamin Water business he founded to Coke.  His plan is to open up 40 stores over the next two years.  Of note with this concept is that nothing on the menu is over 500 calories.  The Energy Kitchen has become my new go-to lunch spot in NY.  The food is great, and my lunch clocks in at 6 PointsPlus values for a cobb salad with a side of creamed spinach.  It's a great bit bunch of food for not a lot of calories.  BTW, it tastes great.

What I particularly like and admire about the Energy Kitchen is that they are trying to prove that you can sell nutrient dense, energy light food that is also great tasting and convient/fast.  I can only hope they these guys find success beyond belief and serve as a role model for the broader restaurant community that good taste, great nutrition, convenience and value can all be part of the same equation.




  1. I enjoyed the reasonable, "food isn't the devil, including fast food," measured approach in this blog entry. I also rarely end up at a fast food chain in my daily life, but sometimes you're stuck at a rest stop without a lot of choice in the matter. And sometimes you just crave a nostalgic dose of Arby's Big Beef & Cheddar.

    It's been interesting to see the D.C. area's fast (and fast casual) food options evolve. I write about restaurants for a living, and there's been a huge influx of new contenders. We're getting Energy Kitchen here soon and also find reasonable options in such chains as Chopt, Nando's Peri-Peri and the locally-born sweetgreen (though it helps to look up Points Values ahead of time to avoid shocks).

    But there's also a negative side, as some places market themselves as healthy options, but then offer items that appear healthy but end up with huge point counts (one Mediterranean chain here is a big offender).

    Overall, it pays to really research exactly what you're getting, and yay in general for more healthy choices popping up when they do.

  2. I can't wait to go check out Energy Kitchen's website :) Thanks for the tip!

  3. "...perhaps loading all of the responsibility for the obesity epidemic at the door step of fast food is a bit severe"

    Perhaps, but then again, they should at least own some of this obesity monster they've created. I was stunned when I read "The End of Overeating" plus all the stuff that Dr. Stephan Guyenet blogs about on Whole Health Source about how "food reward" is deliberately engineered into "foods" like cheeseburgers so that they operate in reverse of "real" food. With real food, you eat, your various hormones kick in & you become satiated & stop eating. With engineered Fast Food, you eat and eat and the more you eat, the more you want to eat & you never really feel satiated. Like with Pringles. And "food reward" doesn't necessarily mean the "most tasty" or high quality fare (obviously) - eg. Cheetos vs. a grass fed Filet Mignon - it's hard(er) to do a full on filet binge, but a bag of Cheetos, even the giant size, is so easy to finish. I do realize that researchers caution about drawing too close of parallels between addictions to food & drugs, but these engineered cheeseburgers are deliberately designed to operate along the same pathways of reward in the brain as hard drugs.

    Just sayin'.

    And havin' said it, Energy Kitchen looks good. Gracias for the heads up.

  4. Thank you David; another honest and insightful commentary about the REAL WORLD and the struggle of us over-forty types to survive the healthy eating maze.

    I agree that the fast-food industry has made some progress however, has a LONG way to go. The three evils of sugar, fat and sodium permeate every facet of their product offering. During my journey to my goal weight (2007 member of the WW “half-my-size” club) I had to abstain from fast food completely. The greatest challenge for me was in Airports and on Airplanes. To this day, it is VERY difficult to source true healthy products during a business trip. Perhaps the Energy Café will fill a niche, catering to the business traveler market.

    I really enjoy your Blog; refreshingly real and always thought provoking. Please keep them coming.


  5. I think you said it best when you said these fast food options aren't really part of an "every day healthy eating plan". If we approach fast food (especially 5 guys, yum) as a "once in a while special treat" we are good but when we eat there 3 times a week we will notice the pounds creep on. WW has really helped me make conscious choices about what I'm eating and how to plan for these occasional trips.

  6. And we are supposed to trust someone that that developed sugar water to deceive the masses and then sold it to the evil Coca Cola empire?

  7. David - I must admit it is refreshing to hear someone validate how fast-food and sit down burger places impact our lives. Now the golden question is how might energy kitchen and others (they will emerge) follow the lead of the fast-food places?

  8. David- To combat the tempting and often convenient trap of fast food, why not open a Weight Watchers restaurant. I have worked in the food service business for 15 years and it is quite possible to keep the brand integrity while opening a new revenue stream. I am sure WW has investigated this already. I fail to see how this could lose. The market is there, you have an established brand with instant credibility to penetrate the market. If cannibalization of the frozen line is a main reason why not to pilot, think of the increased exposure. You are pushing WW toward Men. Guess where men like to eat? Burger King(apologies for the broad generalization this is from a marketing study). If you need a franchisee or Director of Business Development, please recharge out. I've got a great location in Cincinnati Ohio and we would love to be the 1st WW restaurant.


  9. Who knows what chemicals they put into those fast foods to make it taste so good and make people fat!

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