There’s a saying that if you change behaviors, hearts and minds will follow. There’s another that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Both of these came to my mind when reading this much-crowed-about recent study from food research firm Tectonic which found that while American’s talk of wanting healthier fast food options, we still routinely choose burgers over salads at the restaurant counter (and, yes, we want fries with that). But far from showing how hopeless the healthy eating situation in America is, I think it’s more of an indication of why ‘healthy’ fast food is the wrong route to push.
Policies and programs that encourage fast food chains to offer more of what doesn’t sell as well are never going to work, and we can’t really fault fast food joints for that. The Tectonic study claims that while 47% of Americans say they want healthier restaurant options, only about 23% actually order them. But might I suggest that one reason for this is that fast food health foods kind of suck?
“The Wendy’s Co. burger chain led the way in the mid-1980s with a short-lived effort to sell tomato halves filled with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks on lettuce leaves,” an Associated Press article on the study notes. But “consumers weren’t ready for it … or at least they certainly didn’t buy it,” a Wendy’s spokesperson said. Apparently, I’m still not ready for it—I can’t imagine much grosser than fast food joint cottage cheese, or pineapples on a bed of lettuce (do people eat pineapples on lettuce?). But even healthy fast food that’s a little less 1980s-wacky is still going to be subpar. Fast food restaurants are in the business of making food fast, and making it cheap. It’s a hell of a lot easier to make salty, fatty, processed foods taste good cheaply and quickly than healthier options. I fully believe you can make vegetables and whole grains taste a lot more flavorful and fulfilling than much of what passes as good eats at fast food joints—but not using the shipped-in-from-God-knows-where, assembly-line style that fast food necessitates.
Besides which—who goes to a fast food restaurant for cottage cheese and salad anyway?
“If I wanted something healthy, I would not even stop in at McDonald’s,” Jonathan Ryfiak, a 24-year-old trapeze instructor in New York, told AP.
Like Ryfiak, many people consider fast food a treat. They may eat veggies and salads at home most of the time, so when they go to McDonald’s, they want a Big Mac. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problems is that people treat themselves all too often—or don’t realize just how unhealthy even a once-a-week fast food habit can be. It’s also kind of hard once you’re in a fast food joint—and maybe especially if you’re a generally a pretty nutritious eater—to justify ordering the less-tasty, less-fattening items when everything you’ve heard about ‘healthy’ fast food options is that they’re not that healthy anyway (it’s all too easy once there, however, to think, oh, what would it really hurt to get that bacon cheeseburger?).
The solution to all of this, then, seems to lie not in pushing more fast food salads, but in encouraging less trips to fast food joints all together. Meredith Melnick at Time agrees:
“If you go to McDonald’s at all, no one could really blame you for getting the French fries instead of the apple slices. But the real issue when it comes to obesity in the U.S. is not that people are choosing the wrong fast-food menu items; it’s that they’re going to fast-food restaurants in the first place.”
As long as we’re visiting fast food joints, we’re mostly going to order traditional fast food. Let’s stop leading people to McDonald’s, and then trying to make them eat apple slices. The real behavior change we need is for more Americans to cook and eat at home. And all this talk of healthy fast food just muddles the issue.
Photo: Camp Shane