Stanley Feld M.D., FACP, MACE Menu


War on Obesity: Part 7: Restaurant Wars

Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE

As a nation we started to “eat out” more in restaurants in the last 30 years. Fast food restaurants have proliferated. We have invented “Power Breakfasts”, “Power Lunches” and “Power Dinners”. We meet friends for lunch. There is not a day that goes by that I do not have the opportunity to ingest 1500 calories for lunch, whether it is at hospital rounds, or a lunch meeting.

Restaurants have become meeting as well social gathering places for people. In the past we might meet on the baseball field, basketball court or gym. We might even go to a foodless educational meeting or social dance halls. Sunday bikers meet for a latte and a muffin at Starbucks before their bike ride.

As the number of restaurants have proliferated, restaurants somehow had to increase demand. Price and volume became the attraction for the fast food restaurants. Volume of food at the mid level restaurants enabled them to increase the price and the perceived “value”.

We find ourselves in the midst of Restaurant Wars. The war is about serving more food for less money. This concept is supposed to give one restaurant a competitive advantage over the next restaurant.

“Americans are eating about 12 percent more calories a day than they did in the mid-1980s, according to government statistics. The percentage of Americans who are overweight, meanwhile, increased to 66 percent in 2004 from 47 percent in the late 1970s. Hardly anyone believes it is a coincidence that Americans became fatter at the same time they began eating out more than ever and restaurants super sized their portions.”

In McDonald’s advertising “Campaign 55” in 1997 the price of a Big Mac was decreased to 55 cents. According to classic economic theory, the steep price cut will draw more customers, who will buy more Big Macs, which will fatten the company’s bottom line.

“But what of the fattening of American waistlines? What of the thickening of American arteries?”
Ray Kroc, the patron saint of franchisers, opened his first McDonald’s in 1955 with a 55 cent hamburger. In 1997 as business slowed, Campaign 55 was successful in increasing store traffic. The Big Mac is good only when a Big Mac (530 calories and 28 grams of fat) is purchased with french fries (450 calories and 22 grams of fat for a large order) and a soda (310 calories for 32 ounces). The total meal is three-quarters of the government’s recommended daily allowance of 66 grams of fat. “

The total calories are 1290. Our government’s theoretical 1500 calorie intake is the number of calories necessary to stay even with our caloric output. We would be allowed only 210 more calories to go to reach 1500 calories the rest of the day.

Morgan Spurlock in his 2004 documentary ”Super Size Me,” ate only the super sized McDonald meals for breakfast lunch and diner for one month. He had a physical and laboratory examination by a physician before the diet and at the end of the month. His weight increased 20 lbs. His blood pressure increased, as did his cholesterol and triglycerides. He also felt lousy. He was on his way to the complications of metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome leads to type 2 diabetes mellitus. Morgan Spurlock documentary movie is brilliant. It makes obesity’s danger vivid. I think the movie should be shown to every child in every school in the country. I believe its showing would be a great public service. If we are serious about public health and preventative medicine we should do some serious things to prevent chronic diseases.

In the last 30 years restaurant portions have increased in size as prices have decreased or stayed the same. The bottom line dictates the policy of the CEOs of restaurant chains. You simply make more money with bigger portions. The increase in price for the larger meals far outstrips the cost of the food. The big costs are labor, rents, interior build out and appliances. They are the fixed costs that are present whether the portions are large or small.

The real problem is we, as a nation, have been programmed to believe that we get better value from bigger portions than smaller portions.

Let us suppose we could reprogrammed ourselves to understand that we get better value from smaller portions than larger portions. The expectation would be that we would not become obese and we would prevent debilitating diseases. We need a public service advertising campaign sponsored by the government to make this happen.

In our “short term instant gratification society”, the concept of decreasing food intake is a very hard sell. However, if a few restaurants exercised some social responsibility, the media publicized the value of small portions, and the government had a national campaign to fight obesity, it might work. The CEO of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide has chopped portion sizes at TGI Friday’s. Carlson’s chain is famous for calorie-rich items like deep-fried potato skins stuffed with cheddar cheese, bacon and sour cream.

Many restaurant chains that have tried to reduce portion sizes have had catastrophic results. The reduced portion sizes have failed because:

• People want volume
• Wall Street wants to see bigger profits
• Dilemma: How do you sell the idea of giving people less food? More important, how do you make money at it?
• Consumers say they want smaller portions or healthier choices.
• However, when confronted with a choice they order the larger portions

I suggest that each person reading this go to TGI Friday’s this week and eat one of their small portion meals and support the concept.* A point might be made. We should not patronize restaurants providing bigger portions, portions that help us become obese and unhealthy. We could also share a large portion with your companion and have more than enough food for half the price.

People Power can be extremely powerful. However we have to exercise our power for it to work.

* (Note: I do not own Carlson Restaurant stock)

  • Ken

    Interesting debate going on over at Evolving Excellence on portion sizes…

  • Ralph

    It’s great to see a doctor attacking the #1 health issue in America — obesity and its link to restaurants.
    I agree we should stop supporting any restaurant with those inappropriate portions. I’d even go further. Get my government in there to force restaurants to post calorie information right there on the menu. How many people are going to order those chicken wings if they knew it’s 2,000 calories for an appetizer?
    Keep up the good work.

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