After years of dabbling in healthier options, restaurants are diving in.
Credit: Photo: Laurie Rosenwald

Americans might claim to have a hankering for healthy restaurant food, but we have tended to ignore healthy options on menus in favor of, say, the 1,950-calorie Bloomin' Onion. For years, that was the conventional wisdom in the fast-food and family-dining restaurant industry. The McLean Deluxe, introduced in 1991 by McDonald's, was a lesson in how things worked: Even though the burger had tested well in focus groups, it famously flopped despite fanfare and lots of advertising.

Then in 2000, Subway discovered Jared Fogel, an overweight college student who became half the man he used to be by diligently eating a strict diet of 6-inch subs that contained less than 300 calories and 6 grams of fat (lean meats, lots of veggies). Enter the marketing gurus, who built a durable campaign around Fogel's success. The restaurant realized it could work both sides of the street, offering healthy choices along with value-oriented subs that were piled high with the very things that Jared avoided. Subway raced past McDonald's in size in 2002.

Until recently, other chains seemed to find it difficult to duplicate Subway's formula. Healthy subs are arguably simple to execute; healthy entrées and snacks, less so. But the landscape is changing. Applebee's Signature Sirloin with Garlic-Herb Shrimp, for example, one of their Under 550-Calorie selections, launched in 2010, is now one of the chain's top sellers. Denny's reports that their "Fit Fare" items are not only increasingly popular, but are also bringing new customers into their restaurants. Ditto Friendly's, IHOP, and Bob Evans. Even The Cheesecake Factory, home of outrageous entrées like the 2,290-calorie Bistro Shrimp Pasta, has introduced a SkinnyLicious menu of appetizers under 490 calories and main dishes under 590.

What shifted—customers' commitment to health or the taste of the healthy food offered? Probably both, says Bret Thorn, senior food editor at Nation's Restaurant News. "Consumers are demanding healthier options. They want to feel good about the money they spend and what they eat."

In response, Thorn says, restaurants are offering healthy choices that actually meet the most important requirement of any food: They taste good. Applebee's sirloin and shrimp dish doesn't eat like diet food. For starters, it's a steak—a 7-ounce portion of lean sirloin. The shrimp and garlicky cream sauce add a touch of luxury. It's not Michelin material, but it's a perfectly respectable dish. (It also has 2,440 milligrams of sodium, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Restaurants have also wised up on marketing. Some health claims are on the wane. According to market research firm Mintel, from 2007 to 2010, "low-fat" as a menu descriptor declined 9%, "cholesterol-free" was down 14%, and "low-carb" plummeted 41%. (RIP, Dr. Atkins.) Consumers may want food that's healthful, but messages of deprivation don't play, especially in this economic climate. Newer menus accentuate the positives: leaner meats, more vegetables, and whole grains. The always malleable "natural" is popular, as is the more regulated term "organic."

One old standby claim does endure, though: "low-calorie," usage of which is up 45% from 2007 to 2010. Why? In part because everyone likes the idea of consuming fewer calories, and in part because "it sends the message of smaller portions," says Eric Giandelone, an analyst for Mintel. Portion control is widely understood to be a virtue in the era of the megaburger.

Two other factors are also playing into the healthier-menu trend. One is federal legislation that requires restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to post calorie counts on their menus. Although data on the impact of calorie labeling is not entirely clear (some studies show little change in ordering habits, others a 10% reduction in calories consumed), the naked requirement of those numbers has forced food sellers to reassess the calorie balance on their menus.

Demographics are also a factor. Bonnie Riggs, of market research firm NPD Group, says two groups are particularly susceptible to the appeal of better-for-you menu items. First are the baby boomers, who are becoming more health-conscious with age. And then there are Millennials, who came of age during the advent of both the Food Network and the obesity epidemic. "This trend is being driven by both ends of the age spectrum," says Riggs, "and it has staying power."