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Diners Start Making Healthier Choices

Consumers may have started eating a healthful diet rather than just talking about it. Meager though it is, recent evidence from several recent studies and surveys indicates that more people are finally taking healthful eating seriously.

USA Today reported recently that restaurant-goers are starting to more often order from restaurants' “health menus.”

Applebee's customers, in particular, were cited. The USA Today story said Applebee's top-selling entree for the first two months of this year was a shrimp and sirloin dish from its diet menu, and what's more, the chain's 550-calorie menu was making up 8% of total sales as of April. Last week, an Applebee's spokesman confirmed those figures, but told SN he didn't have more recent data on the subject

So low cal and low fat may not be catching somewhat-health-conscious diners' attention, but other things might. Like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Indeed, researchers at The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., as recently as this September, found that diners usually don't pay attention to nutritional information on a menu — especially at a sit-down restaurant where indulgence and enjoyment are what they're looking for.

However, they found the perception of quality is very important, and they conclude that a combo of quality and healthfulness could be a winner on any menu.

“Chains that are poised for the greatest success in this area are tapping the intersection of quality and health-related distinctions,” Tamara Barnett and Greg Prang, lead analysts on Hartman Group's Health + Wellness Deep Dive 2011 syndicated study, to be published next month.

“Entrees and appetizers that are loaded with quality distinction and have the added benefit of being lower in calories or fat represent the best of both worlds,” the researchers said. Some of the examples on Applebee's' menu hit that intersection, and could explain their popularity, they added.

Another Hartman analyst pointed out that just the presence of fresh vegetables can speak of healthfulness, pointing to popularity of Subway sandwiches with more lettuce and tomatoes.

“A couple of notable things consumers are praising restaurants for in this [offering healthful fare] effort also include building on global cuisines — Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and other cuisines that are delicious, provide new flavors, and are inherently well-balanced and lower in calories, by nature, not by design; portion control — not changing a thing about diners' indulgent favorites, just scaling back on the often copious quantities typically offered,” Barnett and Prang agreed.

Earlier this year, Mintel, a Chicago-based consumer research firm, found that diners were looking for value above all. But on the upside, those researchers also concluded that frugality may soon give way to better-for-you eating.

And, consumers are gradually becoming more aware of their dietary habits. At least, this was evidenced a study published recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The study showed respondents are becoming less apt to call their diets “excellent” or “good.”

The ERS study compared two prior studies, one that covered consumers' attitudes toward their diets in the period 1989 to 1991 with a similar study that covered 2005 to 2008. Data from the studies were compared. The ERS researchers conclusions are below:

“We find, first, that Americans have become much less likely to rate their diets as ‘Excellent’ or ‘Very Good’ in terms of healthfulness, even though the healthfulness of the American diet has undergone little change over this period. Second, current self-ratings of diet are inversely related to the frequency of fast food and food-away-from-home consumption and positively related to the frequency of sharing meals with family. In addition, self-ratings of diet are positively associated with household availability of dark green vegetables and low-fat milk and negatively associated with availability of sweetened soft drinks.”

Although all of these studies show that the trend toward eating a healthful diet is moving slowly, it holds promise for better-for-you eating in the future.