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Is “Healthy” Fast Food Leading to Unhealthy Choices?

July 10, 2013

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When someone with an otherwise healthy diet walks into a McDonald’s, what do you think they are more likely to order: a Big Mac with fries or a salad? The answer may surprise you. 

According to this article from the New York Times, the answer is the Big Mac with fries. When faced with a healthy menu option and a less healthy one at fast food restaurants, consumers, especially healthy eaters, tend to order the higher calorie option. This phenomenon is happening across the board, even as fast food chains add “healthier” options like egg white sandwiches, turkey burgers, or salads to their menus.

Gavan J. Fitzsimons is a professor of consumer psychology at Duke University and has done extensive research on this topic. Through his studies, he has found that the vast majority of people are in fact more likely to purchase an unhealthy menu item when healthy options are present.

Fitzsimons says, “When you put a healthy option up there on an otherwise unhealthy menu, not only do we not pick it, but its presence on the menu leads us to swing over and pick something that’s worse for us than we normally would.”

Mr. Fitzsimons goes on to explain that simply seeing a healthier option on the menu fulfills the goal to be healthy, and consumers are left to order what ever they want.

In 2008, New York City instated a law requiring all fast food restaurants to include a calorie count next to each item on the menu. Even this didn’t seem to sway consumer-purchasing behavior.  When polled, people said that they would be more likely to pick something lower in calories. However after analyzing consumer receipts, it was revealed those who said they used the calorie count were consuming only about 100 calories less than they were before the calorie count was added to the menu.

Researchers are now exploring different ways to alert people of the healthfulness of each menu item, such as including the number of minutes of exercise it will take to burn off the meal or implementing a stop light image that illustrates the calorie count.

How do you think fast food restaurants should approach this issue? Should they use a different system of showing how healthy each item is? Or should they eliminate the healthiest items from the menu with the hope that people will choose the most healthy of the remaining options?