Nobody Orders Fast-Food Salads, But That’s Not the Real Problem

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It doesn’t take much to figure out why healthier menu options like salads and apple slices don’t sell as well as the burgers, fries and Double Downs at fast-food joints. “If I wanted something healthy, I would not even stop in at McDonald’s,” Jonathan Ryfiak, a 24-year-old trapeze instructor in New York, told AP business reporter Christina Rexrode.

Ryfiak “watches his diet at home, but orders comfort foods like chicken nuggets and fries when he hits a fast-food joint,” Rexrode reported.

So do most people. That’s why we go to fast-food joints in the first place. Even if we intend to order the healthier option, once we cross the restaurant’s threshold, who can resist the wafting scents of egg and cheese, freshly fried chicken and broiled, juicy meat? “Food choices are often made on impulse, not intellect,” Rexrode noted — which helps explain why two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

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According to a survey by food research firm Technomic, 47% of Americans say they want healthier restaurant options, but only about 23% actually order them. The reasons, as the AP enumerated:

  • Eating out is a treat, so people reward themselves accordingly
  • People don’t believe “healthy” menu options are actually healthy (indeed, did you know that McDonald’s Fruit & Maple Oatmeal contains more sugar than a Snickers bar?)
  • Healthy items cost a lot more than the burger and fries
  • Peer pressure

Peer pressure? Reported Rexrode:

Jason Sierra, who was eating a Whopper hamburger and fries at a Burger King in New York recently, said he’s cut back on unhealthy foods because his cholesterol and blood pressure were getting too high. But when his office buddies order lunch, he opts for “man food” like pizza to fit in.

“One day I did try to order a salad,” said Sierra, 40, who works in tech support. “And I caught hell for that.

Fast-food restaurants have had the same problem: they try to offer healthy options in response to customer interest, only to be smacked down. “The Wendy’s Co. burger chain led the way in the mid-1980s with a short-lived effort to sell tomato halves filled with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks on lettuce leaves,” Rexrode reported. No surprise that those unappetizing-sounding creations didn’t sell.

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But going back to Ryfiak’s point, if you want to eat something healthy, don’t stop in Wendy’s or McDonald’s. Eat at home. It turns out, you can cook healthy food in your own kitchen for a fraction of the cost of a supposedly cheap fast-food meal. Nearly every American has the funds to do this. Check it out: the New York Times‘ Mark Bittman has done the math for you.

The problem, of course, is that this solution requires actual cooking, a chore that many people, regardless of income, argue they don’t have time for. Bittman did the math and countered that point too.

If you go to McDonald’s at all, no one could really blame you for getting the French fries instead of the apple slices. But the real issue when it comes to obesity in the U.S. is not that people are choosing the wrong fast-food menu items; it’s that they’re going to fast-food restaurants in the first place. To avoid the temptation, people must make it a habit to cook dinner at home instead — a shift that requires major cultural and political action.

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As Bittman put it: “The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.”

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.