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Do Healthy Options Sell?

It is certainly good news for restaurants and other foodservices when people dine out frequently. As we get closer to the New Year and the frequent resolution by many to “Eat healthier”, offering healthy menu options could give your operation a competitive advantage.   So, what is meant by a healthy option?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) are published every five years by the United States (US) Department of Health & Human Services and US Department of Agriculture.  The guidelines are designed to provide nutrition and health advice for Americans with the goal to curb rising overweight and obesity numbers. While one part of the health equation is weight management (which includes energy outputs - exercise several times a week for 30 minutes is recommended) the other part is dietary inputs. The DGA 2005 offer guidance for the input portion of the equation. Retail foodservice decision-makers can use the DGAs to consider healthier options to include on menus. 
The DGA 2005 encourage increased consumption of whole grains, fiber, fruits and vegetables, and low fat or skim milk and reduced consumption of sodium, total fat and trans fats. An emphasis of the DGA 2005 is to consume more nutrient dense foods rather than empty calorie foods. Nutrient dense foods are low in calories but high in nutrient value. Empty calorie foods have limited nutrient value; these are often highly processed food items such as prepared casseroles or snacks. For the first time the DGA 2005 established an amount of whole grains to consume – half of all grains consumed. Grains are available in many forms; the best form is whole grains as this includes all three components of the grain –endosperm, bran and germ. Increased consumption of whole grains will also raise intake of dietary fiber; the DGA 2005 recommendation is 14 grams per 1000 calories of food consumed.   An increased variety of fruits and vegetables, particularly dark green and orange colored items, is also recommended. The DGA 2005 for cholesterol is 300 mg per day, but don’t forget about saturated fat. Saturated fat influences cholesterol metabolism, which can build up plague in blood vessels to a point where blood flow is constricted, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
For retailers, these recommendations could provide an opportunity to tap into the hot restaurant trend of using local food sources. Fresh is not critical but keep in mind processed items (canned or frozen) may have additives with high sodium. Sodium content is typically higher in processed or value-added convenience foods.  The DGA 2005 for sodium is 2,300 mg per day or less.
What does this all mean? Well, retail foodservices can offer some food and beverage menu items that are low in saturated and trans fats. Include skim milk and other lower fat dairy products and salad dressings as menu options. Use olive oil rather than butter as a bread spread. Include a whole grain bread option for sandwiches and other menu items. Offer more specialty vegetables or include darker greens in salad offering. Let customers split an order (without the service charge). Nutritional labels can help you and the consumer in determining which products are good choices. Refer to menu labeling guidelines in your locale – some jurisdictions require this information be posted or available to consumers. Work with your vendor to be sure accurate information is communicated to customers – customers expect you to have factual information.  Healthy options can translate to increased sales, and healthier customers.  One study reported that nearly 9 of 10 Americans think eating healthy is important, but 63% say it is difficult when dining out to do so. Offering healthy options on your menus can result in a winning situation for both you and your customers – they will be interested in dining out knowing it won’t sabotage their New Year’s resolutions. 

For more information, visit the ISU Extension Food, Nutrition, and Health pages and the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.


Prepared by Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, CP-FS, Amy Casselman, FLM Graduate Student, and Ruth Litchfield, RD, PhD.