The conventional wisdom on restaurants and health is that eateries intentionally serve up high-calorie, low-nutrition dishes because they think they're the best way to draw customers in and maximize profit. This theory of menu design certainly provides a convincing explanation for the success of unhealthy fast-food chains like McDonald's and Taco Bell.
But a new study released Thursday by the Hudson Institute suggests that, if this theory was ever really valid, its power has waned in recent years.
The researchers examined sales figures from 21 major chain restaurants, some of which had recently introduced more lower-calorie options to their menu, and some of which had cut such items. (For a nice primer on some of the healthy dishes that chains have introduced, by the way, check out Stephanie Strom's story on the trend in today's New York Times.) They discovered that the chains that had added more low-cal items had performed strikingly better than the ones that hadn't. Between 2006 and 2011, visits went up 10.9 percent at the chains that had beefed up their healthy offerings, while they dropped by 14.7 percent at the restaurants that had decreased their low-cal offeries.
We know, we know: correlation, not causation. Maybe, you might posit, the restaurants that had the means to develop healthy recipes were already doing better than those that didn't? Or maybe they all did a bunch of marketing using their healthy items, but people actually ordered the unhealthy ones anyway!
Nope. At least not mostly. The study also found that sales of the actual healthy items went up by over 470,000 units in the five-year time span studied, while sales of unhealthy items plummeted by about 1.3 million units. The study found that sales of French fries and high-calorie drinks (like sugary, as opposed to diet, sodas) had gone down particularly fast.
There may certainly be other factors lurking in the background. It possible, for example, that a few people are buying two of the "low-calorie' main dishes, defined in the study as those under 500 calories, and eating them both at once, boosting sales without cutting caloric intake. But this study does, at least, provide fodder for restaurant R&D workers who are pushing their bosses to agree to add more healthy items to their menus. Which may be good news for diners' health down the road.