Healthy Eaters, Unhealthy Choices

How the fast-food industry has even health-conscious consumers reaching for the fries

Why do healthy eaters make unhealthy food choices when they eat at restaurants? Public health officials have turned their attention to figuring out why health-conscious consumers continue to choose caloric indulgences rather than healthier foods at fast-food restaurants in what they are calling the great “puzzle of the food industry.”

Public health officials have been pressuring the top fast-food chains to offer more nutritious options alongside their high-caloric foods to help combat the American obesity crisis. While the chains have abided, studies have shown that consumers still choose the fatty menu items over the healthier options, perhaps even at a higher rate than they did before.

Donald Thompson, McDonald’s chief executive officer says that the burden of choice is on the consumer, and that salads only make up two to three percent of sales despite the fact that the chain has devoted one-sixth of its advertising time to promote the healthier options.

Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor studying consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, calls this phenomenon “vicarious goal fulfillment.” In researching, Fitzsimons found that including healthy options on the menu encourage consumers to eat more unhealthily.

This may seem counterintuitive, but Fitzsimons argues that simply seeing the healthy options on the menu leads consumers to “satisfy the goal to be healthy and gives consumers leeway to order what they want.”

Further, researchers have found that including calorie labeling on menus seems to have a minimal impact on dissuading consumers from purchasing unhealthy foods.  At certain fast food chains, the number of calories consumed actually increased after the 2008 mandated for calorie labeling.


Nutrition specialists are working with the government to come up with new initiatives to get people to make healthier choices in a way that doesn’t rely on the sales-driven restaurants. If there’s a way to make fast-food restaurants healthy, it has to start with convincing the health-conscious eaters to start eating healthy, too.