Have you ever walked into a fast-food restaurant, planning to grab a salad, only to find yourself walking out with a double cheeseburger and a milkshake?
You’re not alone. In fact, it happens all the time, especially now that fast food companies are advertising what seem like healthy choices.
The phenomenon is known as “vicarious goal fulfillment,” and it was the focus of a 2009 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Presented with healthy and less healthy menu items, subjects consistently chose the less healthy items.
“Merely seeing the (healthy) item on the menu satisfies your goal to eat healthy,” said Fordham University Assistant Professor Beth Vallen, one of the study’s authors. “You’re consistently balancing that goal to eat healthy with the goal to eat what tastes good.”
Usually, taste wins, but it’s an ongoing struggle. According to the National Restaurant Association, 71 percent of adults are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago. Fast food restaurants have rushed to meet the demand with lower-calorie menus that have increased sales.
Taco Bell features six items with less than 350 calories and McDonald’s markets meals with less than 400 calories. Burger King’s Satisfries reportedly have less fat and fewer calories than McDonald’s fries. But critics say “healthy choices” on the new menus are only marginally healthier.
“It always drives the question of healthier versus healthy,” Vallen said. Satisfries, for example, “are healthier than normal French fries. But they’re not healthy.”
“We have motivations. We want to believe that those things are healthy because they taste pretty good. It all becomes about framing.”
McDonald’s fruit and maple oatmeal has only 290 calories but 32 grams of sugar. Taco Bell’s chicken Fresco Burrito Supreme has 340 calories but nearly half the recommended daily sodium intake. A medium serving of Satisfries has 340 calories but 18 grams of fat.
The trend of healthy eating has proven enormously profitable for companies’ bottom lines. Among 21 national restaurant chains, those that increased their lower-calorie offerings between 2006 and 2011 saw total food servings rise by 8.9 percent. Conversely, those that decreased lower-calorie items saw their total servings fall 16.3 percent, a Hudson Institute study has shown.
Making health-conscious decisions at a fast-food restaurant is not easy, as Bolingbrook resident Gwyn Brooks has found. Brooks, 33, is a self-proclaimed recovering “fast-food addict.” For years, she ate fast food for almost every meal, spending an estimated $200 per month. Her habit caused her to gain 80 pounds from 2008 to 2011.
“It wasn’t a treat, it was a way of life for me,” she wrote on her Chicago Now blog, “Gwynspiration for Weight Loss.”
Brooks, 5 feet 5 inches tall, joined a weight-loss program in late 2011 and decided at first not to drink soda or eat fast food. She lost 15 pounds in the first two weeks. Even though she occasionally indulges, her weight loss has continued.
“The Taco Bell salad bowl… there’s so much cheese on there, and corn and guacamole and rice in it, but they throw on a little bit of lettuce. I had to ask for extra lettuce and they charged me 50 cents,” Brooks said.
Overall, fast food restaurants are more nutritious, although marginally so. A study in the June 2013 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that eight major fast-food chains were slightly healthier in 2009 and 2010 than they were 14 years prior. The study measured each menu according to the Healthy Eating Index and found that, on average, the restaurants received a score of 48 out of 100, compared to 45 in 1997-98.
Whether fast-food companies know about vicarious goal fulfillment is unclear, but there is evidence to suggest it. McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson admitted earlier this year that salads amounted to 2 to 3 percent of U.S. sales, despite a major marketing push. With such weak sales, the company removed two salads from the menu. McDonald’s representatives did not respond by press time to requests for comment.
Luke Saunders, 27, is familiar with vicarious goal fulfillment, and created a fast-food alternative that sidesteps the phenomenon. In November, he opened Farmer’s Fridge, a healthy vending machine in the Garvey Food Court downtown.
Saunders, a former regional sales manager who traveled frequently for work, was sick of having to choose from among fast-food chains on the job. He created the automated kiosk to offer food that was fast and fresh and he made sure that all the menu items (mainly salads) were low-calorie and packed with produce.
Brooks continues to struggle with fast food addiction, but is proud of her accomplishments. She exercises regularly. This October, she completed the Chicago Marathon. She has lost 100 pounds since she started her weight-loss program, dropping from a size 24 to a 12. She tries to limit herself to eating fast food once a week. She prefers cooking for herself, using minimally processed foods.
“I know what I’m going to be getting at home,” she said.